Back in the early 1950s, the vibraphone underwent a big personality change. Jazz styles were shifting rapidly, recording technology was expanding, and the new jazz sound emerging owed more to music theory than the blues or Tin Pan Alley standards.
Leading the charge on the vibes during the transition was Teddy Charles, whose professional career began in the late 1940s and lasted until the late 1960s, when he rolled back his playing schedule to devote more of his time to sailing.
I spoke to Teddy Charles at length earlier this week about jazz, the vibes, the legends he recorded and played with, and the scene back in the 1950s.
We'll get to Part 1 of my interview in a moment. First a little context:
Pioneered by Lionel Hampton and Red Norvo in the 1930s, the vibes started out as a swing percussion instrument. But as bop's popularity surged in the mid-1940s, Milt Jackson leveraged the instrument and introduced a new syncopated approach. But by the late 1940s, the vibes began to be affected by the radical changes and influences sweeping over jazz.
In 1949, two key events would change the direction of jazz and the development of the vibes—the release of Birth of the Cool and the first records on Discovery by the George Shearing Quintet, featuring Marjorie Hyams on vibes.
Both Birth of the Cool and the George Shearing Quintet were exponents of a new sound that not only was more laid back but also more compositional. In the case of Birth of the Cool, space and new scales were introduced. In the case of Shearing, the vibes added lightness and coloration rather than just technique.
In the wake of these recordings, Red Norvo formed a trio in 1950 with Charles Mingus on bass and Tal Farlow on guitar, and Terry Gibbs pushed the instrument into cooler territory, mostly in big bands. Both artists were changing listeners' perceptions and expectations of the instrument—though in their hands the vibes remained a time keeper, bridging the roles performed by drums and bass.
Enter Teddy Charles. With his intensive Juilliard training on percussion and piano, and his "schooling" in the 52 Street jazz clubs, Teddy gave the vibes a more modal feel, transforming the vibes into an instrument more closely related to the piano than the drums.
Of course, Eddie Costa, Bobby Hutcherson, Cal Tjader and Gary Burton would further modernize the vibes' sound as the 1950s wore on. But back in 1950, Teddy Charles pushed the instrument into new territory, clearing a path for all vibraphonists who followed.
I spoke with Teddy Charles on Monday about his start and big breaks:
“I was born Teddy Cohen in 1928 in Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts—just north of Springfield. My father was a businessman and my mother was a housewife who played piano in silent movie theaters. I grew up with a brother and two sisters.
I was most influenced by my older brother. He had tremendous ears and was self-taught on the piano. He used to bring home all sorts of records from college—Artie Shaw, Duke Ellington, Chick Webb, Stravinsky and so many others.
Growing up in Chicopee Falls was pretty bad. We lived next door to a farm, and there were brooks and a reservoir, so it was ideal as far as being little kids and innocents and all that. But the town itself was industrial and made up of immigrants from the Old Country. We were one of only two Jewish families in town, and we didn’t get along well with most of the other people who lived there.
I started playing piano at home when I was around four or five years old. I had this strange ability to play things by ear. My brother did, too. He could play a Fats Waller style of piano. We’d listen to a record of Moonglow, for example, and he’d show me how to play the song just by hearing it.
When I started taking piano lessons, I had a terrible teacher. She was trying to teach me how to play the Happy Farmer while I was trying to play jazz tunes. So I quit and started to play on my own, by ear, by listening over and over to records.
In high school, I took up the drums and was in the marching band. But I had conflicts with the bandleader who replaced the original one who had gone into the Army. The new guy was a martinet with a tin ear. So I quit the band and started putting together groups to play dance music. I was the drummer.
When I was 13 years old, my mother was able to sneak me money to buy my first drum set. But she insisted I take lessons. I had a couple of different drum teachers, one of whom used to fall asleep during lessons. Then I got a good teacher who changed my life. He was a drummer at The Court Square Theater, a burlesque house in Springfield. He’d give me lessons in between shows and often let me play. You learn a lot about drumming and time when you play behind a stripper.
By then, our family had moved to Springfield. We had outgrown the place in Chicopee Falls, and I was improving fast on the drums. By the time I was 14 years old I was playing gigs at Westover Field, the big air base nearby. We’d get the gigs because there were no older musicians around. They were all in the Army during World War II. We were probably horrible, but it was fun.
