Red Rodney: drugs, crime and all that jazz /1

    He was the first white bebop trumpeter, evaded southern trouble as 'Albino Red' and impersonated a US general to steal thousands. Part one

    Red Rodney shows off his goatee in New York around June 1946. Photo: William P. Gottlieb

    “Oh, wait until you hear. You’ll hear,” an earnest Red Rodney told me on a lovely Pacific Northwest summer afternoon in July 1988. Rodney had been explaining that his music had moved beyond straight bebop, and was eager to convey how he felt about his current musical approach.

    On the strength of my college-radio jazz programme, I had managed to wangle press passes to the annual Port Townsend (Washington) Jazz Festival for myself and my photographer, John Bubb. I had also arranged back-to-back interviews with Barney Kessel and with Red. Early in 2020, I finally transcribed the tapes of both interviews, having shelved them all these years thinking they contained little of value. As a novice interviewer, I had been nervous, missing opportunities to ask either man stimulating questions.

    I need not have worried. Red took up the slack caused by my timidity and ran with it, reminding me a bit of an avuncular salesman casually extolling the virtues of a product, in his case the current state of jazz in America. On that subject, Red radiated positivity: “We who have been doing this for many years are better off than we have been, in most instances. . . . There is more work for us, there’s more acceptance for us . . . but still, we need it for the young ones, the continuation of jazz because this is an art form that needs continuation.”

    Everything about that afternoon’s performance remains a pleasant memory: the weather, the casual yellow short-sleeved shirt and tan slacks Red wore, and especially, the sound of his horns. Although he had only 40 minutes or so to rehearse a set of mostly original music with a trio of local musicians, it came off fine, Red’s lyrical playing covering any miscues the band might have made. His bright trumpet and flugelhorn solos sounded poised, passionate and rhythmically nimble, as though played by a much younger person. Red hit notes above the treble clef squarely, without strain. His improvisations swung and brimmed with musical ideas governed by logic. In short, he was brilliant.

    Sixty-one when I met him, Red, 5’6″ in his bare feet, exuded a cherubic, boyish charm. As he put it to me, “I don’t intend to become an old man. I want to be an old boy.” About the elder statesmen of the music still active at that time, he said: “Now some of our great heroes that are in their 70s. They’ve laid down a great foundation; let them continue. I don’t really enjoy hearing them anymore. I almost can sing what they’re going to play. I don’t want anybody, ever, being able to sing what I’m going to play.”

    Helping to ensure that would not happen, his New York band in 1988 consisted of players 30 years his junior. With Dick Oatts on saxophones, Jay Anderson on bass and pianist and musical director Garry Dial, the music, much of it contributed by Dial, sounded fresh and contemporary while staying in the tradition. “I’m not playing bebop of the 40s and 50s,” he told me. “That’s like yesterday’s warmed-over mashed potatoes. I like to think of myself playing bebop of the 80s and the 90s because I’m still a bebop-oriented soloist, I’m not going to change that.”

    Of course, there was more to Red Rodney than a casual first encounter could reveal. I don’t remember him glancing over his shoulder during our interview, though a possible motivation for such behaviour became apparent when I read Dick Oatts’ responses to my request for information from his time in Red’s band between 1984-89.

    I knew Red had been a drug addict and had spent time in prison. Apparently, he had made enemies during his life of crime. Oatts revealed this story: “I remember doing a performance with Red at the North Sea Festival right after the Bird movie came out by Clint Eastwood. Red was pretty big during that time. Red asked me to stay by his side to protect him from some piano player from his past life more than 30 years prior. Red said that he always carried a knife and threatened the guy who came up to him with it.”

    Criminal tendencies made Red enemies, but could also buy him time. “Red impersonated a United States four-star general,” explains Oatts, referencing the professional con man’s most audacious caper, which occurred after he had been living in San Francisco in the mid-60s. “[He] stole thousands of dollars from the U.S. government. When sentenced to a seven-year stretch at Lexington Prison, he conned the judge by saying he had to take care of his children by making sure they were sent to his relatives for safe keeping, and needed two days to do that before they took him to prison. After he left the NYC courthouse building, he immediately took a cab out to JFK Airport and flew to Amsterdam and joined the Dutch Skymasters ensemble until the FBI caught up with him two years later.” (1)

    Despite Red’s shady past, Oatts found him a decent and fair leader who respected his young musicians and never failed to pay on time. He stuck up for them, too. When one club owner – objecting to Oatts’ lack of star power – baulked at his presence in the combo, Red told him “This is my band and Oatts is a part of my band. He either plays or we don’t play here.” Oatts added “He was very neurotic about getting to the airport early. If the gig was only a 40-minute set, he’d be checking his watch constantly. He was a professional and took the responsibility of leading a band seriously.”

