Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Fascinating Life of Albino Red

by Joe Schwab

So it’s the final night of Hanukkah 2010 and this will be the last musical candle on the menorah for the Boogie Woogie Flu. A perfect way to end this festival of lights is with the legendary Jewish trumpeter whom during his lifetime crossed paths with both Charlie Parker AND Wayne Kramer. I’m talking about the great red headed Be-Bopper Red Rodney - born Robert Roland Chudnick - a boy that became a man after he received his first trumpet at the age of 13 for his Bar Mitzvah.

Although he was originally self taught, He later studied the trumpet at Jules E. Masterbaum Vocational School in his hometown of Philadelphia. Among his classmates was Buddy DeFranco, the great clarinetist who helped to transform the clarinet from a Big Band staple into a weapon of Be-Bop dexterity. A young alto saxophonist named John Coltrane also attended the school, as well as the often overlooked trumpet master Joe Wilder. In 1942, at the tender age of sixteen, Red left Philly for Atlantic City. Though he was too young for the draft, he wasn’t too young to lie about his age and start hitting the road with the orchestras of Benny Goodman, Jimmy Dorsey, Tony Pastor and Jerry Wald. In 1945 shortly after his return to Philadelphia, Red’s life was changed forever after seeing a set by Dizzy Gillespie. While playing a gig at the Down Beat Club, Red was able to sit in with his hero. Leaving a lasting impression on Dizzy who remembered Red and later introduced him to Charlie Parker after the two had reunited at The Three Deuces in NYC.

For much of the remaining years of the 40’s, Rodney continued playing with Big Bands. Claude Thornhill’s band was at the forefront of taking Be-Bop and smoothing it down into an experimental, yet danceable formula with arrangements by Gil Evans and Gerry Mulligan. He also spent time with the Bop leaning bands of Gene Krupa and Woody Herman, but his life was about to be changed forever when in 1948 Charlie Parker invited Rodney to come to New York to replace Miles Davis in his Quintet.

Despite the fact that Rodney spent time in the hard drug hot beds of the Herman and Krupa bands, he resisted heroin. While playing with Bird in ‘48 and throughout 1949, Parker used himself as an example of why Rodney should avoid the temptations of hard drugs, but as so many Bird disciples before him, seeing was believing. If Charlie Parker could play so brilliantly while high, then why couldn’t he? As legend has it, Parker did a Southern tour in 1949, tagging the light skinned redhead as “Albino Red” as to not lay credence on the fact that it was, indeed, a mixed race Quintet. By 1951, Rodney had succumbed to dope, developed a habit, and became a full fledged junkie leading to only occasional sessions and a short stint with Charlie Ventura. Although he had kicked and began a successful career fronting dance bands in his home town of Philadelphia, the Jazz life had driven him back to Be-bop and heroin use. His life changed dramatically in 1958 while in San Francisco. Broke and out of work, he impersonated an Army officer and stole $10,000 from the Atomic Energy Commission. Caught in 1964, Rodney did prison time on a sentence of 27 months. During this time he received his Bachelors degree and began studying law. After his jail term was up, he continued his law studies only to be detoured by the fact that convicted felons could not apply for the bar.

Music once again became his priority, landing in Las Vegas, accompanying everyone from Barbara Streisand to Elvis Presley. His dependence on heroin was still in effect throughout the 70’s which found him relocating to Europe where in 1975 he was busted once again by U.S. Narcotic agents, this time in the middle of the night. While serving time in 1975 he befriended the MC5’s Wayne Kramer, by teaching him, as Kramer has said, “a Berklee School of Music course in writing and arranging” as well as playing in the prison band with the guitarist.

Finally clean and sober, Rodney’s career once aging took off in the 1980’s with a series of recordings in Europe and the U.S. as well as reuniting with his long time collaborator Ira Sullivan. Much of the final years of Red’s life were spent playing with young musicians such as pianist Gary Dial and saxophonist Chris Potter. While revisiting many of the Be-Bop staples, his youthful sound along with a young band seemed to revitalize Rodney and his career. Having seen Rodney myself in 1993, there's no doubt in my mind that he was rejuvenated and playing the best he had in his career.

In 1994, Rodney died of lung cancer at the top of his powers. He’s survived by his two sons, one of which, Mark Rodney had moderate success in the 70’s as part of the Soft Rock duo of Batdorf and Rodney.


"Elevation" mp3
by Red Rodney's Be-Boppers / New York City January 29, 1947.
Red Rodney t, Allen Eager ts, Serge Chaloff bs,
Al Haig p, Chubby Jackson b, Tiny Kahn d.
available on Bebop

"Hot House (Long)" mp3
by Charlie Parker Quintet / Live in Chicago, Pershing Hotel, 1949.
Charlie Parker as, Red Rodney tp, Al Haig p,
Tommy Potter b, Max Roach d.
available on Complete Pershing Club Sets

"Swedish Schnapps" mp3
by Charlie Parker Quintet / New York City August 8, 1951.
Charlie Parker as, Red Rodney tp, John Lewis p,
Ray Brown b, Kenny Clarke d.
available on Complete Verve Master Takes

"Little Willie Leaps" mp3
by Red Rodney Quintet / New York City - November 1990.
Red Rodney tr, Chris Potter ts, David Kikoski p,
Chip Jackson b, Jimmy Madison d.
available on Red Alert


This is the last of eight posts at the Boogie Woogie Flu, in which eight Jewish writers discussed the works of other Jewish artists for eight consecutive nights in celebration of Hanukkah. I'd like to extend my thanks to everyone who contributed these wonderful posts.

Happy Hanukkah,

top photo: by William P. Gottlieb, 1948.
above photo: © Ted Barron, 2010.


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