I was so turned off by high school and the marching band that after I graduated in 1946 I left town before the ceremony. I traveled down to New York and auditioned at Juilliard for its summer program. I auditioned in front of two top professional percussionists. Fortunately, one of the guys evaluating me—Morris Goldenberg—was from Holyoke, Mass., and must have sympathized with me.
I was accepted at Juilliard for the summer. Then the real work began. To get into Juilliard’s fall program, the big time, I would have to audition again at a much higher level. That meant I needed to learn every piece an accomplished musician would have to know.
That summer I worked my ass off. I’d play all day long. At night I’d go down to 52d Street, to my real “school,” and listen to Art Tatum, George Shearing, Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy and J.J. Johnson at the clubs.
In the fall, I was ready for my audition. It went well, and I was accepted. By then I was getting to be a fairly good drummer—so good that Sol Goodman, a percussionist with the New York Philharmonic and a Juilliard professor, tried to steal me as a student from Morris Goldenberg. I also was studying piano intensively.
I remained at Juilliard for two and a half years, studying percussion and piano. But by late 1948, I could no longer afford the tuition. I had been paying my way through school with what I earned at gigs for Polish and Greek weddings. I was so tight for money in those days that I’d load leftover sandwiches inside my bass drum case before leaving those gigs. The other musicians and I would eat them during the week.
During this period, I was started playing a few piano and drum gigs on 52d Street. I was hanging out at the Famous Door and Spotlight clubs. I loved seeing Coleman Hawkins with Thelonious Monk. I knew Hank Jones, who was often in the club with another band. One time when Monk didn't arrive by show time, Hank told me to go up and play. So I did. I was fearless then. I sat down and played behind Coleman Hawkins until Monk walked in. Then I’d clear out. After that I sat in regularly until Monk arrived.
Hank Jones started to take a liking to me. He’d come up my room at my brother's apartment on West 86th St., where I had a piano, to show me chord changes and voicings. Max Roach also showed me a lot of things on the drums. Max used to borrow my drums, and he pawned them once. Hank was always a gentleman. A great guy.
I started on the vibes at Juilliard. They had a xylophone and vibraphone standing outside the drummers' practice rooms, which always had lines of students waiting for space. So while I waited, I fooled around on the vibes. Vibes was a natural fit for me since I was playing drums and piano. I had the percussion technique down as well as the keyboard stuff.
At the time, I thought I was a hotshot drummer. But there were so many great drummers then. One day I heard Ed Shaugnessy play during a jam session at the Nola Studios across from Jack Dempsy’s club on Broadway. I realized at that moment I was never going to be as good as Ed, and I decided right there to switch from drums to vibes.
While I was at Juilliard, I played gigs. Terry Gibbs got me my first gig on vibes in 1947. At the time, Terry was playing at the Famous Door and the Spotlight clubs on 52d Street. We became friends, and he recommended me to Bill DeArango, a guitar player from Cleveland. He had a trio and needed a vibes player, so I joined and the group toured a little bit.
In the summer of 1947, Bob Astor, who headed a territory band, hired me. I brought the vibes with me. Band boys would help carry my stuff but I was a strong guy. I schlepped the vibes in the car. Astor hated my drumming, so vibes made more sense.
The following summer, in 1948, Randy Brooks hired me to be his band’s pianist. Fortunately I had my vibes, which he liked. Otherwise, I'm sure he would have fired me and gotten himself a real pianist. I had studied piano at Juilliard, but there were so many great players then, and the music was getting more and more difficult. John Benson Brooks [no relation] was the arranger and would write charts so complex I had to go in early every day and practice them on the piano.
By this time, I had a pad on 50th St. and 7th. It was becoming a hangout for musicians who needed a piano fast to try out new material. Gerry Mulligan was my roommate at the time. He had been arranging for Benny Goodman and got fired for not finishing a chart on time. He told me that Benny needed a vibraphonist.
When I showed up to meet Benny in the fall of 1948, he gave me a private audition. I remember we played Poor Butterfly and Where or When. I had to play those numbers cold. I was so scared, but I got the gig. We then did a theater tour along the East Coast to break in a show Benny was planning for the Paramount Theater in New York. I was 19 years old playing vibes for a year and half, and here I was in Benny Goodman’s Orchestra!
