By 1950, jazz was being pushed—and pulled—in several new directions. Bop's frantic formula was nearly exhausted, and a new musical sophistication or "cool" was being adapted by an ever-widening roster of musicians—from Miles Davis and Gerry Mulligan to Max Roach, Lenny Tristano, Sonny Rollins and Lee Konitz.
As jazz tastes changed, the vibes' role evolved from novelty percussion stand-in to an instrument with enormous potential. By 1950, producers at the growing number of independent record labels recognized that in the right hands, the instrument could be as dynamic in small groups as the piano—perhaps more so.
Dominating the experimental vibes scene in the early 1950s was Teddy Charles. Of course, Milt Jackson played a significant role in the elevation of the instrument with the Modern Jazz Quartet. But Charles' playing was more adventurous and free-wheeling at the time, and the MJQ was focused initially on giving standards the chamber treatment.
Quick footnote: Both Teddy Charles and Milt Jackson were signed by Prestige Records in 1952. In fact, Teddy Charles' breakthrough recording, New Directions Vol. 1, and the Modern Jazz Quartet's first recording, MJQ, were both recorded for the label—a day apart in December 1952.
Yesterday, in Part 1 of my interview with Teddy, we covered how the striptease drummer and Juilliard percussionist and pianist got his start on the vibes.
Today, Teddy talks about the early half of the 1950s, when he made the first of his revolutionary recordings:
"Once I left Oscar Pettiford at the end of 1950, I was ready to lead my own group. My training at Juilliard and work with Chubby Jackson and Pettiford gave me all the confidence I needed to starting playing and recording the adventurous music I had been writing.
But another change was needed. Up through the end of 1951, I had still been recording and leading groups as Teddy Cohen. Then my manager said he was having a tough time booking a band whose leader had a Jewish name. So I began using my middle name—Charles—as my last name.
In 1952, I was leading a quartet—with Jimmy Raney on guitar, Dick Nivison on bass and Ed Shaughnessy on drums. We recorded New Directions—four sides for Prestige. This was a big date. I was starting to move into serious experimental writing, shifting away from pure entertainment music to much more adventurous charts.
In early 1953, I started to A&R for Prestige Records. Bob Weinstock, the label’s founder, asked me to move to the West Coast and put dates together. As an A&R guy, you picked the artists, you decided what music to play, and you often arranged the songs.
When I got to California, Red Norvo helped me a lot. In Los Angeles, musicians were supposed to sweat out their union card—meaning you couldn’t take a steady gig in a club for six months. This rule was in place so you didn’t come in and take away another musician’s job. Red kept me busy during this period by having me play with a mambo orchestra. Then I started playing casually at the Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach.
Red was great. He showed me how to use the four-mallet technique without having to change my grip. Four mallets are ideal for a big background sound since you're playing chords instead of notes. I adapted easily to the technique given my experience as a pianist.
During this period I was leading Teddy Charles and the Westcoasters with Frank Morgan, Wardell Gray, Sonny Clark, Dick Nivison and Larance Marable. We recorded a bunch of sides for Prestige. Sonny was a young kid then, and Wardell and I were buddies from Benny Goodman’s band. Wardell was a great tenor player and a good guy. In Benny’s band, we used to go upstairs at New York's Paramount Theater where they had a basketball court for employees and jam. Benny sat in on a couple of those.
By mid 1953, I recoded a date at the Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach. Stan Getz sat in. Bob Cooper was there, Jimmy Giuffre, Russ Freeman, Howard Rumsey, of course, and Shelly Manne. Giuffre was very creative. He always came up with new stuff. The Lighthouse was a hopping place. Lots of chicks.
In August 1953 I recorded in Los Angeles with Shorty Rogers on trumpet, Curtis Counce on bass and Shelly Manne on drums. By this time, I was writing even more complex music. I remember I was rehearsing this group I was going to record for Prestige. The group included Chet Baker, Stan Getz and Al Haig. But the only one who was into the music was Al Haig. Chet had a good ear and Stan could play anything, but Chet couldn't read music and Stan wasn't into it. He wanted to play that kind of laid-back music all the Lighthouse guys were into then. New music wasn't his bag.
Around that time Chet asked my advice on 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.
