I didn't really learn about Red Rodney until after he was gone. Of course I knew of him through the Charlie Parker sessions on Verve (Swedish Schnapps, 1949), and especially the Carnegie Hall concert from 1949, which I felt was exceptional. But it wasn't until after seeing Clint Eastwood's biopic Bird that I began to seek out and listen to the music of "Albino Red."
At the time there was very little of his fifties materila on CD, and mostly what was available were later 70s and 80s sessions, some of them great--Bird Lives! with Charles McPherson on alto--and some not so great--Red Alert!. There was, however, through all of his playing, the link with Charlie Parker that was undeniably appealing. One of my favorite memories was listening to a cassette tape I had of Parker's Washington D.C. big band recording and hearing Red's voice come on at the end: "Now, this Washington date . . ." And I've always appreciated and enjoyed the fact that it's Red's himself that can be heard playing on "Now's the Time" from the Bird Soundtrack. None of that, though, prepared me for the brutal truth about his life as told to Gene Lees in his book Cats Of Any Color. Easily one of my favorite books on jazz, it's well worth seeking out.
Though most of the recordings done late in his career are wonderful, I was most interested in the early dates for Prestige and Keystone. Then, I happened on a 2001 release of two dates from Chicago, one in 1951 and the other in 1955, both on a single CD entitled Red Rodney Quintets. Featuring original bop tunes and standards, it's a great example of the music before Parker's death. In spite of the title of the disc, "The Song is You" from the later session is all Red. Great music from one of the all time greats, and hopefully not the last of his earlier recordings to be reissued. The ultimate tribute, for which Red seems like a perfect candidate, would be a Mosaic box set. Let's hope it happens soon.