Red Rodney was the last of the original bebop trumpeters. After cutting his musical teeth playing swing with big bands, Rodney converted to jazz under the guidance of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. Joining Parker’s quintet at the age of 21, for more than a half a century he carried on the legacy begun by Gillespie and Miles Davis. Although a true bebop innovator in the 1940s and 1950s, Rodney’s early contributions to jazz were overshadowed by his chaotic personal life. It was not until his later years that he gained respect as a driving creative force of bebop’s developmental era.
Red Rodney was born Robert Rodney Chudnick on September 27, 1927, in a Jewish ghetto of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He began playing bugle in a Jewish veterans’ drum and bugle corps at the age of ten. Originally, he wanted to play the drums, but because he was too small to carry them he was forced to switch instruments. He received his first trumpet at the age of 13 as a bar mitzvah present. He studied music at Philadelphia’s Mastbaum High School, where he was a classmate of future jazz greats Buddy DeFranco and John Coltrane. His main influence at that time was swing trumpeter Harry James, whose solos he learned to play when he was 14 years old.
In 1942 Rodney ran away to Atlantic City, New Jersey, where he got a job playing in a house band that warmed up the crowd before the big bands performed. Flamboyant, talented, and too young to be drafted, he caught the attention of big-band leaders looking to replace trumpeters who had been drafted to fight in World War II. Over the next few years Rodney played with various big-band greats including Jerry Wald, Jimmy Dorsey, Tony Pastor, Les Brown, and Georgie Auld.
By the mid-1940s, Rodney had returned to Philadelphia, where he played in a studio band for CBS radio. He became interested in jazz after hearing Dizzy Gillespie perform and began sitting in with bands in clubs around the Philadelphia area. It was in one such venue, the Downbeat Club in South Philadelphia, that he met and befriended Gillespie. Impressed by the young man’s musical ability, Gillespie took Rodney to New York to hear his quintet play. There, Gillespie introduced Rodney to Charlie Parker.
Hearing Parker’s brand of bebop was an epiphany for Rodney. He told Craig Steinburg in an interview in Diabetes Forecast: “Even though my instrument was trumpet, and Dizzy was my hero, when I heard Charlie Parker, I knew right then, at 18 years old, what I wanted to do the rest of my life. It all came together then—that
Born Robert Rodney Chudnick, September 27, 1927, in Philadelphia, PA; died of lung cancer, May 27, 1994, in Boynton Beach, FL. Education: Received bachelor’s degree; completed law school.
Began playing trumpet professionally with big bands in Atlantic City, NJ, 1942; formed own band and recorded first album as a leader, 1946; feature soloist with Gene Krupa and Claude Thornhill, 1946-47; joined Woody Herman’s Four Brothers Band, 1948; toured and recorded with Charlie Parker Quintet, 1949-51; toured and recorded with various small combos, 1952-55; worked society club engagements in Philadelphia, playing mostly pop music, 1958-60; worked intermittently in Las Vegas casino orchestras backing celebrity headliners, 1960-71; returned to jazz with album Bird Lives!, 1973; toured Europe, 1975; formed quartet, toured, and recorded with Ira Sullivan, 1980-85; formed, toured, and recorded with various jazz bands, 1986-94.
one night was like a religious experience.” Rodney formed his own bebop band in 1946 and recorded his first album as a leader. Over the next two years he played as a featured soloist with Gene Krupa and Claude Thornhill, before joining Woody Herman’s Four Brothers Band in 1948.
In 1949 Rodney got the call of a lifetime. It was Charlie “Bird” Parker asking him to join his quintet and replace trumpeter Miles Davis, who was leaving to form his own band. Parker didn’t have to ask twice. Rodney moved to New York City and took his place beside a legend. His experiences with Parker would have a profound and lasting effect on both his music and life. “I got to stand next to this colossal giant each night and hear outpourings of raw genius,” Rodney said in an interview in the Philadelphia Inquirer. “I really didn’t feel that I deserved to be there, but he saw some potential, of course. I think it was more that he liked me. And I took advantage of the experience and reached a plateau that I never would have accomplished in so short a time. It was my college and graduate school at the same time.”
Between 1949 and 1951, Rodney recorded albums for Keynote, EmArcy and Mercury both with Parker and under his own name. In the 18 months he spent with Parker he mastered the intricate harmonics of bebop and gained a reputation as one of the most talented young bebop artists in the world. Unfortunately, he also learned about drugs. By the time he left Parker’s band in 1951, he was addicted to heroin. Rodney faded in and out of the jazz spotlight for most of the 1950s. He played brief stints with Charlie Ventura’s Big Band and recorded six albums (1952-57), including the now-classic Modern Music From Chicago with Ira Sullivan. After serving two prison terms for possession of heroin, Rodney returned to Philadelphia in 1957.
