Bob Perkins on Trumpeter Red Rodney, an Overlooked Philly Great!

Sep 29, 2020

Some folks—even jazz fans—wouldn’t know that 'Robert Chudnick' was the real name of the musician whose handle was Red Rodney.  The once well-known jazz trumpeter from Philadelphia was born back on September 27th, 1927.

Red changed his name when he began to gain fame in music in the 1940s. He studied music seriously at Mastbaum High School, finished during WW II, and then left Philadelphia and went to Atlantic City where he played in big bands, like those belonging to Jimmy Dorsey, Tony Pastor, and Les Brown.

He returned to Philadelphia in 1945, and met Dizzy Gillespie, a former Philadelphian, at the famed Down Beat Club. Dizzy had heard Red play and liked his style. Dizzy and Red talked of musical possibilities and headed to New York, where Gillespie introduced Red to Charlie Parker.

Red admired Dizzy as a giant on the instrument they both played, but he was more bowled over by meeting the legendary saxophonist Charlie Parker! 

Miles Davis joined Parker’s Quintet toward the latter part of the 1940s, while Rodney continued to lead his own small groups, and often hired out by leaders such as Claude Thornhill, Gene Krupa and Woody Herman to play as a featured soloist with big bands.

In 1949, when Miles left Parker, Red got a call from Parker to join his quintet. This was a call beyond Reds wildest dreams: to, as he put it: “To stand beside Parker, each night and hear outpourings of raw genius…”     

Red was with Parker’s quintet for a couple years. Following this landmark in his half-century in the music career—like his mentor—had its ups and downs: He had his bout with drugs, and once, so strung out, he took  something that did not belong to him, and served 27 months in prison. But while there, he obtained a bachelor’s degree, and studied law. When he was released from prison, he continued his studies, and earned a law degree but could not practice because of his prison sentence.

Red was consultant to Clint Eastwood in the filming of Bird, the biographical film of Charlie Parker’s life. He also coached the actor Micheal Zelnicker on trumpet, who portrayed Red in the movie.

Along with these positive happenings, in 1990, he was elected to the Down Beat Hall of Fame.       

Red spent and recorded several dozen albums under his own name. I had met him once and even brought him and his band on stage at a local club. He seemed to be a nice guy, and a great story teller, and before age and bad health caught up with him, a very fine trumpeter who could hold his own in any group.   

Red Rodney—a Philly musician, who is often overlooked when the names of Philly jazz greats and near-greats are mentioned. Red’s name should be in the mix. Hey, he once took wing with the “Bird!"

He died in 1994 in Boytnon Beach, Florida.