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Bebop legend Teddy Edwards makes his British debut as tenorman with Tom Waits

It’s difficult to think of Tom Waits without unravelling a running flush of hipster antecedents, the knaves, jokers an aces dealing with all the way back to the Bebop Forties. 

This tour, Tom was toting tenorman Teddy Edwards, one of the Central Avenue LA triumvirate of steeplechasin’axes – Teddy, Dexter, Wardell – that the late Hampton Hawes typified as “the Keepers of the Flame”.

Teddy lived the times that Tom, like the rest of us, only read about.  During the war years, LA changed from a provincial town to the strungout business ‘n’entertainment capital of the West Coast, quadrupling its black population in that period and spawning an across-the-board explosion in the arts.

“Everybody was in town because the war as in the Pacific.  Soldiers, sailors, whole families had moved to the West.  LA was a 24 hour town during that period.

“I’m sure that the Forties was the most productive period in American history in the arts and everything else.  Everything was in full production, employment was at its highest peak, everything was in motion –the military, the machinery for building military equipment, and money was almost running down the street to meet you.

“Nobody thought about the war hitting America. The whole thing was ALIVE and IN MOTION!  America has never been at that tempo before or since.  It’d take another war – and we don’t need that.

“Central Avenue was a classic street –many clubs like Jack’s Basket, Cafe Society, Casablanca, Billy Berg’s, Jungle Room.  I had great times there with just about everybody.  There was a fella around then, he sold records, knew all the solos from all of them, we called him Bebop, he was like the cheer-leader. Sometimes he’d be pushing me, he’d have everybody going my way, then again, he’d be pushing Dexter or Lucky Thompson or Wardell.

“You see, the kids in America now are really doing research on the Forties because there are reservoirs of information there that were shelved aside.  They’re going back, digging it up, finding the clothes, the music, ways to make money and to learn. I was fortunate enough to come through the big bands and the Bebop era, a very good time.”

Teddy Edwards was one of the first modern jazz settlers on the West Coast. He was born April 26, 1924 in Jackson, Mississippi, and started playing professionally with the big bands at 12.  His first taste of that Pacific climate came while touring with the Ernie Fields Orchestra.

“We played there, and then we went on. The bus broke down above Cheyenne, Wyoming, and all you could see was snow. I thought you can HAVE all this stuff!  I’m going back to California.”  


Roy Milton gave him the alto chair with his R&B band and got him a union card to work in LA, and after a stretch Teddy switched to Howard McGhee.

“He was in need of a tenor player, and he knew I had the harmonic know-how and that was the kinda music I wanted to be involved with.  I first met Charlie Parker in 1942 when he was with McShann.

“One time we were playing together out at Billy Berg’s –he’d come out to the coast with Dizzy, Milt Jackson, Al Haig, Stan Levey and Ray Brown –and there was an alto player on the stand who was TOTALLY ridiculous.  Guy was, had no business up there, you know. Charlie Parker stood there and listened and gave him the same respect as he gave anybody else. Someone said, ‘Bird – you know you’re not digging that’, so Bird said, ‘Man, everybody’s got something.’ “That was his attitude. He said to me, ‘There’s a lotta geniuses around just never found themselves, never found where they supposed to put themselves.’  He had that high energy - and he paid the price.”

Wardell Grey was his best buddy.


“We were very close, lived together, studied together.  We played altos in the same band in 1942. Mattera fact, his future wife came looking for me and met him. Thought he was me, the girl he married. Two saxophone players, we’d put on a pot of beans, put off our shirts and go to work on those saxophones.  He was a fun guy, he played for fun.

We played all kinds of jobs together, jobs where he had to split eight dollars a night.  I’d go with him on his gig and blow, and he’d come on mine when times were really rough around ‘47/48.”


1948 SHOULD have been a great year for the tenorman, since his record “Blues in Teddy’s Flat” sold over a million copies.

 “I didn’t know what was going on until the record dealers started telling me.  If you don’t know a thing about business, you get taken. I did it for Dial Records and it sold more than the whole Dial catalogue.  It had the blues market AND the jazz market.

