A True Citizen of Los Angeles
MAARTEN DE HAAN, December 1999
Whenever he plays a short phrase, it looks as if he indulges in a favorite piece of candy. Clearly, the taste is still good. Whenever he is not playing, he glances sternly into the room, like a teacher checking if everyone is still paying attention. During the three quarters of a century that he has lived, Teddy Edwards has been a performing artist for sixty-three years. His performance in the jazz club BIM-huis in Amsterdam showcases the beautiful, deep voice of a weathered gentleman.
Jazz veteran Edwards, visiting Holland after concerts in Switzerland and Germany, is a man who can elaborate on his past with wit and precision. One occasion, he was being questioned for hours for an oral history project by Rutgers University about the less well-known figures in the history of jazz that he has personally known. “They said that Lester Young’s brother and I were the ones with the best memory.”
Born in Jackson, Mississippi, Edwards early on had few possibilities to take music lessons. As a teenager he picked up his first instrument, alto saxophone, learned the basic principles from a man who rented a room in his parent’s home and from a book with harmony lessons, which his father left on the piano.
“In my life I had no more than seven months of formal training: four in Mississippi and three later in Los Angeles. My last teacher also taught Buddy Collette and Stan Getz. He had big plans for me. He charged $100 per lesson, but I had to pay only for three. ‘You do the $97 worth of practice’, is what he used to say. When finally I had to tell him that I did not have enough time for his lessons, tears were in his eyes,” recalled Edwards.
After he had made quite an impression in Detroit with his mature performance style, Edwards settled in Los Angeles. There he met trumpeter Howard McGhee, who in 1945 persuaded him to switch to tenor saxophone in order to join his new group. Edwards’ characteristic sound can be explained by this late change of instrument. “I still feel like an alto saxophonist playing the tenor,” added Edwards.
Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker
When Edwards started out, alto saxophonist Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker lived in California. He and Edwards lived together for a while and hung out a lot. “Parker loved the game of chess. An Irish lady had taught us how to play it. At night, we performed on stage together and in the daytime we sat around the chessboard,” recounted Edwards. After Parker’s famous Californian nervous breakdown, Edwards, who was in McGhee’s septet with Parker, was the first to visit him at the Camarillo General Hospital. When Bird returned to New York. Edwards and the Irish lady were the ones who sent him off at the train station. “Howard used to say of all the West Coast musicians I was the one who knew Parker best. I still remember how angry he was that Ross Russell, former owner of Dial Records, hardly mentioned me in his book ‘Bird Lives’, said Edwards.”
Last year, Edwards received a letter originated from Switzerland written by jazz impresario Norman Granz, along with $10,000 dollars. The first sentence read ‘This letter is long overdue….’. “In 1946, Parker was supposed to play at Norman Granz’ Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts. The concert hall filled up, but there was no sign of Parker. When we were supposed to start playing, he was still not there, so people started protesting and even asked for their money back. I knew who was running with Parker that day and managed to track him down. Granz never forgot that,” recounted Edwards.
Although his friendship with Parker has been obscured, Edwards did play his part in the documentary of the Be-Bop legend. In the middle of the 1980s, he shared his reminiscences about Parker to director and screenwriter Joe Oliansky, who had wanted to make a bio-pic about Parker starring the actor Richard Pryor. The production was postponed continuously, until the producer/actor Clint Eastwood took over the film project and used Oliansky’s script to make the film ‘Bird’, starring Forrest Whittaker. Edwards was not altogether satisfied with that picture, which in his view focuses too much on the dark side of the man. “Of course, Charlie Parker was a drug addict, so was Chopin,” said Edwards. Also, he did not hesitate to add two white saxophonists, Stan Getz and Gerry Mulligan, on that list.
Teddy Edwards himself was ‘big’ around 1946. Some of the recordings he made for Dial Records had a great influence on a new generation of tenor saxophonists, such as the recording “Up In Dodo’s Room” with Howard McGhee’s sextet, in which he laid down the first be-bop solo on tenor. Edwards said, “Jimmy Heath once told me how he and John Coltrane spent nights studying my solos. I was special because I did not copy Coleman Hawkins’ style, nor that of Lester Young.” A versatile soloist, Edwards’ name has until this day been attached to a genre that ‘Hawk’ was famous for, namely, the crossing of swords of two saxophonists. Shortly after “Up in Dodo’s Room,” Edwards and Dexter Gordon went into the studio for a session that was aptly titled “The Duel.”
“Dexter and I were also supposed to do two pieces without the other - two ballads. His recording took so much time that there was only five minutes left for me. The producer suggested that I play a simple blues. The only preparation I did was to tell the rhythm section that I was going to play an introduction with a break in the second chorus,” recounted Edwards. It was this specific take, “Blues in Teddy’s Flat” that became a million-dollar hit for Dial Records. So far, Edwards has received only $41.25 for the whole session.
“Recently, Rhino Records has brought out the CD box “Central Avenue Sounds (1921-1956)”, and “Blues in Teddy’s Flat” is part of the set. Now, for the first time I am going to receive royalties for this tune.”
West Coast is Home
That Edwards, despite his popularity, has not become a well-known figure in the jazz scene, is explained, according to him, by his reluctance to go East, where all the jazz journalists were. “I am almost a fatalist. If I do not feel like going to New York, I am not going to New York,” explained Edwards. Another reason that he gives for his lack of international fame is the fact that important impresarios like George Wein and Norman Granz were not much interested in him.
