Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Red Rodney: Jazz Master and Mentor

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“I don't play like I played back in the early days with Bird. I play like today and that's what these young musicians help bring to me. I give them roots and traditions from fifty years of playing this music.  They weren't around when this music was born, but they had quite a bit of experience playing it because any Jazz musician has to go through the Bebop era.”.
- Red Rodney

“The warmth of Red’s solos, his impeccable ensemble work, the culmination of his vast experience and his highly original way of playing puts his name among my list of favorite modern Jazz trumpet players.”
- Joe Segal, owner, The Jazz Showcase, Chicago, IL

“Red turned his life around and ended back on top of the Jazz heap where he belonged. The Jazz life back in those days wasn’t an easy one. Too many of the cats checked out early or ended up broke or broken. Thank God every once in a while one of the guys managed to put the pieces back together again and go out on an up.”
- Joel Dorn, Jazz record producer and DJ

No one really masters the art of playing Jazz.

But trumpeter Red Rodney played it well enough over his 50-year career to be accorded the respect of - a Master [in the literal, not the aristocratic, sense].

And, during his later years, he also mentored a number of young musicians in the precepts of modern Jazz.

Yet, neither of these distinctions – Master or Mentor – were assured, for as the eminent Jazz writer, Gene Lees, points out:

“By all accounts, Red Rodney ought to have been dead.

Instead he was flying all over the earth in glowing good health, leading a quintet whose members were often a third his sixty-seven years, playing better than he had ever played, and enjoying what one critic called ‘one of the most celebrated comebacks in jazz history.’

‘In fact,’ Red said, ‘the odds were against my coming back and doing anything.’

They certainly were. Heroin was the elixir of bebop, but few of those who succumbed to its blandishments in the 1940s and '50s are using it today: they have either quit, like Red, or they're dead. A few, like Art Blakey, maintained their habits with such aplomb that they managed to reach a good age before dropping of other causes. By and large, dirty needles, self-neglect, improper nourishment, sojourns in the slammer, and all the other concomitants of heroin addiction took a devastating toll. Red Rodney is almost able to say, with Job, ‘And I only am escaped to tell thee.’
Red is briefly portrayed in the Clint Eastwood film Bird, which attracted both high praise and a bored condemnation in the jazz community.

They've never made a good movie about jazz, you'll hear it said by those who have not bothered to notice that they've almost never made a good movie about music—period. Red is listed in the credits as being an adviser on the film, but his advice, he says, was limited largely to telling the young man who plays himself how to hold the horn and stand. There is a scene in which the Charlie Parker character upbraids him for having taken up heroin. Some­thing like that happened in life: Bird, according to accounts I've heard from several musicians, urged his proselytes not to follow him into drug use. Few of them paid attention to his admonition; they paid attention to his example.

The question of drug use among artists is a complex one. You cannot say you have examined a question until you have entertained all sides of it. I believe we have reached the limits of what the mind now can do and arc trying to exceed them….

Loren Eiseley in The Immense Journey compared the human mind to a telephone switchboard that you encounter in a small motel. The motel has only a dozen or so rooms, but the circuitry is sufficient for thousands of rooms. The expansion of the brain and the brain case occurred compara­tively quickly in evolutionary time,
Eiseley reminds us. What is all that extra circuitry for? Will we some day learn to use it?

I suspect that it is this yearning for the balanced function of intellect and feeling, what Blake called the marriage of heaven and hell, the recurring suspicion that it can be achieved and that there is something more somehow, a something we glimpse occasionally and fleetingly through mist, a sublimi­nal flash of a divine future, that has drawn men such as Charlie Parker and Bill Evans into heroin. …

… Certainly no one can speak of drug addiction with a greater depth of experience than Red.

On the other hand, we should not dwell only on that aspect of his life. This is, let us keep constantly in mind, a brilliant musician, a gifted man. One of the protégé’s of Charlie Parker, for three years a member of Bird's quintet, standing night after night beside Bird's horn and hearing its out­pourings, Rodney was one of the first white bebop trumpet players. Red is uninhibited about discussing his past, and he is frank about it when young musicians ask him about it in music clinics.” [Gene Lees, The Nine Lives of Red Rodney, Cats of Any Color: Jazz, Black and White [New York: DaCapo, 2000, pp. 91-93, excerpted].

Red began playing music at the age of ten when his Dad gave him a bugle and enrolled him in a drum and bugle corps in Philadelphia, PA. His first trumpet came along a few years later.

Red quickly developed the trumpet “chops” [skills] to serve as a substitute in a variety of big bands that came to Atlantic City, many of whom had lost musicians to the World War II selective service draft.

After the war, he was a member of the CBS radio orchestra based in Philadelphia and led by Elliott Lawrence.

