By the mid-1950s, Teddy Charles was known as one of the most experimental vibraphonists on the East Coast and West Coast jazz scenes. His compositions, arrangements and strong lower-register playing were becoming emblematic of the new "cool" jazz sound. And among rapidly expanding record labels such as Prestige and Atlantic, he was fast becoming known as an all-business talent who could assemble top jazz artists and produce distinctively different recording sessions.
What's more, Teddy Charles' ability to hear an arrangement once and know exactly what was needed on vibes led to a growing number of R&B sessions with artists ranging from LaVern Baker to King Curtis.
I spoke to Teddy last week about how he got his start and his breakthrough recordings of the early 1950s . In Part 3, Teddy recounts his work from 1955 on:
"In July 1955, Charles Mingus wanted to record Miles Davis for his Debut label. Mingus and I had been out on the road for several months and we often played together down at the Half Note in New York. There was no jealousy between us over who would be the leader. We just played.
I already knew Miles—he had come up to my apartment in the late 1940s and had worked out chords on my piano for Budo, one of the Capitol singles that became part of the Birth of the Cool album. Everyone used to come up to use my piano—it was cheaper than renting a rehearsal room.
The album Mingus wanted to record was called Blue Moods. It would feature four standards. He asked me to write arrangements for three of them—Nature Boy, There’s No You and Easy Living. Mingus wrote the chart for Alone Together. He decided to use Britt Woodman on trombone and Elvin Jones on drums, who had played with us on the road. We didn't need a piano since I was covering that role on the vibes.
The date should have been a lot better than it turned out to be. We recorded Nature Boy first without a hitch. Alone Together was next. It was going along great until we hit a bump. Even though Mingus had brought Elvin on, the two of them didn’t get along. When a copying mistake cropped up that no one had caught, Mingus took it out on Elvin.
The problem was that one of our parts for Alone Together had been copied incorrectly. As we were playing along, someone was playing the wrong notes. Mingus thought it was the drums. So we all came together to compare our parts, going over them measure by measure. Then we found the problem. The copyist had added four extra bars in the middle of my part.
The mistake was on Mingus, since his copyist had handled his arrangement. The copyist is the guy who writes up the parts for the musicians based on the score written by the arranger. But Mingus took it out on Elvin. I thought they were going to come to blows. After things quieted down, there still was enormous tension in the studio. The groove was gone and it never returned.
Miles fell out over the Nature Boy chart. He just loved the harmony I used on there. And Mingus’ bass playing way at the bottom was great. With my style of writing, everything always depended on what the bass player would do down below.
Mingus really was the greatest bass player ever—he played the bottom solid. Paul Chambers was super but he swung mostly on the top of his instrument. Mingus instinctively knew what had to be played in an ensemble. Teddy Kotick was great, too. So was Oscar Pettiford. But Mingus had an extraordinary sound, from a player's standpoint.
By late 1955, I was writing even more adventurous music, which led to the formation of my Tentet. It featured me on vibes, Art Farmer on trumpet, Don Butterfield on tuba, Gigi Gryce on alto, J.R. Monterose on tenor, George Barrow on baritone, Mal Waldron on piano, Jimmy Raney on guitar, Teddy Kotick on bass and Joe Harris on drums.
Nesuhi Ertegun, who produced jazz at Atlantic, suggested I do the Tentet album. I don’t recall how we got together. I think I made the proposal. At that time, to record anything with a high budget—10 guys on a date—you had to have a meeting. I had sketched out three or four arrangements and got the go-ahead.
The charts for the January 1956 recording session were written by me and top arrangers such as Gil Evans and George Russell, who weren't getting much work at the time. I also asked Jimmy Giuffre for a chart. He said he'd mail it to me from California. I said, "If you mail it, how can we be sure we'll get what you want just right? This is delicate stuff." He said when it arrives, just play it down. So we played it, and the chart was perfect the first time. Jimmy was amazing. I also remember Don Butterfield brought three different tubas to the date for different tonalities.
From 1956 on, there were so many R&B and jazz dates, it's hard to remember all the details. I recorded with the Metronome All Stars in June 1956, I recorded Word from Bird in October, Coolin’ in April 1957, the Brandeis concert that was recreated in the studio in June 1957, and many record dates in between.
In October 1957, I wrote charts for and produced the Amazing Mr. Sam Most. Most played flute and clarinet, Hall Overton was on piano, Jimmy Raney on guitar, Addison Farmer on bass, and Roy Haynes on drums . There also was a string section. I wrote all those string charts. I took a few months of violin lessons just so I could write for them, learning all five positions on the instrument. Most arrangers write a few lines and leave it to the string players to work out what should be played. I wanted to do the charts and put everything into it. It was nerve-wracking because it was very difficult to write for them correctly.
In 1958 I recorded with Benny Carter and with Little Jimmy Scott. In February 1959 I recorded Salute to Hamp. The album was my attempt to give listeners an album that as more accessible after I'd done all those far out records. I figured this material would be music anyone could relate to. Art Farmer, Bob Brookmeyer, Zoot Sims, Addison Farmer and Ed Thigpen were on that date. In 1959, I recorded with Mingus on Mingus Dynasty, which was tremendously exciting.
There were so many recording sessions with so many great musicians during this period—I just can’t remember them all.
By the late 1960s, I decided I had said what I wanted to say musically. Sometime back in the 1950s, while working with Mingus, 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. Then I settled where I am now, playing occasionally but mostly focusing on sailing and taking clients out for sailing trips. I recently sold my old schooner built in 1906. Now have just a small boat—a 45-footer called The Pilgrim.
If I were summing up my career, I'd say that I didn't play the vibes like a vibes player. I think I played in a style that was much more compositional. My approach wasn’t percussive like Lionel Hampton’s or like Milt Jackson’s unique style. I think what made my style different is that I played the vibes like a pianist."
Wax tracks: Miles Davis' Blue Moods is worth hearing but most of Teddy Charles' other recordings are much more inventive. As Teddy points out, the mood and the music on this album didn't quite gel the day the tracks were recorded. I recommend sampling before you download.
Word from Bird is a strong, up-tempo vibes album that features band and small group ensembles. It can be found here.
Coolin' is an extraordinary album. The combination of Teddy Charles on vibes, Idrees Sulieman on trumpet and John Jenkins on alto is perfect. Unfortunately it's out of print but can be purchased used through independent sellers here.
The Teddy Charles Tentet album is a collection of interesting "third stream" compositions and arrangements by Teddy. It also features playing by some of the best jazz musicians of the day. It can be found here.
Salute to Hamp features straight up jazz in its tribute to Lionel Hampton—with a modal overtones, which makes the album particularly fascinating. Stompin' at the Savoy is a perfect example of how Teddy could take his cool style and adapt it to a standard. The album can be found here.