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Bird's Trumpets

Matt Lavelle By

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Red Rodney

Red Rodney (1927-1994) was the next trumpet student in line with Parker. Parker and Norman Granz launched the Bird with Strings project with the first recording taking place November 30th, 1949. Parker would eventually tour with strings, leaving less work for a quintet with a trumpet. Rodney was coming from a lot of big band experience, playing with Jimmy Dorsey, Gene Krupa, Benny Goodman, and Woody Herman. He was into bop, recording as a leader with a band called Red Rodney's Beboppers in 1947.

On "Fine and Dandy," Rodney sounds fluent. His sound and style were less identifiable than Davis, Navarro, or Dorham. His first recording with Parker happened in November 1949 at the Pershing Ballroom. On Christmas Eve 1949, Parker played Carnegie Hall, with Rodney now finding himself playing next to Parker on the famous concert stage instead of a club, a place you might expect to see Gillespie. Parker raised the stakes even further calling "Ko Ko" at breakneck speed. Parker played so fast that he started playing sheets of sound before John Coltrane. How does anyone follow him at this point? Rodney accepted the challenge and went for it. He definitely knew the changes and constructs lines, attacking the tempo instead of trying to ride it. Gillespie seemed to be his model, though no other trumpet player in history will ever be able to play like Dizzy except Jon Faddis. On "Bird of Paradise," Rodney plugged in the cup mute and used Miles Davis as a model just outlining the changes.

Rodney continued to work for Parker into 1950. In June, Parker called Gillespie instead of Rodney to make the famous verve recording with Thelonious Monk, Curly Russell, and Buddy Rich. At some point between 1950-51 Rodney became addicted to heroin, was busted at times, and spent some time in rehab. The story he told about being billed as "Albino Red" on a tour of the deep south that became a scene in the movie Bird by Clint Eastwood has been questioned by author Lawrence Koch, but he doesn't come to an official conclusion. Miles Davis returned in January 1951 for the fore mentioned recording of "Star Eyes" and "K.C. Blues." In March 1951 was the fore mentioned Birdland performance with Gillespie. By summer of 1951, Rodney was heard again with Parker on bootlegs. In August 1951 Rodney made it into the studio with Parker, for his one and only time, and made the best of it. Rodney's solo on "Blues for Alice" is a personal favorite. I can't hear any of his influences, and he makes a complete statement, almost telling a short story. On "Si Si," Rodney was inspired by and hooks up with Kenny Clarke. On "Back Home Blues" Rodney displays his penchant for using Parker phrases and initiating double time as his solo gets more complex.

He graduated from Parker on this recording as in the fall he quit, possibly due to another drug arrest. Parker and Rodney would not work together again. Rodney battled drugs but kept playing throughout the '50s recording five albums as a leader or co-leader. He spent the '60s playing Las Vegas shows. He returned to New York City in 1972 and staged a comeback. For the rest of his career Rodney evolved and challenged himself, eventually mentoring tenor saxophone phenomenon Chris Potter. I met him after he played a Charlie Parker tribute at Town Hall in the early '90s. The musicians weren't fully prepared, and he told the audience "I hope I can remember 'Little Willie Leaps.'" Rodney signed my plunger mute backstage. I heard him again in a "cutting contest" at Lincoln Center led by Wynton Marsalis who told the audience they would have their knives out after asking if Lester Bowie was in the house. Rodney actually won the night on ballads to my mind, playing "Every Time We Say Goodbye" on flugelhorn and silencing the crowd with his tone. In his later years, Rodney had tremendous range on flugelhorn, and had personalized his sound to the highest level of his playing career. He will forever be remembered as one of Bird's Trumpets, another student that graduated.

Fats Navarro

The great Fats Navarro (1023-1950) never worked for Parker past substituting for Red Rodney or when they crossed paths on jam sessions or big band collaborations. Part of the reason was he could command a higher salary. For many trumpet players Navarro was the quintessential bebop trumpeter, even above Gillespie. Known as "Fat Girl" for his weight and high-pitched voice, his playing contained a bebop purity and he was at the center of the movement. Navarro playing at full strength would be more of a collaborator with Parker like Gillespie. He was able to form his style without Parker's direct mentorship.

Howard McGhee was a direct influence while they played together with Andy Kirk during 1943 and '44. Gillespie was definitely a musical influence and recommended him as his replacement with Billy Eckstine. Navarro played and recorded with Coleman Hawkins at Carnegie Hall, played with Tadd Dameron, Bud Powell, Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis and many others from 1945-1950. While some writers have tried to establish that he only played in the middle register, Navarro could get above the staff, and did so as early as 1946 sounding entirely comfortable playing bebop with Coleman Hawkins on "Bean and the Boys." Miles Davis in his autobiography said that Navarro couldn't play a ballad, but at Carnegie Hall with a quartet, Navarro played "The Things We Did Last Summer" with warmth and effectiveness. You can tell he was more comfortable with bop and wanted to get back to it, playing bop in a cadenza. Navarro left you wondering where he would have gone musically after bebop. Most likely where Clifford Brown went to an extent. What would Navarro and Brown have done with free jazz?

Navarro did cross paths with Parker on record and the results were fascinating. On a Barry Ulanov jam session in the late '40s they were captured playing over the changes to "Cherokee" at a brisk tempo. Following Parker's typical brilliance over these changes, Navarro owned the environment with authority and sounded totally relaxed while doing it. I spoke with trumpeter Jeremy Pelt about this solo and he said that what struck him was the precision. Navarro's harmonic accuracy while still being lyrical was one of his greatest gifts. His work here defines what has become the musical philosophy of most straight-ahead jazz musicians worldwide today. Most are unable to reach Navarro's in the moment grace.
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