Edward’s father’s music book which contained harmony lessons did more than shape his style as an improviser. He also started out early as a composer and arranger. At age 14, Edwards had already written a piece for 18 instruments. In the 1970s, one year he was in physical pain and was unable to play for a year so he wrote another composition for 33 musicians, which was performed in Los Angeles. Edwards claimed that, “Horn players are the best arrangers. At least they take into account that it has to be played too!”
“Sunset Eyes” was Edwards most famous composition which he wrote almost half a century ago. He explains the inspiration for the changes as “In the Down Beat Club at some point they taped some television show. The owner of the club expected a lot of it. He asked me to write a three-minute long piece and said ‘But you have to move while playing it, Teddy, you cannot just stand there and be cool.’ That is why the middle section of “Sunset Eyes” is danceable. It allows the horn players to move.” Max Roach and Clifford Brown’s Quintet’s version of “Sunset Eyes” made the piece a classic.
As time went by, Edwards sound was becoming more warm and bluesy. To the present day, Edwards visits jazz clubs after midnight. He started working with a steady group of people, a quartet with pianist Joe Castro, bassist Leroy Vinnegar and drummer Billy Higgins. The combination was like a collective, sometimes called the Leroy Vinnegar Quartet, sometimes Teddy Edwards Quartet, depending upon who arranged the performance or record deal. A reunion with Howard McGhee, who, after trying to straighten out Charlie Parker had been out of business himself because of drugs, was for Edwards also a comeback of some kind.
Just like so many jazz musicians in LA, Edwards earned a living playing gigs on the radio, on television and in films, for instance “Bye Bye Birdie” and “Any Wednesday.” Another interesting engagement was a West Coast stint with Benny Goodman. “That was like a dream,” recalled Edwards. “When I was small, I always used to listen to Goodman’s program on the radio, “Camel Caravan.” At home we did not have a radio, so every Wednesday night I went to the ice-cream parlor around the corner, just to stand outside and listen.” After the tour with Goodman he continued to work for the clarinetist as an arranger. Goodman even planned to make a musical with Edwards’ music. The project called “Blue Clarinet” did not work out, but would later be released as “Blue Saxophone” by Edwards himself.
“For Goodman, everything was business,” recounted Edwards. “He turned every penny around twice before spending it. During a rehearsal that did not work out as planned he once said to me ‘How can you be so calm? I am a nervous wreck.’ To which I replied, ‘Benny, you have to accept that things do not always go as planned.’ Meanwhile, I was thinking about all those millions he had on his bank account. Goodman had a big fear that people would not accept him, especially before a concert. He would get on stage and once the audience started clapping, he knew he was all right. Without the applause, he probably would have dropped dead on the spot.”
Work in Film
Another unusual collaboration and friendship was that with singer Tom Waits, with whom he started to play with in the late 1970s at the Troubadour club in West Hollywood. He also did a through Europe, Australia and New Zealand. As a soloist he would play on Waits’ Oscar-nominated score to Francis Ford Coppola’s film “One from the Heart.” “There was something magical about those recordings,” said Edwards. “Tom did not like to use a ‘click track’ to assure synchronicity with the film. Before the recording, I knew nothing about the story line and played on a soundtrack behind singer Chrystal Gayle. When we later put the result under the scene in the film, it turned out that what we played was completely supportive of the action.”
Waits was also the man who gave Edwards’ career a new impulse after years without a record deal. On Edwards’ first record for Polygram, “Mississippi Lad,” Waits sang on two compositions written by the saxophonist: “I’m Not Your Fool Anymore” and “Little Man.” “By the way, Tom never accepted money for his playing, not even for transportation,” added Edwards.
Just like his colleague Dexter Gordon, Edwards played a lead role in a film about a down-and-out tenor saxophonist who dreams of playing again. The movie is called ‘River Bottom’ and is about homelessness. Edwards personally did not have much experience with the notorious ‘jazz lifestyle’. There were three periods of his life that he could not work because of physical problems, but they were not because of drugs or personal problems. His asides during our interview, such as “Leroy Robinson was a great alto saxophonist; his girlfriend shot him dead on stage.” show that he is all too familiar with that lifestyle.
2000 and Beyond
It is intermission at the BIM-huis concert. Edwards appears dissatisfied, and understandably so, with the loud, solipsistic endeavors of drummer Han Bennink. “I will not play with that man again. He is from another planet,” emphasized Edwards. And indeed, one cannot think of a bigger contrast than between the saxophonist for whom solid ensemble playing has become the most important and the restless drummer still searching. He claims that on the whole, his experiences with Dutch musicians have been good. Twenty years ago he played with the Metropole Orchestra and for the Timeless label, based in Wageningen. He also made a record featuring pianist Rein de Graaff, bassist Henk Haverhoek, and drummer John Engels. Also, a few months ago, the CD “Sunset Eyes 2000″ was released featuring Dutch trumpeter Saskia Laroo and four experienced American jazz musicians.
“Twenty-one years ago I first came to Holland with a band to give a master class. Our luggage was lost on the way and I had to improvise,” recalled Edwards. “While I was trying to get my stuff together, there was this girl who came up to me and asked if she could help me out. That was the first time I met Saskia. Last year, I met her again, at the North Sea Jazz Festival. When she came to Los Angeles and played with me on sessions, everybody urged us to go into the studio.”
At age 75, Edwards is still full of plans. Like every true citizen of Los Angeles, he is working on a film script. He collaborates on projects about famous jazz musicians like Count Basie, Thelonious Monk, and Clifford Brown. He still does not shy away from an honest ‘duel’. for instance, on his duo CD with Houston Person or his contribution to The Battle Row of Tenors and Trumpets. Edwards creativity speaks in his closing statement. “Finding musical inspiration has never been a problem for me. The way I feel now, I will be able to realize my ideas for years.”