Progressive Labor Party Organizes Solidarity March With Harvard Yard Encampment


Encampment Protesters Briefly Raise 3 Palestinian Flags Over Harvard Yard


Mayor Wu Cancels Harvard Event After Affinity Groups Withdraw Over Emerson Encampment Police Response


Harvard Yard To Remain Indefinitely Closed Amid Encampment


HUPD Chief Says Harvard Yard Encampment is Peaceful, Defends Students’ Right to Protest

Practicing His Passion: Joshua Redman '91

2008 Harvard Arts Medal winner finds success where he never thought he would

By Jillian J. Goodman, Crimson Staff Writer

Joshua Redman ’91 is positively infuriating. The winner of the 2008 Harvard Arts Medal, he was that guy: the quintessential Harvard student, the one who cures rare diseases and can whip up a mean soufflé—or, in Redman’s case, solves the world’s social problems and plays a mean saxophone. Now, he is one of the world’s foremost jazz musicians, with a style that is at once poised and loose, technically excellent and creatively free. But technique and creativity haven’t always been easy for Redman to reconcile.

While he was an undergraduate at Harvard, Redman led a double life. There was Redman the Phi Beta Kappa student who graduated with a summa cum laude degree in Social Studies and a spot at Yale Law School. And then there was Redman the saxophonist, who listened to jazz constantly and supposedly only practiced when he jammed with his friends at the Berklee College of Music or the New England Conservatory.

And as far as Redman was concerned, his two selves were too different to interact. In his words, “Never the twain shall meet.”

“I kind of had constructed this myth for myself that, in order to be creative, I couldn’t be analytical,” Redman says. “In order to feel I couldn’t think too much. In order to be expressive I couldn’t be focused and disciplined. I think I always recognized that it was a myth, but it was a convenient myth to buy into. It was a great excuse for not practicing.”

It’s easy to see where Redman’s story might have led: he easily could have fed his mind at Yale Law School and only occasionally nourished his soul with his saxophone. It would have been a carefully balanced life, successful but average.

Instead, less than six months after graduating and moving in with some Berklee grads in Brooklyn (he deferred his acceptance to law school), Redman entered the fifth annual Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition for saxophone on a whim—and won. What had once been “an escape” was suddenly business, and Redman the academic was suddenly forced to meet Redman the music lover.

Redman never intended to be a jazz musician. At the time, he told the Chicago Tribune, “If I really had my way, I wouldn’t even consider a record contract now, because I don’t think I’m really ready. There’s just too much focus on young people in jazz these days and there are older musicians who deserve the recording deals a lot more. But I guess it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so you’ve got to take it.”

He never really intended to be a lawyer, either. Until he got to college, Redman was sure that he wanted to be a physician, but by the end of his four years he doubted whether he was really cut out for medical school. As academically successful as he was, Redman was no stranger to anxiety. Although he says he enjoyed himself here, he refers to a sense of relief after leaving Harvard and says that “as the years have gone by, every time I come back [to Boston] I get a better feeling.”

“Like a lot of people coming out of college, I was interested in the social problems of the day and how some of those things could be addressed, alleviated,” Redman says. “Obviously, to get anything done in society, you need to know the law, so I was interested in it from that standpoint.”

“Like lot of people who go to law school, I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do, and law school seemed like the place to go if you don’t know that,” he continues.

He had spent years treating music as a release and consciously shirking the fundamentals. “I wish I were 10 percent as focused and studious with music as I was as a student at the university,” he says.” I have a lot of conditioning against that.”

Little by little, discipline has crept into his music. When he decided to pursue music as a career, Redman realized that it was time to fill the holes in his technique and started to buckle down. Until that point, Redman had been almost entirely self-taught. He grew up in Berkeley, Calif. with his mother, a dancer named Renee Shedroff. His father, though, was legendary jazz saxophonist Dewey Redman.

Dewey was more a musical influence on Redman than a parental influence. Redman grew up listening to his records and seeing his father’s gigs when he played in San Francisco. When Redman decided to go into music, it was his mother who was supportive and his father who told him to stick with law school.

Dewey played on Redman’s latest album, “Back East,” which they recorded four months before the father’s death in August of last year. In the very beginning, though, the two Redmans used to play gigs around New York.

“What were big deals were the opportunities I was getting, almost immediately, to play with these incredible musicians, people I grew up idolizing, like my father, Charlie Haden, Elvin Jones, Jack DeJohnette, Paul Motian, Roy Haynes, Pat Metheny,” Redman says. “I got a chance to play with all these people within six months of moving to New York, and more. I was invited to play with these musicians, and then I was invited back. I couldn’t really understand it, but I went with it.”

“Going with it” seems to be the theme of Redman’s interactions with jazz. It may not be the pure release for him now that it was in his college days, but it hasn’t lost its ability to carry him up and away.

“I am the least freewheeling person you will meet,” Redman says. “I don’t have any of that in my day-to-day, the way I navigate the world, interact with people. In music I think I have that, and maybe have that in a different way than a lot of my peers. I had no expectations, no agenda I had set for myself. I don’t even want to say that served me well, but it served me in some respect.”

Redman will receive the 2008 Harvard Arts Medal at a ceremony on Thursday, but though Harvard has honored him in the past for his intellect, it is now honoring him for his passion. And in that respect, he’s unlike a lot of people coming out of college. In fact, he’s like very few.

“I was familiar with some of the artists who had received [the Arts Medal] in the past, and they’re some of the greatest artists of our time, so I was like, ‘What? Have you guys run out of ideas? Is this charity for me?’” Redman says. “But hey, I’m thankful.”

—Staff writer Jillian J. Goodman can be reached at

Want to keep up with breaking news? Subscribe to our email newsletter.