Red Rodney: drugs, crime and all that jazz /2

    From the 1950s to 70s the trumpeter was in an out of jail for drug and fraud offences but around the age of 50 the demons receded. Part two

    Charlie Parker and Red Rodney watch a band featuring Dizzy Gillespie, Margie Hyams and Chuck Wayne at the Downbeat, New York, ca. 1947. Photo by William P. Gottlieb

    Things started to go awry for Robert Chudnick around the time he joined Parker. Despite Bird’s warnings to stay away from junk, Red had managed to get hooked. In a wide-ranging interview with Gene Lees [in Cats Of Any Color], the trumpeter explained his motivation: “When I listened to that genius [Bird] night after night, being young and immature and not an educated person, I must have thought ‘If I crossed over that line, with drugs, could I play like that?'” Predictably, he was busted and ended up in the federal pen at Lexington, Kentucky. In and out of prison during the 50s, Rodney was obliged to quit heroin cold turkey with each incarceration.

    A few bright moments occurred during this period. One of them was the start of what turned out to be a long and very fruitful partnership with the remarkable multi-instrumentalist Ira Sullivan of Chicago. Of the three records Red released in the latter half of the decade, between lockups, two paired him with Sullivan. The first, Modern Music From Chicago (Fantasy, 1955), features some exuberant blowing, showing how well the horn men complement and inspire each other. Good as that record was, the one waxed two years later, for Signal (later released on Savoy as Firey), may be even better. Both Red and Ira were in fine form on those two days in November 1957, and supported by some peerless sidemen – Tommy Flanagan, Oscar Pettiford and either Philly Joe Jones or Elvin Jones on drums – created a surprise masterpiece. A standout track is Red Arrow, a two-trumpet showcase with sprightly Red, fleet and impassioned, followed by Ira, incisive and intellectual, leading into a trumpet chase sequence that is sheer delight. Elsewhere, Sullivan sticks to tenor sax, which he plays very skilfully indeed.

    Despite the occasional triumph, Red struggled with his demons the next 20 years, his career interrupted by repeated stretches in jail. His activities during this period appear to have spawned a fair amount of confusion, giving rise to competing accounts of their chronology. One source sets his final release from incarceration in the 60s, while others place it near the end of the 70s. The year he finally ended his destructive drug habit is likewise hard to pinpoint. Based on what Dial and Oatts told me about Red, and what I turned up in my research, I have pieced together the rest of his story – following the 1957 record date – to the best of my ability.

    Denied a cabaret card because of his convictions, Red paid the bills playing casuals, dances, bar mitzvahs and weddings – and through criminal con jobs. One further record date for Argo in 1959 was followed by another prison sentence in 1964. After his release, he spent part of the 60s in Las Vegas pit bands with little opportunity to play jazz.

    The criminal activity continued during his Vegas sojourn (2). One of the more bizarre chapters of Red’s entire life was his involvement with former heavyweight boxing champion Sonny Liston. Red reportedly hired the ex-boxer as an “enforcer” for his heroin-dealing operation. In January 1971, Liston was found dead, an apparent victim of an accidental drug overdose. That was the ruling, but some suspected foul play when details emerged that Liston may have been a police informant. In a book entitled The Murder Of Sonny Liston, journalist Shaun Assael identifies several who had a motive for wanting to see him dead.

    Among those examined by Assael is Robert Chudnick, though suspicion later shifted elsewhere. If Sonny had been murdered, no one was ever charged. However, the entire sordid affair was indicative of the sort of life Rodney led at that time. Compounding his difficulties, the 70s was probably the least favourable decade for jazz since its inception.

    Misfortune continued to hound Red and in 1972 an attempt to restart his jazz career was stalled by a stroke that left him paralysed. Following recovery, he released Bird Lives!, his first album since the Argo date. The mid-70s found him in England and Europe for extended tours. Upon his return to the US in April 1975, there were more records. However, having failed to break his dependency on heroin, he ended up at Lexington once again. Even this far into the 70s, Rodney’s future seemed in jeopardy. In retrospect, it seems remarkable he accomplished anything at all during this dark period.

    But there was to be a second act. The turnaround began circa 1978 with his final release from the slammer. Soon after, he met Garry Dial, who told me “He was in a halfway house where part of his parole was that he had to be in every night by like 8:30 . . . So when we met, he took a liking to me and he used to come over to my apartment every day, and we’d rehearse and stuff like that. So he got a gig at this place called Crawdaddy’s in a hotel on Madison Avenue, and it was kind of like happy hour.”

    Also around this time, Red met a successful businesswoman named Helene Strober who was to become his wife and soul mate for the remainder of his life. Thus girded with smiling fortune within a stable relationship, Red managed to give up heroin dependency. Success no longer seemed a fantasy.

    And as had Betty Carter and Art Blakey, Red Rodney was becoming a mentor for young jazz musicians. As he put it to me, “I think now I’ve become sort of like an elder statesman . . . I’m here to give what I have and still accept and take from all of the younger people, and use it to fit my specific style.” Garry Dial was the first, working with Red some 15 years. Dial served as musical director and straw boss, contributing a great deal to the sound and conception of Red’s later quintets. Red recorded many of Dial’s compositions, and also gave tenor-saxophone great Chris Potter a start in his very last band.

