Interview: Teddy Charles in 1953
Back in the early 1950s, vibraphonist Teddy Charles was one swinging cat. Years ahead of his time, Teddy that year was experimenting with modal jazz and playing bop with some of the hippest musicians of the day. His leadership dates in 1951 and 1952 for Prestige Records include trio and quartet sessions with guitarist Jimmy Raney and drummer Ed Shaughnessy. In early 1953, Teddy relocated to the West Coast, where he produced and played on several cutting-edge records for Prestige. [Pictured, from left: Lawrence Marable, Frank Morgan, Teddy Charles, Dick Nivison, Wardell Gray and Sonny Clark in February 1953]
Listening to these records yesterday, I was struck by how fresh and exciting they still sound. Unlike Terry Gibbs, Milt Jackson, Eddie Costa, Red Norvo and Lionel Hampton--all staggeringly great vibraphonists of the period--Teddy tended to play the instrument like a piano, working four mallets to extract dry-ice chord structures. On solos, Teddy rarely relied on conventional triplets, shooting instead for a broader tonal result.
When Teddy was asked by Bob Weinstock of Prestige Records to relocate to the West Coast in 1953 and tap into the emerging talent there, Teddy jumped at the chance. Weinstock wasn't sure what would come of Teddy's trip, but he knew he needed someone with high energy who could be counted on to produce the right mix of musicians and compositions.
To learn more about this West Coast trip, which yielded enormously exciting music, I gave Teddy a buzz last night to chat. Here's what Teddy had to say about those months in California in 1953:
Back then, musicians were either wigging or wailing. I mean they either were over-thinking the music or they let go and let it out. In the early 1950s, Bob Weinstock, who had started Prestige a few years earlier, in 1949, was learning the ropes. I was brought to Bob's attention by [critic and writer] Ira Gitler. Back then, Ira was producing records for Bob, and Ira and I were friends. We still are.
One day in 1951 Bob gave me a call and asked me to record some sides. Bob didn't know much about producing sessions and wanted me to lead a group, first a trio and then a quartet. The result was the New Directions dates, which were out there at the time. We played some standards and a lot of originals, which were sort of modal but more high-energy wailing.
Bob was nice to me. He was a large guy and amusing. Phlegmatic, too. He was sort of slow in explaining what he wanted to say, but very funny just the same. He gave me a lot of opportunity at the label in the '50s.
One day in late 1952 or early 1953, after I had recorded those New Directions dates, he asked if I wanted to move to the West Coast to be the A&R director out there. The West Coast was a completely new scene for East Coast labels. They didn't quite get what was happening there, but they knew they had to be in on it.
The first thing Bob wanted me to do was record [tenor saxophonist] Wardell Gray, which I did. Wardell was the hot guy out there. He and I had played together in Benny Goodman's group in the late 19940s. Bob had wanted me to put together a couple of sessions and record standards. But I had other things in mind. I wanted to put different musicians in challenging musical situations to see what came of it.
I moved to L.A. in the winter of 1953. I didn't start composing for the dates until I got out there. Wardell and I were already close. Me, Wardell, Eddie Wasserman, Eddie Bert and Doug Mettome were close. We were the beboppers in Goodman's group and would have jam sessions whenever we went on break.
Before I moved, I asked Red Norvo if he knew of anyone renting apartments. Red was friendly with film actress Anna May Wong and asked her to rent me a place. Anna May lived in a walled-in apartment compound. There was a piano in the apartment, and it was quiet, except for Anna May's Siamese cats. I'd be hunched over the piano writing, and they'd spring on my back.
In most cases, I'd get guys together and we'd run through the material I wrote. If it worked, we'd go into the studio. Or we'd have a date set, and we'd be in my apartment rehearsing. I also played quite a bit at the Lighthouse down at Hermosa Beach.
When I got out on the West Coast, I didn't want to do the West Coast cool jazz thing that was so popular then. Frankly I didn't care for the West Coast style of playing. The music was too laid back and didn't have the sound. Not enough urgency. Instead, I brought an East Coast sound I was experimenting with out there, and I used West Coast guys to play it.
One session that never came off included Stan Getz, Chet Baker, Al Haig, me Curtis Counce and a drummer whose name I can't recall. As we rehearsed at my apartment, I realized the music wasn't happening. It wasn't that the musicians couldn't play it. Stan could play anything, of course, and Al Haig was a terrific sight-reader. It just didn't feel comfortable for them. The music wasn't happening and felt forced.
I remember there was one great piece by Hall Overton we rehearsed, but it never came off. The music was too far ahead of its time for those guys. Also, we didn't have much time. Stan had to go out on the road. Eventually I got Shorty Rogers, Jimmy Giuffre and Shelly Manne.
I remember a group I put together included Stan, Shorty and Shelly, and we played the Wilshire Ebell Theater [pictured] in L.A. Dave Brubeck was opposite us. Dave's group [pictured] was playing that cool sound they became famous for and we were playing hot. Intense-hot. We blew them off the stage. It was a hard swinging group, and Shelly was sensational. He had a musicality that was above and beyond other drummers at the time.
Two songs I wrote during this period, So Long Broadway and Paul's Cause with Wardell, were very popular. And Margo I recorded on the piano. It was one of Art Farmer's favorite pieces of mine. Margo was a beautiful dancer I knew out there. The irises of her eyes weren't round like most people's. They were oval shaped, which made her look like a cat. I don't think she ever knew I had written a song for her. The record came out after I got back to the East Coast.
I returned to New York in late 1953. I was thinking of marrying someone I had met out there and was bringing her back to meet my parents. But she couldn't take the New York scene and it became a nightmare. Some people who aren't from New York are OK in the city when they're thrown into all the action. Others can't take it. She couldn't.
Neither could Chet Baker. I remember Chet's wife at the time called me when I was on the West Coast and said he was offered a gig at Birdland in New York. She wanted to know if he was ready. I was honest. I said musically he was but emotionally probably not. It turned out I was right. His New York trip was the beginning of the end for him on an emotional level. It was all too much for him, the drug scene and everything.
When I got back to New York, we recorded another New Directions 10-inch album for Prestige, and I recorded for the label quite a bit throughout the 1950s.
Looking back, I learned a lot on the West Coast. I learned about the scene and what was going on out there. I also was able to stretch, experimenting with the music and playing with a different breed of musician. Gerry Mulligan was good to me. He was playing at the Haig at the time. He spoke to someone there to let me and my groups follow him into the club. We played there one or two nights a week.
It wasn't easy for me to get gigs in L.A. I hadn't spent the required six months working off my union card yet. Red Norvo got me gigs with mambo bands and things like that, which let me earn and stay out of sight. Red was a great guy. He's the one who showed me how to play with four mallets. Red was the master."
JazzWax tracks: Teddy's exciting months in California are captured on Collaboration West, Evolution and Teddy Charles and the West Coasters. You also can hear him on Stan Getz and the Lighthouse All-Stars, a May 1953 date Teddy says he put together and led, despite the album's title.
As you'll hear, there's an energy level to Teddy's playing during his West Coast period in 1953 that leaps out of the speakers. It's the sound of an artist in a hurry working extremely hard and creatively to leave a big impression fast.
JazzWax clip: Teddy was in Holland in November for two weeks playing concerts and club gigs. Here's part of a performance in Leiden, Holland, that just surfaced: