Jazz Institute of Chicago

Isaac "Redd" Holt: 1999 Arts Midwest Jazz Master

Isaac "Redd" Holt:
1999 Arts Midwest Jazz Master
by Steve Reinfranck

Isaac “Redd” Holt was born May 16th, 1932, in Rosedale, Missisippi. The Holt family migrated to the west side of Chicago when Redd was eight years old. His interest in drums and percussion originated in the south when his father took him to see a traveling minstrel show featuring the dancer “Peg Leg” Bates and a drummer whose name has vanished in the mist. The moment that Redd witnessed the act featuring trap drums, his future was decided.

As a youngster, Redd manufactured drums out of anything he could get his hands on. As he recalls, “Sometimes this was rather trying but we made it.” With his younger brother’s help, he tied stretched rubber from discarded inner tubes over the openings of tin cans. At this year’s reception on May 6, for this year’s Midwest Jazz Masters, I met Redd’s mother, Mary Holt Gilliam. She told me that there was no surface in the Holt household that did not have telltale “dimples”—the impact of drumstick tips—all over it! Tables, chairs, doors, windowsills—when these marks began appearing on mirrors, that was enough for her!

When Redd was a sophomore at Crane Technical High school, he was given a chance to play with their Adult Band. That same year he utilized his hard-earned savings from summer employment to buy his first real drum kit.

Redd has fond memories of his first “recordings,” made with his buddy, pianist Wallace Burton—to this day a frequent musical collaborator. They would pack their equipment carefully into an old painted suitcase, wrapping the drums in Mom’s sheets—to avoid getting any scratches, and set out to the nearest recording store to wax a quarter disc. “First, we’d warm up until we got the sound we liked, then rush and drop the money in the machine so as not to waste time and effect.”

In his late high school years, Redd, Wallace (who also played sax when another pianist was in the group), and several of their school chums got together and formed a group “The West Side Clefts (sic).” First they played for high school functions and the like, but as they got older and better (and were impelled to join the union), they became regular features at local nightclubs. There they were joined by guitarist Eldee Young who switched to bass to cover for the group’s drafted bass player. Within two years, pianist Ramsey Lewis joined the group. A second draft call dwindled the bunch down to a trio of Ramsey, Eldee, and Redd. In this form they prospered until it was Redd’s turn for military service.

When Redd returned in 1956, the same trio recorded the LP Gentlemen of Jazz. One selection, “Carmen,” made it as a hit single. Other hits followed, including "The In Crowd" (Ramsey Lewis Trio) and "Soulful Strut" (Young/Holt Unlimited).

Redd has led a full musical life in Chicago and elsewhere. In addition to the Ramsey Lewis Trio and Young/Holt Unlimited, he has performed with many luminaries, such as Wardell Gray and James Moody, and shared the stage with Lester Young. He has delighted jazz fans during his annual two-, three-, or four-month stints at the Westin Hotel in Singapore where, in 1998, he was held over for at least a month to help celebrate the Chinese New Year. When in Chicago, he is a familiar face at clubs such as Pops for Champagne, Andy’s, Pete Miller’s Steakhouse, the Metropole, Green Dolphin Street, and others. He can often be caught at the summer Ravinia Festival celebrating a reunion with the Ramsey Lewis trio.

Redd received advanced musical instruction at the Chicago School of Music in the early 50’s and at the Chicago Cosmopolitan School of Music after his military service, with instruction from Clarence Carlson on percussion. As a jazz educator, he has been active for many years in Urban Gateways and through his own Gumption Artists’ Workshop. Through Urban Gateways, Redd serves as an ambassador to the children in the Chicago school system. He uses simple, direct, hands-on techniques to demonstrate the components of the drum set. I know I never really understood the evolution of modern jazz drumming until, as the bassist in his ensemble, I stood by and watched his presentation to kids! After a close-up and personal introduction to the drummer’s craft, Redd always follows up with some swinging proof that jazz is not dead!

Between 1980 and 1985, Redd rented a storefront at 2315 E. 71st Street, where the Gumption Artists’ Workshop served as a place for artists to meet and perform. It featured a bit of Soul and a bit of Blues as well as Jazz, and regular poetry readings. Apprentices in jazz were shown that, while “monster chops” were impressive, they were no more than means to an end. The most important thing for an artist is to get in touch with his or her inner spirit and let that shine through for listeners.

While some performers feel it isn’t hip to do anything other than blow your horn (perhaps with your back to the audience a la Miles Davis), the survival of jazz may hinge on the need for performers to entertain the audience as much as to demonstrate their technical mastery of their instrument. In the tradition of the great Louis Armstrong, Redd reaches out to the audience in a manner rarely witnessed these days, without compromising his masterful technique.

And his technique is masterful. The remarkable extended performances he integrates into the midst of his more conventional drum solos defy description and must be witnessed to be understood. He has also recently taken on vocals as well, with a repertoire including “Moody’s Mood for Love,” “Autumn Leaves,” Fly Me to the Moon,” “Baby, What’cha Want Me to Do?” and others.

No one else does anything quite like his “Magic Tambourines,” which to the average listener at a club is a real show stopper. All conversation ceases while Redd weaves his musical tale, much like a direct descendent of a Griot storyteller, intertwining joy and sorrow, the human need for intimacy, and the frustration felt when things aren’t just so with the ones we love, all of course brought to a happy conclusion. He keeps his audiences on the edge of their seats.

Redd and his wife Marylean were childhood sweethearts. “We met while competing in amateur shows,” says Redd. “Marylean is a talented dancer and she always managed to top our group with a tap dancing act. We were outdone because whenever she won first prize she’d be sole owner of the cash awards, but if we were to win, the money would have to be divided.” Marylean retorts: “First of all, I had a duo act of modern and tap dancing with my younger sister, Azelean, so we at least had to split the money two ways.” And then, suggesting Redd’s predisposition toward excessive modesty, Marylean adds, “The only times we won is if their trio didn’t show up that week. Any time they showed up, they were such a phenomenon, they would always win, hands down! That Redd, he’s always so modest.”

They have lived at 326 East 89th Place since 1963. They have been blessed with three boys, Isaac Lamont, Ivan Damoune, and Reginald Lamar, all skilled musicians in their own right. As of this writing, the Holts have seven granddaughters and one grandson.

Bassist Steve Reinfranck is a professional musician who has played with Redd, among others. Steve also teaches a jazz appreciation course at New Trier High School. Call New Trier (847) 446-6600 for more information.

Copyright ©2003. All rights reserved.

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