Vi Redd: the under-recorded, over-looked empress of jazz

Mia Jenkins shares the story of Vi Redd, a pioneering Black female saxophonist and singer whose legacy has long been overlooked.

There has been a flurry of discourse in the past decade among music journalists and academics attempting to rectify the exclusion of female musicians from the dominant narratives in jazz history. More accurately, this discourse has been centred around certain instruments, in particular wind instruments and drums. For some reason or another these instruments been viewed as more ‘masculine’ than the flute, violin or piano, instruments for which a virtuosic female player, to most people, does not come as a surprise. 

In a society where women were expected to be discreet and submissive, perhaps it was the sheer volume or the brazen nature of an instrument such as the saxophone that led people to consider it ‘unfeminine’, and dismiss female players. Nevertheless, one saxophonist whose style and ability could not be ignored helped turn the tide on sex discrimination in jazz. 

Vi Redd was born in Los Angeles, September 20, 1928. The daughter of the drummer and co-founder of Clef Club, Alton Redd, Vi was brought up in a musical household. She began singing in church when she was five, and started on alto saxophone around the age of twelve, when her great aunt gave her a horn and taught her how to play. By 1948 she formed a band with her then husband, trumpeter Nathaniel Meeks, however it was in the 60’s that Redd’s popularity as a musician reached its peak, with weekly slots at the Red Carpet Jazz club. In these years she cultivated a sax style reminiscent of Charlie ‘The Bird’ Parker’s, and sang powerful bluesy melodies alongside her playing. Her be-bop influence and reverence for Parker is alluded to in tracks such as ‘I Remember Bird’.

In 1962, when Redd performed at the Las Vegas jazz festival with her own group, The Los Angeles Sentinel reported on the performance of the then 34-year old mother-of-two, with a condescension so often found in descriptions of women and African-Americans in the 20th century:

‘Another first for the Las Vegas Festival on July 7 and 8 is achieved when Vi Redd, an attractive young girl alto sax player, becomes the first femme to be one of the instrumental headliners at a jazz festival. As a matter of fact, Miss Redd, may well be the first gal horn player in jazz history to establish herself as a major soloist.’ (Los Angeles sentinel, 1962)

In 1967, a year after her debut at the Monterey Jazz Festival with her own band, Redd traveled solo to London, to play with local musicians at the historic Ronnie Scott’s jazz club. She was initially invited there as a singer and was scheduled to perform for only two weeks, but ended up staying for eight more due to popular demand. 

Despite these successes, Vi Redd remained practically unheard of for decades after her career. One reason for the lack of discourse around female jazz musicians is due to the reliance by musicologists on recorded material, of which women often struggled to produce due to limitations by record companies. Redd, who as a female wind-player was viewed as a ‘risk’ for labels, only managed to record two of her own albums during her career. 

‘Bird Call’ (1963) was primarily instrumental, and showcased Redd’s be-bop prowess, whereas ‘Lady in Soul’ (1963) took a more bluesy approach and was vocal based, conforming to more typical gender roles for female musicians. On commenting on ‘Lady in Soul’, Redd claimed she was dissatisfied with the work. ‘It wasn’t the right thing to do’, Redd explained in an interview with Yoko Suziki (American music review, 2013), indicating the pressure she was under to conform to societal expectations of jazz artists. 

From the 70’s onward Redd dedicated her career to teaching at the University of Southern California, while serving on the advisory panel for the national endowment of the arts. In the year 2000, she hosted a concert at the academy of television arts and sciences titled “Instrumental Women: Celebrating Women-N-Jazz”. The program showcased a wide variety of talented female players, from drummer Terri Lyne to flautist Valerie King, and Redd, at 71, appeared for the closing segment to play a Charlie Parker inspired ‘Misty’, and ‘The Shadow of your Smile’. An article in the Los Angeles times describes the performance:

‘Blending crowd-pleasing riffing with sudden bursts of bop phrases, singing the blues with robust assuredness, her performance was the work of a first-rate jazz artist.’ (Don Heckman, 2000)

Today more female musicians than ever are making great strides in a historically male dominated genre (saxophonists include Nubiya Garcia, Grace Kelly and Carol Chaikin  to name a few), and perhaps this has precipitated an interest in the historical legacy of women in jazz. As people have proven again and again in all spheres of life, whether that be sport, politics or work, it is possible to free ourselves from the limitations of cultural expectation, and prevent for ourselves and others the internalisation of the feeling that we can’t do something because of our skin, gender, weight, age … the list goes on. Vi Redd let her music speak for itself, and although her legacy has been kept quiet for decades, the strength and beauty of her art cannot be denied. 

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