Rodney kicked his heroin habit in prison, but because of his drug convictions, under Pennsylvania law he was not allowed to work in cabaret clubs. Unable to play the music he loved in the clubs he practically grew up in, Rodney turned his back on jazz and took a job as the leader of the house band at a banquet hall. Playing for weddings and bar mitzvahs was light years away from Rodney’s experiences with Parker, but he was tremendously successful. By 1958, he was leading and managing five different dance bands and making more money than he had ever earned in his life. But the money wasn’t enough to keep him happy. Frustrated by not playing jazz, he began using heroin again. Two years later, he found himself strung out and broke in San Francisco. Out of desperation, he impersonated an Army officer and stole $10,000 from the Atomic Energy Commission.
Finally apprehended in 1964, Rodney received a 27-month sentence for theft. While in prison he gave up heroin for good, got his bachelor’s degree, and took a correspondence course in law. After his release, Rodney met celebrity lawyer Melvin Belli, who gave him a job as an investigator and enrolled him in law school. Rodney finished his law studies in just three years, but he was unable to become a practicing lawyer because of a California law that prevented convicted felons from taking the bar exam. He moved to Las Vegas and spent the remainder of 1960s in Las Vegas casino orchestras backing Strip headliners including Elvis Presley, Barbra Streisand, and Sammy Davis, Jr.
Rodney led the good life in Vegas, but he longed to play bebop again. So he moved to Los Angeles in 1972 and began making frequent appearances at Donte’s jazz club. Rodney made his return to jazz official in late 1973 with the release Bird Lives!, his first album in nearly 14 years. His comeback was briefly delayed by a stroke that left him temporarily paralyzed, but by the fall of 1974 he had recovered sufficiently to tour Europe with W.G. Wien’s Musical Life of Charlie Parker. He remained in Europe until April of 1975, making numerous television appearances and playing clubs and concerts in Denmark, Sweden, Portugal, Belgium, Holland, and England.
Upon returning to the United States, Rodney recorded three albums between 1976 and 1979, before forming a quartet with Ira Sullivan in 1980. The group played, recorded, and toured together until 1985, releasing five albums and garnering a 1982 Grammy nomination for the album Sprint. After parting ways with Sullivan, Rodney formed several new bands featuring up-and-coming jazz musicians whom he had taken under his wing. He recorded an incredible five albums between 1986 and 1988, including Code Red, which marked his first venture into jazz fusion and rap. During that time he also acted as a consultant on actor and director Clint Eastwood’s biographical film of Charlie Parker’s life, Bird. In addition to adding his fiery licks to the soundtrack, he coached actor Michael Zelnicker, who portrayed him in the film.
Rodney officially joined the ranks of the jazz greats in 1990. The Mellon Jazz Festival was dedicated to his honor and he was elected to the Down Beat Hall of Fame. In the Down Beat article announcing his induction he said: “Some people begin to slip after 50…. It’s strange, but I seem to be playing better than ever.” Rodney returned once more to his bebop roots in 1993 with Then and Now, a collection of updated bebop standards and new originals. He was planning a follow up album for Chesky records when he was diagnosed with lung cancer. He made his last public appearance in the summer of 1993 at the Charlie Parker Jazz Festival in New York City.
Red Rodney died of lung cancer on May 27, 1994, at his home in Boynton Beach, Florida. He was one of the last living links to Charlie Parker and bebop, and his death marked the end of an era. Although Rodney experienced his share of hardships and problems during his rollercoaster 52-year career, he overcame all odds to record more than 40 albums and to inspire and encourage four decades of jazz trumpeters.
Advance Guard of the ’40s, EmArcy, 1945.
Early Bebop on Keynote, Mercury, 1947.
The New Sounds —Red Rodney, Prestige, 1952.
Modern Music From Chicago, Fantasy, 1955.
Fiery Red Rodney, Savoy, 1957.
The Red Arrow, Onyx, 1957.
Red Rodney, Signal, 1957.
Red Rodney Returns, Argo, 1957.
Bird Lives!, Muse, 1973.
Superbop, Muse, 1974.
Red Tornado, Muse, 1975.
Red, White & Blues, Muse, 1976.
Home Free, Muse, 1977.
The Three R’s, Muse, 1979.
Hi Jinx (At the Vanguard), Muse, 1980.
Live at the Village Vanguard, Muse, 1980.
Night and Day, Muse, 1981.
Sprint, Elektra, 1982.
The 3 R’s, Muse, 1983.
Alive in New York, Muse 1986.
No Turn on Red, Denon, 1986.
One for Bird, Steeple Chase, 1988.
Red Giant, Steeple Chase, 1988.
Red Snapper, Steeple Chase, 1988.
Red Alert!, Continuum, 1990.
Then and Now, Chesky, 1992.
Carr, Ian, Digby Fairweather, and Brian Priestley, Jazz: The Essential Companion, Prentice Hall, 1988.
Feather, Leonard G., Encyclopedia of Jazz in the Seventies, Horizon Press, 1976.
Billboard, June 6, 1994.
Diabetes Forecast, July 1989.
Down Beat, December 1990; August 1994.
JazzTimes, December 1993.
Philadelphia Inquirer, June 17, 1990; March 13, 1992.
Stereo Review, February 1989.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from the All-Music Guide, Matrix Software, 1994.
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