The clerk at Video Americain sounded as if he's fielded plenty of requests for Shirley Clarke's 1961 movie The Connection. "No. That's almost impossible to find, and if you do, you'll have to pay a lot for it," he said when asked about the mythical and elusive cult film. Only the briefest snippets can be found on YouTube, and VHS copies start at $30 on Amazon.com. Based on Jack Gelber's play, an off-Broadway hit in New York, the black-and-white picture is set entirely in a Manhattan apartment where eight heroin addicts argue about the junkie code and other philosophical questions as they wait for their dealer, "the connection," to show up. Four of the addicts are jazz musicians who occasionally wake from their stupor to play first-rate bebop.
The music for the play, as well as the film, was composed and performed by Freddie Redd, a Harlem pianist now living in Baltimore. Redd will reconstruct some of that music when he leads a quartet at the Creative Alliance on Friday. Excerpts from Clarke's movie will be screened during the show.
When the play first opened in 1959 at the Living Theatre, Gelber and director Judith Malina cast Redd as "1st Musician." In the film, as in the play, Redd is slouched at an upright piano with an old-fashioned table lamp perched on top. He suddenly sits up and says, "What's happening? What tune are we blowing? Cowboy back?" The three other musicians-alto saxophonist Jackie McLean, drummer Larry Ritchie, and bassist Michael Mattos-also perk up and start performing a driving hard-bop number. At first it seems that McLean is leading the way with his lyrical sax lines, but it soon becomes obvious that all the cues are coming from Redd, wearing a striped polo shirt and leaning back in a rib-backed chair as he puffs on a cigarette.
The Connection was an unlikely collaboration between white Greenwich Village bohemians and black Harlem jazz musicians. It might never have worked but for Redd's rare ability to bridge the gap, for he had a foot in each world. He grew up in Harlem, though he never considered himself a musician until he heard a Charlie Parker record while in the Army: "It was stunning," Redd remembers. "It was beautiful. I felt at home with that music." When he got out of the service in 1949, he threw himself into the jazz world and soon became a proficient pianist.
But he was never the kind to be bound by one neighborhood. One day he climbed on the double-decker Seventh Avenue bus and rode it downtown to see what he could discover. He got off at the very last stop, which was Washington Square Park, and Redd was attracted by the "pretty people" congregating around the fountain. He dozed off in the sun, only to be awakened by Harvey Cropper, a local painter. The two men hit it off, and Redd soon found himself in Cropper's loft, where Redd heard some raucous laughter from across the room. It was Charlie Parker himself. Before long, Redd moved downtown and Parker hired him as his pianist for a gig at the Montmarte in the West Village.
"The Village was integrated in a way that Harlem wasn't," he says. "I had friends of all kinds: poets, writers, painters, intellectuals. I thirsted for knowledge, and this was stimulating. It was a dead end for me up in Harlem; the Village offered ideas and a future. When I was living in a loft on Third Avenue, for example, my next-door neighbor Garry Goodrow, an actor-pianist, said, 'I'm going to be in this play, and we need some jazz musicians; would you be interested?' I was interested. I'd lost my cabaret card when they'd found some marijuana cigarettes in my pocket, and I couldn't play in nightclubs in New York. But I didn't need a cabaret card to perform in a theater. Here was a chance to make a living playing jazz and to write some new music."
Redd summons up these memories in the lunchroom of the subsidized senior housing he lives in on the edge of Bolton Hill. He turns 85 before the Creative Alliance show, but he is decked out like he's still a 20-something hipster in mid-'50s New York. Sitting in a plastic cafeteria chair, he wears a black fedora, a black velvet pullover, and shiny black shoes as he leans forward on his dark-blue cane. He gives a sly grin from under his bushy, salt-and-pepper mustache.
"I met Jack Gelber in a bar on Third Avenue," he continues, "and he told me there'd be one set with these drug addicts waiting around for their connection. My band would have a few lines, but mostly it was a matter of accompanying the dialogue. The dialogue was absolutely realistic. At that time, drugs were everywhere, but most people didn't know anything about it. It wasn't like now, when everyone knows all about drugs; back then it was a hot topic. We were onstage the whole time-an integral part of the action, as if we were drug addicts. I knew Jackie was familiar with drugs. The music filled a space in the story, just like the dialogue did. After we played the melody that I felt was appropriate for the scene, we improvised on the structure like we always did."
In 1960, Blue Note Records released the soundtrack, credited to the Freddie Redd Quartet, featuring McLean, Ritchie, and Mattos. In 1960, a revival of the play featured Redd with trumpeter Howard McGhee, saxophonist Tina Brooks, bassist Milt Hinton, and drummer Osie Johnson. That lineup released Music from the Connection, credited to McGhee, on Felsted Records.
The play got terrible reviews in New York's dailies when it first opened in July, but the weekly Village Voice, less than four years old then, gave it a rave review, eventually showering the production with three Obie Awards. It suddenly became the hip, must-see show in town, and Redd remembers the likes of Leonard Bernstein and Shelley Winters squeezing in among the 60 or 70 seats. Redd anchored the New York show for 17 months, then accompanied the production to London and Paris while Cecil Taylor took over the New York piano bench.
"I loved Europe," Redd says. "I liked the cosmopolitan atmosphere and the ancient culture; it was like going back into a storybook land. The racial situation was much easier there. You met so many kinds of people, and it never seemed to matter. I stayed for several years, but then I got homesick and came back to New York. I got my cabaret card back, and I was working with Art Blakey and Charles Mingus and recording with Art Farmer and Gene Ammons. I got to be friends with Thelonious Monk. He was strange in many ways, but you just had to let him be himself. A lot of times I'd be sitting in a room with Monk, and he wouldn't say a word; then he'd stand up and start dancing. He once said I got 'a sound' out of a piano. That made me feel good."
Recording was never a top priority for Redd. He didn't seek out opportunities but waited to be approached. For that reason-and because he disappeared to Europe right after his first big splash-he's not as well known as his talent deserves. He fought with Blue Note producer Alfred Lion and recorded only sporadically thereafter.
A few years ago, his wife was ill and he was low on money, so he accepted an offer for a free apartment in Baltimore. It turned out to be a terrible situation, but his wife was so sick at that point that they moved in anyway. Redd's wife died in April of 2012, and he moved to Bolton Hill.
When Brad Linde discovered that Redd was in Baltimore, the Washington saxophonist arranged some live gigs at An die Musik. When those went well, a recording session was set up for this past January with Linde, Brian Settles and Sarah Hughes on saxophone, Michael Formanek on bass, and Matt Wilson on drums. The Creative Alliance show was supposed to be a CD-release party, but the mixing and mastering has been delayed. Nonetheless, Linde, Formanek, and drummer Tony Martucci will accompany Redd on both unreleased and older material.
"I can't retire from music," Redd says, "and hopefully it won't retire from me. I wouldn't know what to do without music. It's the love of my life. I'm still writing. I'll sit down at the piano and hit a chord; that will lead to another chord, and soon I'll have a new composition. I like the element of surprise, and I still surprise myself."
The Freddie Redd trio performs at the Creative Alliance at the Patterson on Friday, June 21 at 8 P.M. For more information, please visit creativealliance.org.