Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Rodney, Red (Robert Rodney Chudnick)

Trumpeter Red Rodney’s bright tone acted as a natural bridge between swing and bebop. After his start with big bands, Rodney turned to bebop after hearing trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and alto saxophonist Charlie Parker. Rodney demonstrated that harmonic sophistication and brilliant improvisations could add to the early innovations of these bebop pioneers.

Robert Rodney Chudnick was born on September 27, 1927 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His father owned a local sheet metal business and his mother was a traffic guard. Red began to play the bugle at the age of ten in a Jewish veterans drum and bugle corps. Initially interested in playing the drums, he soon realized that he was far too small to carry the heavy instrument and decided to switch to the bugle. With the corps, Red received his first performing experience playing in local parades. He was already showing promise, winning the “Best Bugler in Pennsylvania” competition. For his win, Red was awarded a piston bugle.

At the age of thirteen, Rodney received his first trumpet as a bar mitzvah present from his great aunt. Rodney used textbooks to teach himself how to read before studying music at Jules E. Mastbaum Vocational School. At Mastbaum, his classmates included clarinetist Buddy DeFranco and trumpeter Joe Wilder.

In 1942, Rodney left Philadelphia for Atlantic City, New Jersey where he found a job performing in a house band that supported big bands. Too young to be drafted into the military, Rodney found ample work replacing trumpeters that were serving overseas. At the age of sixteen, Red left high school and joined bandleader Benny Goodman on tour. Shortly after, he toured with clarinetist Jerry Wald’s group. Over the next few years, Rodney performed with several bandleaders including Jimmy Dorsey, and Tony Pastor.

By the mid 1940s, Rodney returned to Philadelphia where he found a job performing in a studio band led by bandleader Elliot Lawrence for CBS radio. The group also included baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan whom Red helped get into the group. He first came into contact with bebop by seeing Dizzy Gillespie perform in Philadelphia. Red was so impressed by Gillespie that he began to revise his approach to the trumpet. Red began to sit in with numerous bands in the Philadelphia area, seeking to increase his exposure to bebop.

Rodney was able to meet Gillespie at the Down Beat Club in South Philadelphia where the two became friends. Gillespie was amazed by Rodney’s ability and invited him to listen to his quintet perform in New York City at the Three Deuces Club. At the show, Gillespie also introduced Rodney to Charlie Parker.

Upon hearing Parker, Rodney became more interested in bebop and quickly focused his studies on the new art form. Over the next two years, he performed as a featured soloist with drummer Gene Krupa and composer Claude Thornhill.

On December 17, 1947, Rodney recorded “Yardbird Suite” with the Thornhill orchestra. The song was arranged by composer Gil Evans and also features alto saxophonist Lee Konitz and tuba player Bill Barber. During his solo, Rodney displays a sharp sense of organization choosing notes that show a strong relationship with the melody and changes. He further recognizes the strength of the song by performing with the same intensity that the brass section plays with allowing the solo to act as a perfect segue into the approaching verse.

In 1948, he became a member of clarinetist Woody Herman’s “Four Brothers Band.” The next year, Rodney received a call that would change his life and career. Charlie Parker asked him to replace Miles Davis in his quintet. Red immediately moved to New York City and began to perform with Bird. Red was in awe to perform with Parker every night and would later state that his experience with Parker was the conservatory training he never had.

Within the eighteen months he spent with Parker, Rodney learned the complex theory of bebop and expanded his reputation as a young, emerging jazz musician. When Red would tour with Parker in the southern states, he went by the stage name “Albino Red,” due to the fact that many clubs had rules against mixed-race groups. Because he was the only white man in the group, they would have to pass him off as an albino in order to perform.

During this time, Rodney also discovered drugs. Upon his exit from the Parker group in 1951, Red became addicted to heroin. Throughout the 1950s, Rodney’s addiction made his popularity come and go. Red performed briefly with tenor saxophonist Charlie Ventura and recorded several albums featuring multi-instrumentalist Ira Sullivan including Modern Music From Chicago in 1955.

In 1957, Rodney recorded the album Fiery, which featured Sullivan, pianist Tommy Flanagan, bassist Oscar Pettiford and drummers Jo Jones and Elvin Jones. On “Stella By Starlight.” Rodney performs with a lyrical intensity that enlivens the song. Rodney and Sullivan easily unify the melody into a lively performance.

