Teddy Charles: New Directions


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Vibraphonist Teddy Charles was playing free jazz nearly as early as Lee Konitz, Lennie Tristano, Billy Bauer and Gil Melle. In 1951, '52 and '53, Teddy recorded a series of three 10-inch LPs for Prestige in the trio, quartet and quintet formats. I was thinking of Teddy yesterday and gave them a listen, finding the material to be as interesting today as it must have been back then.

Joining Teddy on the trio recordings were by Don Roberts (g) and Kenny O'Brien (b). The quartet group was Jimmy Raney (g) Dick Nivison (b) and Ed Shaughnessy (d). And the quintet included Jimmy Giuffre on reeds. The trio tracks are O’Brien's a Flyin’, This Is New, Ol' Man River, Tenderly, Basin Street Blues, I'll Remember April, The Lady Is a Tramp and Blue Moon. The quartet tracks are Edging Out, Nocturne, Composition for Four Pieces and A Night in Tunisia. And the quintet songs are Free, Evolution, Margo and Bobalob.

Teddy was always hip. Whether he was playing other artists' songs, such as Dizzy Gillespie's A Night in Tunisia or Hall Overton's Mobiles, standards such as Lady Is a Tramp or Tenderly, or his own compositions such as Nocturne, the execution was always a heavy swinging scene. Back in 2007 and 2008, I spent a lot of time on the phone with Teddy talking jazz. I'd frequently call him to ask about a recording session, but the most fun was when Teddy called me, often for an opinion. “Hey Marc? It's Teddy Charles." Then he go on to ask me about one musician or another who had a new album out to find out what I thought.

I'd always stay neutral, which would give him the opening he wanted in the first place. “He's a nice guy but he can't swing. I mean a lot of guys today can't swing. Swing used to be everything. Today it's nothing." Teddy, of course, was right. Jazz used to be about how well musicians could swing what they were playing and get emotions raised. Think Lester Young, Gerry Mulligan, Stan Getz and so many others. It's hard to find swingers now, largely because swing is no longer a key ingredient in the music. [Photo of Teddy Charles above by Barbara Ellen Koch]

I remember the time I called his place out on Long Island and he was rehearsing a bunch of guys for an upcoming gig. He told me to hold on, that he was going to put the phone down so I could hear them going through a tune. It was glorious to listen to Teddy play.

At the end, he got back on the phone. “What did you think?" I told him how much I dug it, asking who was on piano. “That was me. My guy didn't show. Were we swinging?" I said, “Yes, you were swinging." “Were they?" he asked. “You were swinging," I replied. “Look, man, I know," he said. “What can I say? I'll have them swinging by the time we get on stage." [Photo above of Teddy Charles]

All of Teddy's albums swing with a cool attack, as if he knew instinctively what the listener's ear wanted to hear. New Directions is a great place to start if you're unfamiliar with Teddy's vibes and cerebral swinging attack. Teddy died in 2012. I miss him hearing him on the other end of the horn.

JazzWax tracks: You'll find Teddy Charles' series of early Prestige recordings on a single CD here.

JazzWax clips: Here's the Teddy Charles Quartet playing A Night in Tunisia...

Here's Teddy on Tenderly...


Here's Teddy playing Edging Out...

And here's The Lady Is a Tramp...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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