The West Coast in the late 1940s was a tough place for an African-American jazz musician to earn a living. With the advent of cool jazz in late 1948, West Coast record labels began abandoning Central Avenue's bop artists in favor of the more laid back and contrapuntal jazz played mostly by white musicians.
As a result, California's three major bebop tenor saxophonists found recording sessions harder to come by between 1948 and 1960. Dexter Gordon recorded only intermittently. Wardell Gray joined Benny Goodman and Count Basie before dying mysteriously in 1955. And Teddy Edwards, whose spectacular tenor sax solos for Dial in the mid-1940s inspired a generation of West Coast saxophonists, barely recorded at all until 1957. [photo of Teddy Edwards above by Philippe Lévy-Stab]
Yet Edwards, most of all, should have continued to be a major force on the West Coast jazz scene. Not only had he been a critical exponent of bebop in California, he also was one of the earliest members of Howard Rumsey's Lighthouse All-Stars and helped Max Roach and Clifford Brown start their hard bop quintet in 1954. But changing times, a series of illnesses and fierce competition from spectacular saxophonists on the East and West coasts kept Edwards out of the recording mainstream during this crucial decade. Though he recorded tirelessly in the decades after 1960, he never would become as well known as he once was or should have been.
Born in Jackson, Mississippi, Edwards played the alto saxophone fluidly despite having had only about seven months of formal training. He sat in the alto chair of several touring bands, winding up in Los Angeles in 1944. On Central Avenue, Los Angeles' club-packed strip, Edwards met trumpeter Howard McGhee [pictured], who convinced him to switch to tenor sax. While playing with McGhee's group in 1945 and 1946, Edwards met Charlie Parker and roomed with him during Parker's stay in Hollywood.
One of Edwards' Dial recording sessions with McGhee in October 1946 included Up in Dodo's Room, which features an early bebop tenor sax solo. Dexter Gordon had already paved the way with bop solos in Billy Eckstine's band for the De Luxe label in September 1944 and in Dizzy Gillespie's quintet on Groovin' High and Blue 'n' Boogie for Guild in February 1945. But Teddy raised the bar in 1947 with The Duel, a tenor battle with Gordon, as well as an impromptu blues that would become one of his biggest hits, Blues in Teddy's Flat. [photo of Dexter Gordon by Herman Leonard]
Edwards provided the back story to Maarten de Haan in a 1999 interview:
“Dexter and I were also supposed to do two pieces without the other—two ballads. But his recording took so much time that there was only five minutes left for me. The producer suggested that I play a simple blues. The only preparation I did was to tell the rhythm section that I was going to play an introduction with a break in the second chorus."
The recording went on to become a $1-million seller for Dial Records, though Edwards said in his de Haan interview that he received only $41.25 for the entire session.
In 1949, Edwards became one of the first members of Howard Rumsey's Lighthouse All-Stars, the house band at the Hermosa Beach club. But as cool jazz became increasingly popular, Edwards became a bebop orphan and went largely unrecorded. As Edwards told Fred Jung of AllAboutJazz in 2003:
"When Dick Bock decided to start Pacific Jazz, I was working at the Lighthouse. I was the star of the Lighthouse. I'm the one that made the Lighthouse big. I worked there from '49, up until '52. Bock came down and chose guys out of the group and didn't choose me. I couldn't understand it. I said, 'I'm the star down here and he's going to overlook me?' He chose mostly white players. I hate the term, black and white players, but that's reality. He didn't use any black players."
The Lighthouse also played a major role in another prominent bop musician's career. In September 1953, Max Roach moved to California from New York to play regularly with the Lighthouse All-Stars. Soon after he started, record producer Gene Norman convinced Roach to form his own group and open at The California, a popular L.A. club. Max went back to New York to recruit trumpeter Clifford Brown, who joined Roach in March 1954. Back on the West Coast, the duo hired tenor saxophonist Sonny Stitt to round out the quintet.
But Stitt wasn't much of a team player. So Roach brought in Edwards to replace him. The group with
Edwards recorded at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium [pictured] in April 1954, and among the songs recorded was an Edwards original, Sunset Eyes. What makes Sunset Eyes so fascinating is its slithery melody line and complex rhythm patterns. The song has a bop blues line over minor cool-jazz chord changes and a beat that shifts restlessly between Latin and jazz time. Once you hear it, you can't get it out of your head.
Shortly after the concert, Edwards left the Roach-Brown Quintet. With his wife about to give birth, Edwards said he did not want to tour far from home. With Hank Mobley unavailable on the East Coast, Harold Land [pictured] replaced Edwards.
In the Maarten de Haan interview, Edwards explained Sunset Eyes' origins:
“In the Down Beat Club at some point they taped some television show. The owner of the club expected a lot of the show. He asked me to write a three-minute long piece and said ‘But you have to move while playing it, Teddy, you cannot just stand there and be cool.’ That is why the middle section of Sunset Eyes is danceable. It allows the horn players to move.”
Edwards began to record again in 1957 and went on to record extensively in the 1960s and beyond. Unlike many jazz legends who died before they were able to outrun the shadows of changing times, Edwards lived long enough to receive recognition for his contribution to bebop and jazz in the 1990s. He died in 2003.
JazzWax tracks: Teddy Edwards' seminal tenor sax solo on Up in Dodo's Room can be found on Howard McGhee On Dial: The Complete Sessions (1945-47) and downloaded at Amazon here.
Edwards' Blues in Teddy's Flat, the wildly successful 78-rpm recorded in 1946 for Dial, is on Dexter Gordon on Dial: The Complete Sessions and can be downloaded at Amazon here.
Though Sunset Eyes was written by Edwards in 1948, it was first recorded surreptitiously at the Lighthouse in 1953. The musicians on the date included Shorty Rogers, Milt Bernhart, Jimmy Giuffre, Bob Cooper, Russ Freeman, Howard Rumsey and Shelly Manne. The track is available on Stan Getz and the Lighthouse All-Stars: Live, a sensational two-CD set on the UK's Giant Steps label. It's available here.
Sunset Eyes was recorded live by the Max Roach-Clifford Brown Quintet in April 1954. It's available on CD on The Historic California Concerts: 1954 (Fresh Sounds) here. Or you can download the track from The Best of Max Roach and Clifford Brown in Concert (Live) at iTunes.
Another smashing version of Sunset Eyes was recorded by trumpeter Jack Sheldon in 1957. The track can be downloaded at iTunes off Jack Sheldon and His All Stars. The all stars were Chet Baker, Stu Williamson, Herb Geller, Art Pepper, Harold Land, Paul Moer, Buddy Clark and Mel Lewis.