Rodney used his time in prison to withdraw and eventually kick his heroin habit. Because of his convictions, he was unable to work in cabaret clubs under Pennsylvania law. Incapable of performing in clubs, Red took a job as the leader of a house band at a banquet hall. Rodney performed for weddings and bar mitzvahs and became very successful.

In 1958, Rodney was leading and managing several different dance bands and making more money than he had with Parker. Though making money, Red became frustrated with not being able to play jazz. The frustration became too much for him and he began using heroin again. Two years later, Red found himself strung out and broke in San Francisco. Out of extreme hopelessness, Red impersonated an Army officer and stole $10,000 from the Atomic Energy Commission of San Francisco.

Rodney was finally caught in 1964 and was sentenced to twenty-seven months for the crime. During his sentence, he fought and eventually succeeded in his battle with heroin. Red spent the time in prison to obtain a bachelor’s degree, which included a course in law.

Upon his release from prison, Rodney met Melvin Belli, a celebrity lawyer that gave him a job as an investigator. Belli also registered him for law school, which he was able to complete in three years. Unfortunately, Red found out that under California law convicted felons were unable to take the bar exam, effectively ending his career in law. Soon after Red moved to Las Vegas where he spent the rest of the 1960s performing in casino orchestras supporting headliners such as Sammy Davis Jr., Elvis Presley, and Barbra Streisand.

Rodney was successful performing in Las Vegas, but still felt the need to play bebop. In 1972, he moved to Los Angeles and began to perform at Donte’s, a noted west coast jazz club. His return was temporarily delayed due to a stroke that left him temporarily paralyzed. After a year of rehabilitation, Rodney released Bird Lives!, his first release in almost fourteen years. The same year, Red appeared at the Newport Jazz Festival in New York.

In the fall of 1974 he was well enough to go on a tour of Europe. Red stayed in Europe until April 1975, making several television and club appearances in Belgium, Denmark, and England. In the mid-1970s, Rodney performed with tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon. During this time, Red also appeared on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson.

After returning to the United States, Rodney began to record prolifically, releasing three albums between 1976 and 1979. The subsequent year, Red formed an ensemble with Ira Sullivan. The ensemble performed, recorded and toured together until 1985. A crowning achievement of the ensemble came in 1982 when they acquired a Grammy nomination for their album Sprint. In 1983, a book containing transcriptions of his performances was released entitled “Red Rodney Jazz Transcriptions.”

In 1984, Rodney recorded the album Social Call with tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse. On the album’s title track Rodney exhibits a stylish tone that adds to the playful feel of the song. Charlie and Red exchange several passages towards the end of the song each trying to out-play the other in a good-humored way.

In 1988, Rodney contributed his services to director Clint Eastwood’s film on the life of Charlie Parker, Bird, acting as a consultant. Red also performed on the soundtrack and helped actor Michael Zelnicker, who portrayed him in the film, learn how to play the trumpet. In the late 1980s, Red included many up and coming musicians in his group including saxophonist Chris Potter and drummer Joey Baron.

In 1990, Rodney was inducted into the Down Beat Hall of Fame. Three years later Rodney released the album Then And Now, a compilation of originals and modernized jazz standards. In 1992, Rodney traveled to England to perform with drummer Charlie Watts of The Rolling Stones. The subsequent year, Red made several prominent appearances, appearing at the Charlie Parker Jazz Festival, Lincoln Center, and at the White House where he performed for president Bill Clinton.

Rodney ultimately succumbed to lung cancer on May 27, 1994 in Boynton Beach, Florida. Red is survived by his son Mark Rodney, also a musician.

Select Discography

As Red Rodney

Advance Guard of the ‘40s (1945)

The New Sounds: Red Rodney (1952)

Modern Music From Chicago (1955)

Fiery (1957)

The Red Arrow (1957)

Red Rodney Returns (1959)

Bird Lives! (1973)

Red, White & Blues (1976)

Alive In New York (1980)

Spirit Within (1981)

No Turn On Red (1986)

Red Snapper (1988)

Red Alert! (1990)

Then And Now (1992)

With Charlie Rouse

Social Call (1984)

With Ira Sullivan

Sprint (1982)

Contributor: Eric Wendell