Teddy Charles: (1928-2012)


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Teddy Charles, a hard-swinging four-mallet vibraphonist, composer, pianist and player-producer who in the late 1940s and early '50s transformed the steel-plated instrument into a cooler, jazz-classical protagonist, died on April 16, He was 84.  

Trained at the Juilliard School of Music, Teddy was able to reach effortlessly into modern classical music theory and deploy modal scales on solos—giving his compositions and recordings a fresh, hip sound. But what made Teddy's style special was he was able to combine long-hair thinking with street-smart swing, and for Teddy, swing, ultimately, was everything. 

There was no shortage of great vibraphonists in the late '40s. Lionel Hampton, Milt Jackson, Red Norvo, Terry Gibbs and Marjie Hyams all could drop jaws. But Teddy represented something new—a sound that seemed to be visiting from the future. And as it turned out, that's exactly where it came from, since he would influence many young vibraphonists who followed. 

Teddy was among my earliest interviews for JazzWax—November 2007—and we remained close phone pals ever since. His calls to me would frequently start out with Teddy playfully asking to speak with “Muck 'n' Mire" rather than my first and last name—"because you're always digging up stuff for that blog of yours," Teddy said when he first started using it.

During an intermission at the Village Vanguard in 2008, when he began playing New York clubs again, Teddy and I talked about jazz today. “Listen, many of these kids learn all kinds of theory  in school today," he said. “I did, too. But what happened to the class on swing? What happened to that class?" [Photo above by Mark Sheldon]

For Teddy, swing was the lifeblood of the music. Without it, jazz wasn't worth much, he said. To Teddy, there was swing and then there were swingers—musicians who burned for the finger-snapping feel of the beat on two and four.

Born Teddy Cohen in Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts, Teddy changed his name in late 1951 to Charles after his manager had trouble booking him at clubs with his Jewish last name. In 1953, Teddy produced recordings on the West Coast, having been sent out there by Prestige Records' owner Bob Weinstock. His Teddy Charles and the Westcoasters sessions with Frank Morgan, Wardell Gray, Sonny Clark Shorty Rogers and Jimmy Giuffre were always among his favorites and easily the most innovative from a textured-sound perspective. [Photo above, from left: Lawrence Marable, Frank Morgan, Teddy Charles, Dick Nivison, Wardell Gray and Sonny Clark at the February 20, 1953 recording session in Los Angeles]

Teddy remained in California in 1953, helping to develop the sound that would become known as West Coast jazz. During this period, Teddy told me he had had some good advice for Chet Baker that was never heeded:

“Chet asked whether he should go to New York. I said no, that he wasn't ready. He was so naïve then. Chet was convinced he was in Miles' league and went anyway. There was something about him that drove musicians nuts. He made it all look too easy. So musicians would go out of their way to make him look bad, like getting him hooked on junk."

Teddy was back in New York in 1954 leading groups and playing with many of the most musically sophisticated jazz musicians of the period. In 1955, he toured with Charles Mingus on the road and recorded with Miles Davis (Blue Moods), who, Teddy said, favored his harmony on Nature Boy.

One of Teddy's most adventurous recordings was with his tentet in 1956, which featured arrangments by George Russell and Jimmy Giuffre. Teddy told me that Don Butterfield brought three different tubas to the date for different tonalities.

Thoughout the '50s, Teddy was on superb recordings, many of them leadership dates and always swinging. He resumed recording as a studio sideman on R&B recordings in the '60s, a detour he had made back in the '50s as well.

By the 1960s, Teddy had recorded everything he wanted to and decided to change careers:

“I had begun scuba diving and fell in love with the ocean. So in the late 1960s I bought a sailboat—a 72-footer called the Golden Eagle—and sailed the Caribbean for 13 years. The boat was docked in the Virgin Islands and I'd sail it back to New York in the spring with a crew of five."

Teddy was always in charge, and musically, he was always right. My favorite Teddy Charles story involves a phone call. After listening to his fabulous Prestige album Coolin' with trumpeter Idrees Sulieman, I buzzed Teddy with huge excitement and praise. After about a minute, Teddy said, “Listen, I have to go—but don't hang up. I'm going to put the phone down. Just hang on." 

Puzzled by Teddy's remark, I was unsure what was to follow. In the ensuing silence, I imagined he was going to walk his dogs and come back 30 minutes later. Or maybe he was going to grab something to eat but forget I was there. 

What happened next was pretty cool. Teddy had a quintet over the house to rehearse for a club appearance. Rather than tell me he had to split, he simply let me listen to them play down three songs, knowing full well how enjoyable it would be for me. One of the tunes included a beautiful piano solo. 

When Teddy returned to the phone, he said, “So—what did you think?" I told him the group sounded compact and really swung. Then I said, “Sounds like you had some competition on the vibes with the piano. Great taste. Who is that?" Teddy said, “The piano? Me, man! I jumped from vibes to the keyboard. Our pianist isn't here yet." [Photo above by Barbara Ellen Koch]

Love you, Teddy. Swing is indeed everything.

JazzWax note: To read my three-part interview with Teddy Charles, go here, here and here. The interview is so early at JazzWax that it pre-dates my inclusion of photos. For more interviews with Teddy, go to the right-hand column and scroll down to “JazzWax Interviews." You'll see several more intros alphabetized by first name.

JazzWax tracks: I adore Teddy's playing. Let me give you 11 albums in chronological order that should be in your collection. I hope they blow you away as much as they did me:

  • New Directions (1951)
  • Teddy Charles Quartet (1952)
  • Adventures in California (1953)
  • Evolution with J.R. Montrose (1955)
  • Tentet (1956)
  • Word From Bird (1956)
  • Coolin' (1957)
  • Teo Macero with the Prestige Jazz Quartet (1957)
  • Salute to Hamp (1959)
  • Jazz in the Garden at the Museum of Modern Art, with Booker Ervin and Booker Little (1960)
  • Russia Goes Jazz (1963)

JazzWax clip: Here's Teddy in 1953 on piano playing his composition Margo, with Jimmy Giuffre on tenor sax, Shorty Rogers on trumpet, Curtis Counce on bass and Shelly Manne on drums. About as gorgeous as it gets. This could easily have been a noir movie theme. By the way, Margo, Teddy told me, was a beautiful dancer he had known on the West Coast...

Here's Teddy on Just One of Those Things, from Word From Bird (1956)...

How cool was Teddy? Dig his vibes lines on When You're Lover Has Gone from Word From Bird...

Here's Teddy with Hank Jones (p) Addison Farmer (b) and Charlie Smith (d) on Stompin' at the Savoy from 1959...

And finally, here's Teddy with Buddy DeFranco on Aishie from 1949...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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