The Adventures of the Red Arrow — Red Rodney

I thought I was walking into history that rainy night, walking into Red’s history and the heroic age of bebop, into the books I’d read, into the recordings, walking into the story I had imagined for myself.

I was also walking into the story of jazz in Portland, I thought, into the red brick and neon dreams of my youth, face plastered to the back window of the station wagon as my dad drove slowly through the city and I saw men with hats entering doorways, tossing cigarette butts, carrying instrument cases into the night . Dreams I’d made into the story of my life.

Dreams of being somebody, of belonging to the world I’d read about in newspapers I delivered at 5 a.m., the world of jazz and cocktails, and there they were fulfilled, right there
on the front door of the Jazz Quarry, taped to the glass for everyone to see, my newspaper
story about Red. I was so proud.

The Adventures of the Red Arrow

But apprehensive, too, when I approached that door, because of the message I’d gotten in the afternoon from Red’s bass player.

“Red’s hot,” he’d warned me. “Something about a story you wrote. Watch out if you come down to the gig.”
Ah, my story, my precious words, my own music.

Mutt and Jeff I’d called them, little Red and tall Ira Sullivan, his partner in the quintet coming to town. But that’s not what bothered Red. What he hated was the part I liked best, the story of Charlie Parker and Albino Red, the scams pulled by the Red Arrow, the junkie jazzman sticking it to the establishment, the romance I’d made of the ’40s, the romance I’d made of him.

 

One of the books I’d built my story on told of Charlie Parker and Red touring the South in 1949. Red had joined Parker’s quintet at age 22, five feet five, quick, slim what Parker needed in a trumpet man after Miles — similar, but who thought Bird was god, who’d run errands, get cabs, pick up Parker’s laundry and be his right-hand man.

“Chood,” he called him. “Hey Chood,” reminding Red that he’d been born Robert Chudnick. “Chood,” Chudnick the jew. But this was what Red had always wanted, to work with a black band, to play bebop with Bird, his idol, who’d chew him out publicly for mistakes, fire him on the spot, then rehire him the next day.That wasn’t what Red had dreamed either, when he quit school and joined a dance band. But there he was living it in blackface with no burnt cork for cover. “Hey Chood,” Parker’d say. “Hey Chood.”

“We’ll bill Rodney as ‘Albino Red,'” Parker announced when the band was planning a tour of the South and his manager said he’d have to get rid of the white trumpet man. “And I’ll have him sing the blues every set.”

And he did. Parker taught Red the art of the put-on, a hands-on lesson during 18 straight one-nighters, Red carrying Parker’s bags and hauling gear. “Hey Chood,” he said, “get those cases up here.” In tattered black-only hotels in summer heat, Red didn’t fool the blacks, of course, but whites were easy — who would choose to be black, they thought? What white man would?

I raise my hand, full of illusions, just like Red. “I would,” I say, lost in my dreams of jazz.

 

“We don’t get along with them,” my housemate Jerry Wiggins said when I asked why Harry couldn’t come to our party.

“Them?” I asked. “Them?”

“Jews, man,” Jerry said. His friends Scotty and Jimmy called him “Broadway.” Jerry was from New York, Jerry had big aspirations black Jerry on the Great White Way. Scotty carried a gun and sold coke to the Raiders. Jerry’d been a defensive back at Southern Illinois. Jimmy called me Homeboy.

“Jews,” Jerry said, as if clueing me to the obvious. “Blacks and Jews don’t like each other.”

“Homeboy,” Jimmy’d say, his arm around my shoulders. “How you doin’, Homeboy?”

When I asked to come along to a Saturday basketball game, Jerry said, “It’s just us brothers, man. They wouldn’t like it if I brought you.”

But Parker always brought Red, and that’s the story I wanted to tell, about how they’d made Red the brother I couldn’t have been, even though I was willing to lose at basketball, willing to carry bags for them.

 

It never works forever, though, whatever scam, drug, whatever story you tell yourself, and being Chood in the Charlie Parker Quintet didn’t last long for Red. In 1951, he was sent to the federal narcotics hospital. His story of jazz now included daily addiction; he doesn’t remember it as bad, though he ended up in prison, eventually served years. Once out, he led society orchestras for Philadelphia’s Jewish community, playing weddings and bar mitzvahs and making a mint. But bandleader for the wealthy couldn’t work forever, so he sold his business and moved out West.

The Adventures of the Red Arrow

This time it’d be different, Red decided, this time he’d do it right. Other junkie musicians were into petty thievery, but not Red.

“If I was going to rip somebody off,” he said, “it was going to be the establishment.” Securities fraud was his specialty, and eventually Red impersonated a major general, scammed the Atomic Energy Commission for hundreds of thousands, and just about got away with it.

“It’s really not wrong,” Red said, “it was fun. And I paid the dues. I paid more dues than the sonsofbitches who almost stole the country are gonna pay.”

But no scam works forever, and Red spent another stretch in prison, then played Vegas show bands until a stroke inspired him to go back to jazz, and that’s why I was writing about Red’s return and constructing a history that let me feel part of the adventure of jazz, the adventures of the Red Arrow.

 

It wasn’t the 22-year old Chood at the Quarry that night, though. It was Red at age 56, with a fat neck and tired eyes, and he was mad.

 

“Did you write that?” he asked. I paused, and worlds turned.

“Yes I did.” I could see his bass player coming up behind Red, putting a hand on his shoulder.

“You don’t know shit,” Red said. “You don’t know shit.” And I paused again, looking down into watery blue eyes, into that red face; and worlds turned.

“Aren’t those stories true?” I asked “Didn’t it all happen?”

But Red thought I should have talked to him first, and I realized then that it was true — I did prefer the stories to the man.

“Why didn’t you write about me now?” he asked.

“But I did,” I said, “most of the story was about now, yes .” But Red waved in disgust and walked . I didn’t know shit.

“I told you Red was hot,” Jay said.

“But it isn’t fair,” I said, wanting the romance to come back. From the stage, Red was shrouded by puffs of smoke, and I was dodging bullets.

I stepped outside, looked at my story on the door, and I felt that old sweet sickness, that feeling when you willfully hang onto what you’ve made up . Maybe it’s a story about you and a woman, maybe the story of your whole life, the story where everyone likes you, where you’re the hero.

That was the story I couldn’t hang onto, after Red.

 

But now Red’s dead and I’m 56, and whatever history I entered that night has long passed into the story I’m telling now, this story in which I’m the hero, Red hires me back the next morning, and we’re all brothers, just the way I imagined it.