“…. It is hard for people born after that era to grasp the range and creativity of radio's role in American musical life. Today it is a force for decay and debasement, but it wasn't in those days. In addition to all the remote radio broadcasts of the big bands and the various commercial net­work broadcasts that featured Woody Herman, Benny Goodman, John Kirby, and many more, and even full symphony orchestras maintained on staff by NBC and CBS in New York, various local stations had studio bands of their own, some of which were heard nationally through network hook­ups.

The Elliot Lawrence band was one of these. Though it is little men­tioned in big-band histories, the Lawrence band—Lawrence in recent years has been a conductor of Broadway musicals—was notable for intelligent, advanced arrangements. One of its writers was a young Gerry Mulligan.

‘I got Gerry in that band,’ Red said. ‘We stayed a year. That was the first I heard jazz.’

‘The studio band was a day gig. I would go around to the Down Beat club at night. It was the modern jazz club in that town. Bebop was starting to be played there.

Dizzy had worked there two years before as the house trumpet player. His mother Lived in Philly, and Dizzy lived in Philadelphia for quite some time. I didn't know who Dizzy Gillespie was, though. I went up there and tried to play. The piano player was a guy named Red Garland. I knew Exactly Like You and Body and Soul and that's it. And Red Garland said to me, “Young man, if you want to play with us, you're gonna have to learn some new tunes. So if you come in early tomorrow, I'll go over some with you.” How sweet.

‘Next day I came in early and he taught me how to play the blues and he taught me I Got Rhythm. I didn't know what the changes [chord progressions] were. I had no idea. All by ear. And I played in that band, a quintet, with a tenor sax­ophone player named Jimmy Oliver, who's still living in Philly.’

‘There was a streetcar conductor who used to stop the streetcar and run upstairs and sit in on drums. His name was Philly Joe Jones. He had the 11th Street run, and that's where the Down Beat was. The cars would be blowing their horns, people would be yelling, “Get that damn streetcar moving!” They finally fired him, so he wound up working at the Down Beat. …’

"There was a big night coming up. Gene Krupa's band came to town with Roy Eldridge. I'd already heard Roy on a big hit record, Let Me Off Uptown. I thought, 'Wow! That's sensational!' But it didn't have any attraction to me yet. That wasn't the Harry James tone. It was different. I thought it was sensational, but it didn't mean anything to me. Then I realized. Oh yeah. Roy Eldridge came to the Down Beat. Dizzy Gillespie was coming. And they were going to have a jam session.

That was the night that Dizzy made me think, “Oh my God.” I heard that Roy was great, but Dizzy was new. It was apples and oranges. You couldn't compare them.
That night Dizzy showed us—we were very young; I was eighteen years old—the way to go. I even thought in my head, “You know, if this guy didn't play such weird notes, he'd be great.” Roy played the notes that I could understand. Dizzy was playing harmonically things that I'd never heard.

Three weeks later, I realized they weren't weird notes.

There was my influence.

Then I started listening heavily. I tried to play like Dizzy, which of course I couldn't do. The notes that he made were sensational. The fire, the time that Dizzy had! He's truly one of the greats of the instrument.’

I was always pretty lucky, Even back then I had my own sound. Like it or not, it was me. You could always say, “Well, that’s Rodney. But Dizzy’s influence was already set.’ [Lees, Ibid, pp. 95-97, excerpted]”

Gerry Mulligan went on to join drummer Gene Krupa’s big band as an arranger in January, 1946. Later that same year, Red also became a member of the Krupa band. Both were 18-years old!

‘Gene embraced anything new. Nothing frightened him. And he had what was really the first white name bebop band. He tried, he did it, he let it happen. He let the young guys do what they had to do. I remember he billed me as the surrealist of the trumpet. I didn't know what the hell it meant. I had to go to him ask, “What does this mean?”’

But 52nd Street was beckoning.

“I wanted to come to New York and really become a full-fledged jazz player. I left the band at the Capitol Theater in New York. It was a difficult thing, because of Gene. I loved him. To the young ones he was like a father. He was never an employer or a boss. Never. He was so good. I've never met one like him. I loved Woody equally as much. But they were different.’ [Lees, Ibid, p. 98]

After scuffling around New York for most of 1947, Red landed a gig with the Claude Thornhill band where Mulligan was once again on the arranging staff, this time with the likes of the great Gil Evans.

From there he went on the Woody Herman band where Shorty Rogers joined him in the trumpet section. Shorty was also one of Woody’s chief arrangers and he would assign trumpet solos to Red and not to himself.

Red’s ongoing love affair with bebop resulted in his leaving the Herman band to hang around New York with his friends and fellow trumpeters Miles Davis, Kenny Dorham and Fats Navarro [“Fats was far ahead of all of us.”]

Then in late 1949 he became a member of Charlie Parker’s quintet and stayed for three years.

Following his departure from Bird’s group, “I stayed in music and I stayed a junkie.”