On top of that, Buddy Greco was the band’s singer and piano player. When he sang, I would have to play the piano. Sometimes I would get the Goodman “ray.” He’d lower his head and look over the top of his glasses. There was no mistaking what it was. That stare would burn right through your brain.
Benny really loved my vibes playing, though, and gave me a lot of solos. The whole point of this particular show Benny was breaking in was a cavalcade of jazz, you know, the music coming up the river from New Orleans and all that. Eventually we’d get to Flying Home and Sing, Sing, Sing and, while Lionel Hampton’s picture was on the screen, I’d be soloing. That was tremendous.
Eventually Benny’s theater band broke up. He was going to do a tour in Russia, and he and I got into an argument over who had to pay for alterations to my tails. They were 10 times too big for me. I didn’t think it was right to have to pay for that out of my pocket.
Benny was a cheap as can be. His manager called and said the dispute couldn’t be worked out, which was code for “You’re fired.” Benny never did his own canning. But I’m glad I didn’t go. Zoot Sims, who did go, told me later that Benny split in Murmansk and left the band without any money.
After I left Benny, I started forming my own groups. Then in the spring of 1949, the bassist Chubby Jackson, who led his own big band, wanted Terry Gibbs in the worst way. But Terry was with Woody Herman's band at the time and couldn’t’ do it. So Terry recommended me.
Chubby hired me right away, and that was probably the most exciting band I ever played in. Chubby’s energy and humor were great. He could fire up everyone in the band, which included Al Porcino on trumpet, Frank Socolow on alto, Marty Flax on baritone and Curly Russell on bass. The charts were hot—they were written by Al Cohn, Tiny Kahn and Manny Albam. We were on theater tours, mostly, and made some recordings in February 1949, which actually were my first recording dates.
By mid-1949, Chubby's band ran out of gigs and broke up. I played next with Buddy De Franco’s sextet, which included Harvey Leonard on piano, Jimmy Raney on guitar, Bob Carter on bass and Max Roach on drums. We recorded for Capitol in August.
In 1950 I toured for a year with Oscar Pettiford. It was his cello band. Wynton Kelly was on piano originally and was replaced by Kenny Drew. I remember we played opposite Miles in Philadelphia. Around this time Stan Getz asked me to tour with him and Horace Silver. But I turned him down. Jimmy Raney had told me so many horror stories about Stan stranding musicians on the road with no money. I played on one or two gigs with Stan and Horace, and then decided to stick with Pettiford, who took a lot of musical risks and had a ton of energy. He was a great guy and an incredible bassist to play with.
Tomorrow I will feature Part 2, with a focus on Teddy Charles' revolutionary quartet of 1951, his year on the West Coast, his warning to Chet Baker that Baker did not heed, dates with Bob Brookmeyer and J.R. Monterose, and how he became the go-to guy for R&B sessions.
On Sunday, look for Wax Bits, a weekly wrapup of jazz notes.
Then on Monday, Part 3 will cover the Mingus-Miles session of 1955 and the dispute that undercut the date's mood, the formation of Teddy Charles' critically acclaimed Tentet, and recording dates with Little Jimmy Scott, Benny Carter, Sam Most and others.
Wax tracks: The handful of recordings that Teddy Charles made with Chubby Jackson's big band in 1949 are not available on CD. But they can be purchased through used record vendors. For example, I found a 78rpm of Father Knickerbocker and Godchild on Columbia at eBay here going for $4.
While there is no footage up of the original Birth of the Cool band, check out Miles at the 1991 Montreux Jazz Festival here playing Boplicity, one of the tracks he co-wrote and played on Birth of the Cool.
The contrast between the 1949 composition and Miles' image and playing 42 years later (recorded in the summer of 1991, shortly before his death in September) is stunning.
To hear the Shearing "sound" in 1951 (it looks like Don Elliot on vibes; Marjorie Hyams had already left), go here.
Unfortunately, I couldn't find much video of Teddy Charles. But I did find this clip here featuring Teddy Charles with Coleman Hawkins.