Of course, individuals choose to take drugs. But someone put pressure on him just to throw him off his game. When he got to New York he played Birdland and soon afterward the country boy was all screwed up. What a shame.
In 1954, I decided to return to New York. Prestige didn’t have anything else for me to do on the West Coast, and I didn't really enjoy the West Coast anyway. There was a big difference between East Coast and West Coast musicians. East Coast guys played with more attack and emotional drive.
In January 1954 I recorded The Teddy Charles Quartet, Featuring Bob Brookmeyer. I was on vibes, Bob on valve trombone, Teddy Kotick on bass, Ed Shaughnessy on drums and Nancy Overton on vocals. We really had something going there. Occasionally Bob would play piano. I also recorded with guitarist Mundell Lowe that year. We had known each other for years.
In January 1955, I formed a quintet that featured J.R. Monterose on tenor, Charles Mingus on bass and Jerry Segal on drums. We recorded Evolution that month. Man, J.R. had a great big sound.
I had known Mingus for some time. We had played a lot together—at The Embers, a trendy club on New York's Upper East Side. We went to the beach together, hung out. We were into music 100%, from the time we got up to the time we went to bed. No teaching, nothing. Just playing. But we’d take breaks, too, as friends.
In May, I recorded with Ralph Sharon on piano, J.R. Monterose on tenor, Joe Puma on guitar, Mingus on bass and Kenny Clarke on drums. I can't remember who wrote the charts, but they were supposed to mimic the George Shearing sound. They were a kick.
Right around this time I started to get called to do a lot of R&B work with Bubber Johnson, Henry Glover and Mickey Baker. Ahmet Ertegun at Atlantic Records got me these sessions, many of them for King Records. These dates continued off and on throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s. I got these dates because I was the only guy on the New York scene who could play that stuff. I didn’t need anyone to write me parts. I’d hear it and know what to do right away.
Most of the guys who played the vibes at the time were limited. I had a good listening background, and because I could play with four mallets, I could fill in the background with sustained chords. The producers didn’t want any empty space. The purpose of the vibes on those dates was to fill in the sound when there was no singing or blowing. But I’d go beyond that. My piano experience let me put together chords with just four notes and voicings that were partial to the lower register. Those were good, fast paydays."
Teddy Charles pushed the vibes into new territory in the first five years of the 1950s. Like the music written by Gerry Mulligan, Gil Evans and George Russell, Teddy's compositions were experimental—and different than anything else that had been heard before on the vibes.
Part 3 of my interview with Teddy Charles will appear on Monday.
Wax tracks: Teddy Charles' work with Buddy De Franco in 1949 and 1950 (mentioned in Part 1) can be found here. The album is called Buddy De Franco: 1949-1952 Studio Performances. Although Teddy is listed on the dates in discographies, his name appears to be missing from the CD, which may owe something to the fact that he hadn't yet changed his name from Cohen to Charles.
Teddy's stunning four sides for Prestige in December 1952 (originally issued as New Directions Vol. 1) are available on a Japanese re-issue of a 1964 LP that combined Ezz-thetic (Lee Konitz and Miles Davis) with New Directions (Teddy Charles and Jimmy Raney). You can find it here. I purchased this CD recently, and the sound is wonderful. What's more, Teddy's ideas remain exciting and way ahead of their time today.
Teddy's four sides recorded with Wardell Gray in February 1953 can be found here on Wardell Gray Memorial, Vol. 1. Or you can get them combined with the August 1953 dates with Shorty Rogers here on Adventures in California.
Teddy's West Coast Lighthouse sessions of May 1953 with Stan Getz is on a CD called Stan Getz and the Lighthouse All Stars. It can be found here.
The four adventurous sides Teddy Charles recorded with Bob Brookmeyer in January 1954 is on a CD called The Dual Role of Bob Brookmeyer and can purchased used from sellers here. Like New Directions, these recordings are delightfully out there.
The Teddy Charles-J.R. Monterose sessions from May 1955 —including the charts that adapted the Shearing sound—can all be found here on a CD called Jaywalkin'. They are outstanding, and the Shearing-esque tracks (including Manhattan, Have You Met Miss Jones and There's a Small Hotel) are gems.
Wax videoclips: I couldn't find a clip of Teddy Charles from this period. But I did find this trailer of a documentary on the Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach, where Teddy played in 1953. Go here to see it.