L.A. Bop Man Teddy Edwards Is Still Choppin’ Heads

Talking to Teddy Edwards on the phone is like tapping into a late-night “quiet storm” radio station. The tenor saxophonist’s voice is supple and smooth, and his patter is practiced, though his deep chuckles suggest he’s only just discovered what an amusing fellow he is. Soon we’re onto the subject of Teddy’s Ready! (Contemporary), one of a handful of early-60’s West Coast bop classics that can be found in the collection of jazz fans savvy-or lucky-enough to know about Teddy. “That might be my favorite,” he said. “I’d been playing five nights a week for three months so my chops were in good shape. I can always play, but that one, Teddy was ready!” Which raises the question: At almost 75, is Teddy ready for his upcoming weeklong gig at the Iridium (March 16-21) with the Dutch trumpeter Saskia Laroo? “Oh yeah,” he said. “We intend to let ‘em know we’ve been to town.”

All right, Teddy’s ready, and he’s always been steady: Witness Steady With Teddy (Cool N’ Blue), which collects some 1946-48 sessions with the likes of trumpeter Howard McGhee and tenorist Dexter Gordon, rightly considered foundational documents of West Coast bop. So it’s a testament then to the oddness of fate and the deeply easygoing nature of Mr. Edwards’ personality that the tenor great usually finds himself left behind on the platform as the jazz celebrity train disappears down the tracks. “On the other hand,” he noted, “most of the guys who left here [Los Angeles] and went to New York in the 40’s, they’re dead and gone. I’m still here to talk about it.”

In the beginning, Teddy Edwards seemed to have timing on his side. A country lad from Jackson, Miss., he picked up the alto saxophone at the age of 11 and was playing professionally six months later. “I’d just play up and down the chords until I learned how to hook ‘em up and make ‘em make sense,” he said.

By his middle teens, he was a touring musician, settling for a time in Detroit, where he worked with pianist Hank Jones and tenorist Wardell Gray. In 1944, at 20, he arrived in Los Angeles. The overheated wartime economy that generated countless factory jobs had also spawned a booming jazz club scene up and down the city’s African-American axis, Central Avenue. Geographically speaking, it dwarfed Manhattan’s more celebrated but rather compact 52nd Street scene.

When Charlie Parker chose to stay in Los Angeles after his famous December 1945 gig at Billy Berg’s club, Mr. Edwards, by then a tenor player and a Central Avenue regular, became his friend. Mr. Edwards had a window not only into the angular rhythms and extended harmonies of bebop but into the chaos at the center of the life of its pioneer.

“I used to take him to the movies,” Mr. Edwards said, recalling his days with Bird. “That was the only thing that would relax him. He was trying to kick his drug habit without any medical attention and his nervous system went crazy. His arm might fly out, his head might turn all around.” When Bird finally crashed and landed in Camarillo State Hospital, Mr. Edwards said he and a few of his colleagues would quit the jam sessions early to visit him. Then they would conduct their own morning musicales with Parker on the beach.

It was during the inspired madness of Parker’s 15 months in California that Mr. Edwards began his streak of missed opportunities. Parker promised him a spot on the Dial recording sessions that have since become legend, Mr. Edwards said. Instead, Wardell Gray got the nod.

Even so, the late-40’s recording sessions subsequently collected on Steady With Teddy established Mr. Edwards as an important early bopper with an earthy, bluesy tone. He’s inclined to agree with those who’ve said that his solo on the tune “Up in Dodo’s Room” is the first recorded example of bop’s fast, jagged lines being transferred from the alto to the larger and generally slower tenor horn. Scholarly attribution aside, it’s one of Mr. Edward’s own tunes from the album, “Blues in Teddy’s Flat,” that corners the ear, with its jaunty a cappella intro, furious double-time passages and suggestions of Monk-like dissonance.

Lovely work, but it was Dexter Gordon who became synonymous with bop tenor. “He picked my brains for years,” Mr. Edwards said of his friendly rival. “I was faster than him back in those days. He could play, he had a big sound with a lot of feeling, but his fingers wouldn’t move like mine. But he finally got ‘em up eventually.”

Mr. Edwards had a few more close calls with worldly success. In the early 50’s, he was let go from the Lighthouse All-Stars just before the group helped fuel a West Coast jazz renaissance, this time of a white-dominated “cool” or “progressive” jazz stripe. Then in 1954, he chose to stay with his new family in Los Angeles rather than go on the road with the Max Roach-Clifford Brown Quintet. O.K., perhaps not the smartest career move, but it should be noted that Mr. Edwards did make a batch of excellent albums for several West Coast labels in the early 60’s that remain at the heart of his relatively modest discography, among them Together Again! and Good Gravy on Contemporary and Sunset Eyes , newly reissued on Pacific Jazz.

Still, by then it was clear that Los Angeles was a jazz town only for those musicians, mostly white, who had easy entree to TV and movie work. Mr. Edwards had to rely on his talent for improvisation. In the 50’s and early 60’s, he often worked the burlesque houses that provided steady work for musicians as well as comics like Redd Foxx and Lenny Bruce. “Music is music,” he said. “I made some of those girls dance their heart out. There was one girl, I’d take her to different places with those different sounds I could make with the horn, the slurs and all that type of thing.”

While his burlesque performances are lost to time, something of Teddy the Ladies’ Man comes through in the 1992 album Blue Saxophone . Signed to Polygram’s Antilles label initially on the strength of singer Tom Waits’ recommendation (the two Angelenos toured together in the 80’s), Mr. Edwards was given something of an artistic blank check. On his tune “Blue Saxophone,” he contributes bleary, sexy obligati as vocalist Lisa Nobumoto finds a middle ground between “Lush Life” and Donna Summer’s “Love to Love Ya Baby.” Although he cut his teeth on endlessly competitive Central Avenue jam sessions, he is, he said, “past those war days. I’m trying to learn how to make love to the thing now. I could always run up and down the horn, but when it’s all boiled down, I’m at my best when I’m playing a pretty song.”

Interestingly, it was Teddy Edwards the warrior, not the lover, who grabbed Wynton Marsalis’ attention four years ago at an L.A. club in the Bel Age Hotel; it led to the tenorist’s latest role as regular guest artist with Jazz at Lincoln Center. “Wynton told me, ‘Man, you came up there with your razor, you was choppin’ heads,'” he remembered.

Whether he’s seducing with a ballad like “Tenderly,” the highlight of Jazz at Lincoln Center’s 1996 tenor-and-trumpet “Battle Royale,” or trading sly blues licks on his most recent album, 1997’s Midnight Creeper (High Note), Mr. Edwards knows how to get over with an audience, whatever knocks he’s taken in the business. (His next album, duets with tenor man Houston Person, is slated for the fall.) “I’m like crabgrass,” he said. “If you press me here, I pop up somewhere else.”