CELEBRATING
50 YEARS

Claudio Roditi 1946 – 2020

Prostate cancer claims an often-overlooked but fearsomely talented trumpeter at 73

Claudio Roditi
Claudio Roditi

Claudio Roditi, a Brazilian-born trumpeter whose lustrous sound fused hard bop with the jazz flavors of his native land, died January 17 at his home in South Orange, New Jersey. He was 73.

His death was announced by his wife of 45 years, Kristen Park, in a statement to a GoFundMe page set up by Roditi’s friend, bassist John Lee. The cause of death was prostate cancer, with which Roditi had been diagnosed in 2017.

Roditi was often a fiery presence on the bandstand, having mastered the language of post-World War II jazz trumpet; everyone from Clifford Brown to Woody Shaw made their presence known in his playing. However, he was also capable of a preternaturally smooth tone that could take the edge off his ferocity or delve beautifully into a tender ballad. Rhythmically, he was second to none, and in addition to bop and samba was expert in Afro-Cuban grooves. This made him an ideal collaborator for the likes of Charlie Rouse, Herbie Mann, Paquito D’Rivera, and—inevitably—Dizzy Gillespie, in whose United Nation Orchestra Roditi played during the bebop icon’s final years.

The warmth of his playing was matched by a warm personality. He was famously jovial and always ready with a smile and a guffaw. “Claudio loved to laugh!” Park said in her statement. “He always saw the humor in situations, and frequently we were doubled over laughing about something or other.”

Roditi was something of a poster child for overlooked trumpeters; writer Scott Yanow referred to him as “the Kenny Dorham of the 1990s.” In part this could be traced to his generosity on the bandstand. He didn’t eschew the spotlight, but he did prefer to share it with an inspired or inspiring musical partner.

Claudio Roditi was born May 28, 1946 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to Alberto and Daisy Roditi. The family moved regularly to locations around the country, owing to Alberto’s position in the Brazilian coffee industry. Young Claudio was first attracted to rhythm, beginning as a young child on bongos and then moving to piano. He soon become captivated by the trumpet, before he’d ever attempted to play it; his father brought home his first one, only to have him mangle it in a tantrum when he couldn’t make it work.

Alberto Roditi died in 1959, and the family permanently settled soon afterward in Rio de Janeiro. Claudio began exploring jazz at the behest of an American uncle with a substantial record collection. This was coincident with the bossa nova boom in America and Brazil, and he was able to study jazz with one of the rising Rio stars of the day, saxophonist Aurino Ferreira. In 1966, 20-year-old Roditi had matured enough to reach the finals of the International Jazz Competition in Vienna, Austria, where he met his future mentor Art Farmer.

Accepted in 1970 to the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Roditi emigrated to the United States that year. In 1976 he was in New York City, where he quickly attracted attention on the jazz scene. He began working with tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse, flutist Herbie Mann, and then clarinetist Paquito D’Rivera, with whom he spent most of the 1980s (beginning on valve trombone but ultimately developing a predilection for the rotary valve trumpet, with which he became associated).

D’Rivera introduced Roditi to his own mentor, trumpet legend Dizzy Gillespie. Impressed with his sound, Gillespie recruited Roditi into his United Nation Orchestra in 1989. He continued working with the large ensemble until Gillespie’s death in 1993, appearing as well at the 1992 concerts that would form Gillespie’s final album, To Diz With Love. Following Gillespie’s passing, Roditi became a member of the tribute group the Dizzy Gillespie Alumni All-Star Big Band, with which he continued working for the rest of his career. He was also a frequent presence in trombonist Slide Hampton’s all-star band, the Jazz Masters.

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Roditi was not just a sideman, however. He released his own first album, Red on Red, in 1984; it was the first of 25 recordings made under his leadership or co-leadership. His albums frequently contained a mix of bop-based jazz and Brazilian (and other Afro-Caribbean) traditions, increasingly including his own original compositions. Beginning in the 2000s, Roditi worked steadily in a drumless trio with German pianist Klaus Ignatzek and Belgian bassist Jean-Louis Rassinfosse, revealing a remarkable capacity for subtlety not often seen in his large ensemble performances.

In 2017, Roditi received his cancer diagnosis; before the initial tumor could be removed, it had metastasized to his lung and lymph nodes. John Lee’s GoFundMe account raised nearly $100,000 to assist with his medical expenses. Before his passing, however, Roditi’s wife Park said that he had ceased to “fight” cancer—“he accepted it and felt it was more like something that he was just trying to live with.”

His final recorded appearance was on the DIVA Jazz Orchestra’s 2019 release DIVA + the Boys. According to Park, Roditi had spent time in his final days listening to the album.

“So how will we manage without him?” Park wrote. “I would say that one hundred percent of Claudio Roditi is in every piece of his music. Put on a CD, lay back and listen—he’s there, his beautiful spirit is right there, and it’s bound to make you smile at some point.”

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.