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Redhouse Family of Musicians Puts a Navajo Spin on Jazz

The Redhouse Family are Navajo musicians who mix traditional Native American styles with jazz, latin, R&B and funk, among other genres.
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Ask the six siblings of Arizona’s Redhouse Family if they are the Native American equivalent of Michael Jackson’s Jackson Five family and Tony Redhouse acknowledges, with a smile: “We have some of the same dynamics in that our families were both raised around music and we all began performing at a very early age.” Early, as in 5 when Tony was handed a drum and propelled onto the stage—7 when brother Vince took up woodwinds—9 when brother Larry added piano stylings.

Known as Arizona’s American Indian First Family of Jazz, the Redhouse Family Jazz Band and Dancers consist of four brothers and two sisters capable of a panoply of performances as musicians, composers, vocalists, flutists and dancers.

Music has been a central theme in the life of Vince, Mary, Charlotte, Lenny, Tony, and Larry Redhouse from the time maternal grandmother Concepcion played honky tonk piano entertaining GIs in the Phillipines to their father, Rex, frequently singing traditional Navajo squaw dance songs in his home using drums that were handmade in his backyard.

While the siblings earn daily bread in various occupations as teachers, healers, and artists, they perform independently and collectively in sets that can best be described as Indian Eclectic—music influenced by Latin, fusion, rhythm and blues, funk, folk, contemporary jazz, and traditional Native American sounds and spirituality.

A recent performance began with 86-year-old family matriarch, Maria, signing the Lord’s Prayer in Navajo as daughter Mary (who sings in five octaves) did vocal honors. From there the diversity of talent was displayed with Charlotte pounding out her version of Aretha Franklin’s Chain of Fools, Vince setting aside his tenor saxophone for a traditional native flute in a paean to his father, youngest family member pianist Larry leading the group in some original scat jazz interpretations, and Buddy Rich-influenced brother Lenny going into orbit with an extended drum solo.

Recognition of their ability to make outstanding musical memories abounds with Grammy nominations and receipt of Native American Music Awards. Mary and Vince are Grammy nominees—Vince nominated twice in 2003—Mary with a nomination in 2005. Tony is a two-time “Best New Age” NAMMY recipient. Larry is headed in the same direction, writing most of the titles on the family’s Urban Indian CD, and performing at the Kennedy Center Jazz Club in Washington and the Grenoble Jazz Festival in France.

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“It’s easy to introduce tunes I’ve written and then let each family member interpret the compositions with their own unique playing styles,” says Larry. “Individually, each of us is a strong musician or vocalist so I’ve felt confident to let the creative processes evolve.”

Sister Mary says there is no actual leader of the band and family dynamics don’t play a part when the Redhouse clan hits the stage. “In a sense, we’re like a group of warriors, jointly and individually scoping out what needs to be done and what direction we need to go. We stay on task and our collective goal is the presentation of intense, quality music. Each member brings strength to the whole. Yes, we are six siblings, but when we assemble and arrange our music, we are fully aware of, and allow the use of, each individual’s strengths as musical color to our sound. No one member needs to toot his or her horn about what they do because we each bring a lot to the musical buffet and share it!”

Speaking with discipline and conviction, traits that serve her well as a teacher of music at San Xavier Mission Indian School, she adds: “Our band is an example of how we adjusted to cultural differences, overcame difficulties, and empowered ourselves by developing our God-given talents to inspire others through our musical careers.”

The musicality of the Redhouse family puts them in a class of their own, augmented by a collective belief in the accompanying concept of spirituality.

“Music is more than what we hear, music felt at a deep level is a spiritual event,” says eldest brother Vince. “Navajo people have always been regarded as spiritual people and through the generations of our family, these spiritual gifts have been down to us. Music is one of the greatest expressions of spirit and heart and healing and it’s a gift I am blessed to share.”

Youngest brother Larry nods his agreement and notes: “Music and creativity and spirituality are lifetime journeys—and with the Redhouses, those qualities represent our family experience.”