It was more a matter of Red being in and out of music for the next twenty years, mostly out due to being incarcerated for his heroin habit or running from the law as a result of various schemes he got caught up in order to support his drug habit].By some miracle, Red survived it all.

In 1976-77, during what would become his last imprisonment at the federal prison in Lexington, KY, Red was “rediscovered” by some knowledgeable Jazz fans led by Vince de Martino, a professor of trumpet at the University of Kentucky.

Vince, with the help of a sympathetic warden at the federal prison, got Red into teaching a Jazz theory class and into some closely supervised, local gigs.

In 1979, Red made parole and from 1979-1994, the year of his death, Red entered into the “mentor” phase of his life.

As Gene Lees describes it, “at this point Red's life changed completely. The woman's name was Helene Strober. She was then a buyer of women's wear for the 2000-store Woolco chain, which meant she had a great deal of power in the garment district of New York, that crowded and shabby area, not far south of Times Square, of narrow streets and double-parked trucks where workmen push carts full of dresses hanging from horizontal poles along the sidewalks from one establishment to another. It is incredibly busy in the daytime, bleakly deserted at night.”

Red tells it this way: ‘She had her natural mother instinct. Here I was in trouble, just getting out of it. She saw that I was really trying. She watched it very carefully at first. By the time we were ready to get married, she knew everything was fine. After the half-way house, I planned to get my own apartment. But I moved in with Helene. Out of a flophouse to a gorgeous apartment.

My first gig was in a restaurant called Crawdaddy's at the Roosevelt Hotel. It was only a trio gig: piano, bass, and me. An old publicist named Milton Karle, long dead, who had Stan Kenton and Nat King Cole, got me the gig. And on piano I hired Garry Dial, who was then twenty-three. That was the beginning of a long association. We worked there five or six weeks. We did good business, because Helene had the place packed with garment center people. The job was 6 to 11; they'd finish work and come over. The manager wanted us back quickly. …

My chops were good. I started working. I went to a gig in Florida and we bought an apartment in Boynton Beach. Ira Sullivan had the house band in the place, Bubba's, in Fort Lauderdale. I spoke to Ira. I said, I’m sup­posed to go into the Village Vanguard. Why don't you come in with me?' I talked him into it. He never traveled.

So we had a band together for almost five years, Rodney-Sullivan. Garry Dial on piano. We had Joey Baron on drums for a while. My favorite kid, man, he was sensational. I started recording quite a bit, some for Muse, some for Elektra Musician, for Bruce Lundvall.'

The association of Sullivan and Rodney was to produce a series of memo­rable albums. [Lees, Ibid, pp. 116-117, excerpted]

‘By now, I've been back in the music scene for twelve years and what I hope is the next thirty or forty years. My sights are squarely set on making the best music I can make, embracing ail of the newer forms of jazz that specifically fit my style. I'm not going to take anything that sounds like snake-charmin' music and fit that in, because it doesn't fit in.

So that's what's happening to me now. I'm enjoying a nice run of success. The music I'm involved in, I'd like to say it's bebop of the '90s, but it's even a little more. I think I'm leaping into the twenty-first century, using the new electronic instruments, but being me. We're playing jazz and using those instruments as colorations. I don't want to do what other experimenters have done, even though they've been very successful, like Weather Report. And they're very good. I just don't want it that way….

Having been with Charlie Parker did me a world of good. But what I did before is not what I'm working on and how I'm getting my work today. Life isn't lived yesterday. If I had to live through yesterday, I think I'd commit suicide. I look back at all these things and say, “Oh my God! How could I have done that? It's not me, it's a different person.”

Yet, when I look at it realistically, all I can say is, “Well it was me.” I'm very proud that I could overcome this. I didn't expect anything.

I've seen so many very fine players never come back: lose their health, lose their ability to play, lose their careers, then lose their lives.

This in a sense was not planned. It was hoped-for. I didn't expect to accomplish this much.’” [Lees, Ibid, p. 119]”

“In the early evening of Friday, June 18, 1993, Red performed in a two-fluegelhorn duet with Clark Terry in a huge tent on the lawn of the White House, during a conceit presented by President Bill Clinton. He played magnificently. That was the last time I saw him.

A few months later, he told me on the telephone that he had an inoper­able lung cancer for which he was receiving chemotherapy.

Red died on a morning in May, 1994.” [Lees, Ibid, p.121]

The following video tribute to Red features an audio track that was made in 1991. The tune is by Red's long-time associate, pianist Gary Dial’s and is entitled In Case of Fire. Red’s quintet at the time included Chris Potter on tenor saxophone, David Kikoski on piano, Chip Jackson on bass and Jimmy Madison on drums. Chris takes an absolutely breath-taking solo on this cut. He was all of 20-years old at the time! Red was certainly some mentor.