Jazz Surviors


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THE VIBRAPOHONIST TEDDY CHARLES Teddy Charles was tearing through some of Charlie Parker's most daunting tunes with a quartet at the Dix Hills Center for the Performing Arts, (Huntginton, NY) here as the audience of nearly 200 people roared its approval. Given the energy he exuded -- despite a leg injury -- it would have been hard to guess his age.

But Mr. Charles, who turned 80 last month, is not just any octogenarian, nor just any musician. He played with Parker, recorded with Miles Davis and supervised sessions with John Coltrane. Five decades on, he is still going strong -- part of a generation of musicians living and working in the New York suburbs who are rewriting the live-fast, die-young jazz stereotype, said Dan Morgenstern, the director of the Rutgers Institute of Jazz Studies in Newark.

“It's quite extraordinary that we have so many musicians who remain active in their 70s and 80s," he said.

By the time the critic Andr Hodeir produced his groundbreaking essay “Why Do They Age So Badly?" -- written in the 1950s and published in a 1962 collection of his work -- the reputation of jazz musicians as a short-lived lot was already ingrained, Mr. Morgenstern said. Parker himself, who died at 34 in 1955 after a long battle with heroin addiction, is a prime example of those who have met an early demise.

Today, Mr. Morgenstern said, musicians of Parker's vintage who attained star status and avoided the pitfalls often work on the concert stage and in New York City's top clubs. More typical, though, are those who contributed to the music's development and sidestepped the hazards without achieving similar fame. They occasionally play at prominent venues but are more often found in slightly out of the way spots in the suburbs around New York.

Mr. Charles, who lives in Riverhead, on eastern Long Island, is a case in point. Sipping bottled water before the concert in Huntington in March, he ticked off a long list of luminaries with whom he had worked. In addition to Parker, Davis and Coltrane, they included the drummer Max Roach, the clarinetist Buddy DeFranco and, most notably, the bassist Charles Mingus, with whom he recorded the Parker tribute “Word From Bird" in 1957 for Atlantic.

In November, Mr. Charles is scheduled to perform that piece at The Hague in the Netherlands. And shortly after the Dix Hills show, he led a group at the venerable Village Vanguard in Manhattan. But he sustains himself with more modest gigs, he said. This month, he began a return engagement playing during Sunday brunch at the Vine, a wine bar in Greenport, also on Long Island, one of the “nice small venues" that help pay the rent, he said.

The pianist Morris Nanton, 78, is in much the same situation. Mr. Nanton, who hails from Perth Amboy, has enjoyed a loyal following in the New York metropolitan area since the early 1950s, when he was a pioneering black piano major at Juilliard. He recorded a landmark series of small-group jazz arrangements of Broadway scores for Warner Brothers in the late '50s, made several well-received albums for Prestige in the '60s and earned an entry in Leonard Feather's original “Encyclopedia of Jazz."

On a Thursday night early this year, Mr. Nanton and his trio played two high-octane sets of standards during his regular monthly gig at Shanghai Jazz, a 90-seat club in Madison. Mr. Nanton; Norman Edge, 74, his bassist for more than 50 years; and Jeff Brillinger, 48, his drummer for more than 20, worked their way through warhorses by composers ranging from Sonny Rollins to Jerome Kern. The performance had the packed house cheering.

Mr. Nanton, who has shared bandstands in Greenwich Village, Harlem and New Jersey with everyone from the saxophonist Rahsaan Roland Kirk to the singer Babs Gonsalves, also teaches privately and performs solo for Sunday brunch weekly at the Quay in Sea Bright.

Greeting well-wishers between sets at Shanghai Jazz, Mr. Nanton lamented the loss of mid- and late-20th-century New Jersey clubs like Gulliver's in West Paterson and Lincoln Park and the Cove in Roselle, where music was the primary attraction. Other clubs have come along, like Shanghai Jazz in 1995. A few have persisted, like Trumpets, in Montclair, now in its 23rd year, where Bucky Pizzarelli, 82, and the trumpeter Ted Curson, 72 (and, like Mr. Charles, a Mingus alumnus), both lead groups. But for older musicians with diminishing opportunities, the loss of every outlet is critical.

Hal McKusick, 83, a reed player who made his name performing with a string of top-name artists in New York City before moving to Suffolk County more than 30 years ago, said the closing last fall of Estia Cantina, a small club on Long Island's East End that presented live radio shows and a number of first-rate players, had left few club options for jazz musicians on the Island who did not wish to travel.

DESPITE entreaties from Smalls, a club in New York City, Mr. McKusick, who has given an oral history to the Smithsonian Institution, said he prefers to stay local, playing at parties, teaching at a private school and, when the weather gets warm, mounting concerts with old friends.

On June 8, he will present his annual fund-raiser for Christ Church in Sag Harbor, leading a quartet in which one such friend, Don Friedman, 73, will take the piano chair sometimes held by another, Hank Jones, 89, a former band mate of Mr. McKusick's in the CBS staff orchestra.

But time is taking its toll. Though many older musicians are still going strong, others have departed the scene through death or disability. Jimmy Halperin, 49, a saxophonist who led the group in Huntington, was still mourning his longtime teacher and sometime collaborator Sal Mosca, an innovative Westchester County pianist who died last year at 80. Nevertheless, Mr. Mosca's contemporary Carmen Leggio, 80, of Tarrytown, N.Y., who played saxophone with several leading big bands, still gigs at haunts along Division Street in Peekskill, among other Westchester locations.

Though such older musicians hang on, the iPod generation is not flocking to see them outside the core Manhattan clubs and concert spaces, despite the proliferation of jazz performance and history courses at schools across the nation, Mr. Morgenstern said.

“The audiences are getting old," he said.

However, younger musicians appreciate the chance to play with first-rate older musicians. Sofia Koutsovitis, 31, an up-and-coming Argentinian vocalist now living in New York who joined the instrumentalists for several choruses of scat singing on George Shearing's “Lullaby of Birdland" at the Huntington concert, said performing with people like Mr. Charles was an invaluable experience.

“It's a whole different vibe," Ms. Koutsovitis said. “They've seen so much."

Mr. Halperin, who led the group, said there was no substitute for the authenticity musicians like Mr. Charles brought to the music.

“They're the real thing," he said.

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