    Garry Dial corroborates Oatts’ assessment of Red and speaks to his civility in personal dealings with friends and associates. “Whenever we would have dinner with my girlfriend Cathy and his wife, it was never like foul language or anything like that. He acted like a gentleman,” recalls Dial. Red’s manner and appearance gave no indication of his criminal past. “When I knew him,” Dial continued, “he acted like a Jewish accountant. In fact, one day Miles Davis sent over about five hip shirts to Red and said ‘Red, you look just like a Jewish accountant, man.’ So he loved the fact that Miles sent him these shirts.”

    “A survivor,” Oatts called Red Rodney. As is well known, many of his generation, like his idol Charlie Parker, had not made it past their 30s, and some not even that far. Red had.

    Born Robert Chudnick into a Jewish family in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 27 September 1927, Red Rodney first acquired a trumpet at age 13. A scant two years later, still in high school and enamoured of Harry James, he landed a professional gig with a band in Atlantic City, New Jersey. At 16, he quit high school and joined Benny Goodman. As the big bands were in full swing then and many young men were serving in the military, he had no trouble finding work, taking turns in the organisations of Jerry Wald, Jimmy Dorsey, Tony Pastor and others.

    According to his interview with Ira Gitler in Swing To Bop, Red returned to Philadelphia in 1944, when he was 17. He fell in with the Elliot Lawrence Orchestra, helping to get Gerry Mulligan onto the band. Also in Philly, he encountered Dizzy Gillespie, and a bit later, Howard McGhee. Both men influenced him to rethink his trumpet style. But the real eureka moment occurred when Gillespie introduced him to Charlie Parker. As he told Gitler: “I heard Bird play, and I liked to flipped. That was it. I understood it immediately. . . . Except harmonically, which is the thing that came to me last.”

    There followed more big-band work, including stints with Buddy Rich, Gene Krupa and Charlie Ventura. On transcription recordings with Krupa for Capitol Records from February and April of 1946, Rodney’s solos show a discernable bebop influence. They also excite. His statement on Up And Atom sounds remarkably assured for an 18-year-old who had been playing only five years or so. In the liners to the Mosaic box in which these records appeared, John McDonough singles out Red’s “explosive trumpet” on I Hear You Screaming. That it is, but it also reveals a soloist with an ear for chord changes and a solid sense of logical construction and melody. He shows a passionate romantic side on his ballad feature The Man I Love.

    Toward the end of 1946 and early in 1947, Red had become a full-blown bebopper, recording for Harry Lim’s Keynote label as leader with small combos consisting of other young white boppers like Allen Eager, Al Haig and Serge Chaloff. Dan Morgenstern points out Red’s reliance on stock bebop routines on some takes, but greets others with encomiums. In 1947, there were notable records with Claude Thornhill (e.g., Anthropology, arranged by Gil Evans) and the following year with Woody Herman’s Second Herd.

    Red, riding high with Herman, took it up a few notches in 1949 when his idol, Charlie Parker – who might have chosen Fats Navarro or Kenny Dorham – tagged him to replace Miles Davis in his quintet. According to Dick Oatts, “Red told us that when Diz and Miles recommended him for the gig with Bird, they were at his first gig on 52nd Street, sitting in the front row.” The three years he spent with Bird were both memorable and educational, not to mention securing him permanent recognition in the annals of jazz music. As Red told Gitler, “Everything he did as a player, he was without – well, he was just the greatest of all.”

    A quintet date recorded for Clef in August 1951 finds Red on form and making a good foil for the matchless Parker, illustrating the prescience of Bird’s choice. Red can also be heard on various live dates with Bird. But as Oatts explained to me, “It was during the time that Bird recorded with strings, so much of the time, Bird was going out with that ensemble that might not have included Red all the time.”


    (1) In his interview with Gene Lees in Cats Of Any Color, Red reveals he never stood trial for the fake general incident that occurred at Nellis Air Force base in Nevada. Believing them to be securities, Red had pocketed sensitive classified documents along with the cash he had stolen. The lawyers, eager to avoid publicity that would make the Air Force security look bad, agreed to a deal. Rodney, who had been strung out on heroin at the time of the theft, agreed to plead guilty to a narcotics rap in exchange for safe return of the documents. He was sentenced to five years in a hospital facility in Fort Worth where he ended up serving a little less than two years. Red says nothing to Lees about conning a judge. Perhaps Oatts was confusing the Air Force caper with another of the shenanigans Red had told him about.

    See part two of Red Rodney: drugs, crime and all that jazz