    The final 15 or so years of Red’s life were his most productive since the 40s. With his young musicians, he worked regularly, made the festival circuit and recorded frequently. Not every record was a five-star affair, but Red played with warmth and passion, always giving everything he had to his music. As Dick Oatts told me, “Red had great musicianship. Even when he had teeth problems he played great. It was that era of musicians who valued consistency.”

    Red’s young bandsmen reciprocated that good will, coming to his aid when necessary. “He might have played a little shorter when he wasn’t in top shape”, Oatts told me, “but always gave the audience what he had. He would ask me to play a little longer during those times. The band all circled our wagons around Red to help him out when he needed it – and it wasn’t too often. Even when he was getting new posts put in, this guy could hit a high G and nail it over and over every night.”

    Oatts added these insights: “Often times Red might play the same solo, but his era was about playing with energetic consistency with great time and harmony, and [he] would swing. As a sax player, it was easy to fall into his wonderful sound and phrasing. Red was not afraid of trying challenging compositions and did not want to be a bebop ghost band. He detested all those bebop recreations. Red did an all-electric recording and even sang a rap tune on it in 1987-88. He thought jazz should move forward but with respect to tradition and its values.”

    As noted, Garry Dial played a key role in helping to shape the group’s sound. Having been influenced by such post-bop pianists as Bill Evans, McCoy Tyner and Herbie Hancock, Dial offered fresh rhythmic and harmonic avenues for Red to explore. “I became like his son”, explains Dial, “and I would give him my new tunes; I would write him tunes.” Dial also taught Red informally: “He was not great at knowing theory and chords, and during his time with me . . . he kind of studied with me to learn that.” Red himself, in the liners to the Chesky album Then And Now, writes “he [Dial] really added something vital to the date with his modern concept.

    Of course, young players gained as much – if not more – than they gave working for an established player like Red with decades of experience. As Dial told me, “I have to say he started my jazz career. He was a well-disciplined person as far as the music, so he gave me a lot of structure, but also gave me a lot of freedom to grow.”

    If Dial had a reservation about Rodney as a musician, it was in his occasional avoidance of taking chances: “His solos could be at times worked out – like when we played Giant Steps, I basically wrote that solo for him, and he would play those kind of things and play it safe in that way.”

    Helping keep Red honest was Ira Sullivan. The two teamed up again in 1980, rekindling the conflagration they had ignited back in the 50s. Dial explained how Ira would challenge Red: “Ira was the one that took a ton of chances, so there was a rub in a way, but it was such a great rub because one had the discipline of how to set up a set and the other had this crazy kind of creative flow that whatever happened, happened.”

    The results could be exhilarating. Sullivan often provided the spark that brought out the best in Red. Luckily, we have a number of recordings from the 80s, both studio and live, documenting this dynamite duo. On Spirit Within (1981), nimble flugelhorn exchanges recall the edgy trumpet chase sequence on Red Arrow, from the 1957 date referenced earlier.

    And the following year, on Sprint, a live date, Ira really dusts off his alto sax for some impassioned blowing. The title track is a challenging composition that features shifting meters and moods on which Sullivan unleashes a scalding solo that stretches the harmonic limits of the tune. Red – inspired by Ira – acquits himself well in his solo, making a more conventional contrast to the sax man’s outside outburst. Both of these fine albums, along with several others from the period, merit five stars in the All Music Guide To Jazz.

    Red was more popular than ever at the time of his death from lung cancer in Boynton Beach, Florida in May 1994. Part of that had to do with the Eastwood movie, Bird, about which he told me “Yeah, I guess everybody knows about it now, that Clint Eastwood made a marvellous film about the life of Charlie Parker. . . . It’s really the first authentic biography of a great jazz musician, ever. All the other ones were not authentic, were not about one particular person. This one is.” Critics may have disagreed, but it did afford further burnish to the trumpeter’s final act.

    When I asked Red how he perceived his role in jazz, his answer sounded like something he had thought about and possibly even rehearsed: “You know, my role has been a continuously changing one. I started as a young student, as a young person who embraced this music, and learning how to play, getting lucky breaks, and starting to play good. And then getting a little better, and having all of the horrors that can happen in the jazz life at that time. And you know, I think Lester Bowie said it: ‘You have to feel, you have to have the joy, you have to have tragedy, you have to have all of the things that make up that human existence in life to become a great jazz person.'”

    By this time in his journey, Red Rodney had paid his dues and earned his status as “a great jazz person”.

    I don’t know if Red cast furtive glances over his shoulder that lovely day in Port Townsend, ready to confront marauding ghosts of his checkered past. He may have. I do know that, in front of an appreciative audience, blowing his bebop of the 80s, he achieved something like serenity.

    I like to remember him that way.


    (2) As reported by Gene Lees in his essay on Red (in Cats Of Any Color), Red demonstrated great resourcefulness in his fraudulent activities. It merits noting that the victims of his con jobs were almost always large banks or insurance companies, not ordinary citizens.

    A longer version of this article appeared in the author’s book, Talking Jazz: Profiles, Interviews And Musings From Tacoma To Kansai, available at Amazon marketplaces worldwide.

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