Obituary: Red Rodney
Tuesday 31 May 1994
AS THE FIRST white Bebop trumpet player, Red Rodney had one of the most prized jobs in jazz, playing trumpet in the quintet of the altoist Charlie Parker. When Clint Eastwood made a film about Parker 33 years after Parker's death - it was called Bird - Rodney was portrayed in it and played trumpet on the soundtrack. In the midst of all the publicity surrounding the film, Rodney received a phone call from a lady reporter in Nebraska.
'She asked me all about my life, where I was born, why I play the trumpet, what I eat for breakfast. After she got everything she wanted, she said 'Thank you, Mr Rodney. And, by the way, can you give me Charlie Parker's phone number?' '
From 1935 to 1945, the jazz scene in the United States had been dominated by the glamorous white idols of Swing. Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey and Artie Shaw made vast fortunes by interpreting the music of the real originators of the music - black musicians like Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington and Jelly Roll Morton.
Legend has it that, to prevent such exploitation happening again, the young black musicians of 1944 began work on a new kind of music so complex that white musicians couldn't copy it. They altered the harmonies and melodies of standard popular songs to create a new, convoluted music called Bebop. They were certainly successful and the legend may well be true. For years Bebop proved inaccessible to all but a tiny number of white players. Red Rodney was one of these.
When he was 13 a great-aunt gave him a trumpet as a bar-mitzvah present. 'Harry James was my first big influence and then I discovered how tremendous Roy Eldridge was.' By the age of 15 he had left home to join, in quick succession, the big bands of Jerry Wald, Jimmy Dorsey, Elliot Lawrence, Benny Goodman and Les Brown. In 1945, when Rodney was 17, he was befriended by another trumpeter, Dizzy Gillespie, who in turn introduced him to Charlie Parker and the black musicians of New York.
'I heard Charlie Parker and that was it', said Rodney, 'That was what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.' He became one of the first generation of Bebop trumpet players. The others were Gillespie, Miles Davis, Fats Navarro and Kenny Dorham - Rodney survived them all.
Rodney played in the bands of Gene Krupa and Claude Thornhill before joining Woody Herman in 1948. Stan Getz was in that band, and it was Getz who gave Rodney his first injection of heroin, starting an addiction which was to blight the first half of his career.
Leaving Herman in 1949, Rodney joined Charlie Parker's Quintet for two years and it was under Parker's spell that he added the eloquence to his powerful declamatory style of playing which turned him into one of the jazz greats. He recorded frequently with the altoist and his great fire can be heard on a recording of a contemporary concert by the quintet at Carnegie Hall.
In 1950 Parker was offered a very lucrative tour of the southern states by his agent Billy Shaw.
'You gotta get rid of that redheaded trumpet player. We can't have a white guy in a black band down south,' Shaw told Parker.
'I ain't gonna get rid of him. He's my man. Ain't you ever heard of an albino? Red's an albino,' claimed Parker.
Shaw, having heard Rodney speaking to Parker in Yiddish, knew that Rodney was Jewish.
Rodney knew nothing of this until the quintet arrived for the first job of the tour at Spiro's Beach in Maryland, where he was surprised to find a poster reading 'The King of Bebop, Charlie Parker and His Orchestra featuring Albino Red, Blues Singer'.
'You gotta sing the blues, Chood baby,' said Parker ('Chood' was his nickname for Rodney, derived from the trumpeter's real name, Chudnick).
'But I don't know any blues.'
'Sing 'em anyhow.'
He did. 'The audience were very polite,' said Rodney.' By the end of the tour I was getting pretty good.'
When Parker died in 1955, Rodney joined Charlie Ventura for a short time, but his life became overwhelmed by his drug addiction and he left music altogether in 1958. He drifted to Las Vegas where, as a drug addict, he became a familiar of the local vice squad. He was sentenced several times to the federal narcotics hospital at Lexington, Kentucky.
One day he saw a photograph in a newspaper of one General Arnold T. MacIntyre. 'Hey,' he said, 'I look like this cat]' A scheme took shape in his mind. A friendly printer forged some credit cards for him in MacIntyre's name and 20 cheques, each for dollars 1,840, the average monthly salary of a major- general. Rodney dyed his hair grey and bought a major-general's uniform. Suitably equipped, he would walk into a bank and present himself as General MacIntyre, ask to see the manager, and flash his wad of credit cards. Using these methods he managed to live a life of luxury for a year.
Rodney discovered that the payroll for the troops at Nellis Air Force Base, dollars 180,000, was being held at the Atomic Energy Commission in Mercury, Nevada. He drove to the commission and asked to see the commanding officer, a colonel. The colonel panicked, thinking that Rodney had come to inspect the camp. He showed Rodney into his office to examine the books in privacy, opened the safe, removed the books, and left Rodney on his own, with the safe open. Later Rodney discovered that the payroll had been moved to the Nellis base a couple of hours before he arrived. However, there was some money, so he took dollars 10,000 and a bundle of securities. Amongst the securities he later found two sheets of paper with scientific formulae written on them. When the FBI finally tracked him down he was able to use the return of the two top secret sheets to have the charges against him reduced.
He gave up drugs in 1978, his wife Helene called him 'a born- again virgin', and his career took off again when he formed a band with his fellow trumpeter Ira Sullivan and the pianist Gary Dial. Rodney took up the fluegelhorn to great effect. Playing better than ever before, he was in demand all over the world for clubs, concert halls and festivals and in his final years some of the best musicians of the younger generation, notably the remarkable alto player Chris Potter, queued up to join his band.
His last wish was that there should be a good photograph to accompany his obituary.
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