“I was a young man.  I got 41 dollars and 25 cents, and Ross Russell wants to know why I don’t particularly like him! “Actually it was a freak accident the way it happened.  Dexter and I had made “The Duel”, and Dexter was to play a ballad and then I was to play a ballad.  Dexter played his, ‘Talk Of The Town’, but he kept holding the last note too long because it sounded good to him, and he had to do the whole thing over.

“So they said, ‘Teddy – we don’t have time to go through your ballad, we’ve just got five minutes left so play some blues till we give you the signal to cut it off.’

 “So I told the guys, Jimmy Rowles, Red Callendar and Roy Porter, I’d make a four-bar introduction and to give me a stop-time on the second chorus.  Turned out to be the biggest thing I ever did – but not for me.” 


Teddy Edwards goes back so far that he knew the cats before they were cats.  Frank Butler?

 “Uh-huh.  We used to play at Bob City together when I as with the house band.  We went on tour with Helen Humes, Red Prysock and Peewee Crayton, and Frank’s time was so bad we’d go home and I’d get the book out, the Paul Hindemith ‘Elementary Training for Musicians’ and a metronome, and we’d sit and go to work.

“Man, he’d just run away with the tempo!  We useta call him Metronome Max.

“Sonny Criss?  I was his first idol.  When I first came to California, him and a kid named Big Jay McNeely were in High School and they were too young to come in the Cobra Room where I was playing.  He told me he useta slip in the back door and lean up beside the wall and listen.

 “He said, ‘Man – I heard a lotta guys playing alto but when I hear your tone, there was love and sex in it and I had never heard that before.  I said THAT’S the way I wanna be.

 “To me, Sonny had more thrust on that instrument that anybody I ever heard – thrust, power.  Earl Bostic and Cannonball, they had a lotta thrust, but I think he had more.

 “He mightn’t have been the greatest saxophone player harmonically or for ideas, but when it came to putting that instrument in high gear, wherever you stopped he could take it to another level of energy.”

In 1976, it was Sonny Criss’s decision that saved Teddy Edwards’s life when he collapsed with a haemorrhage, and Teddy still regrets that Sonny did not give him the chance to return the favour before taking his life in 1977.

 “I know what his problem was.  He had a lotta pluses and a lotta minuses in his life, and he couldn’t cope with it.”

FORTITUDE is one of the characteristics of the grey-haired veteran.  In his best decade, practicing ten to 12 hours a day, he was recorded only twice.  Geographically, his big robust sound was out of fashion.

“I lost confidence then, but it’ll never happen again.  I think it was a case of the New York record companies recording mostly black musicians, and the West Coast trying to put antidote to that by recording white musicians with the softer sounds.

“I remember Dick Bock of Pacific Records coming down and saying, ‘I want everybody but him.’ That very same guy, me and Wardell, we made the very first record for him that he ever had in his life, and this is how Pacific Records got started.


“Rock ‘n’ roll? I’m not saying that’s all bad music, but the business industry wants to label everything for thought control.  If they’re not touting jazz, something else gets the action.  Rock ‘n’ roll music is for dancing, lotta people wanna dance – that’s good.  It’s not really for listening because the beat’s up front.  There’s room for everything.


 ‘It don’t matter what you’re doing, it’s how you’re doing it.  I had a friend took a shoe-shine rag and built two apartment buildings, three night clubs and a chain of businesses. Started with a shoe-shine rag – but he was great a shining shoes.


“Tom Waits?  I like playing with him.  You really need good ears because there’s some crazy key changes in there. No, it doesn’t remind me of the bebop era. Slim Gaillard, Leo Watson – that was fun and happiness all the time.  This  kid’s into a different thing.  He’s humorous, but he gets very deep also.  He’s a poet.”


But if it’s “Pastries & A G-String” the man wants, the bump ‘n’ grind of tacky burlesque, then Teddy Edwards has the lowest B-flat on the horn: “I just bark it out.  I played ‘Night Train’ enough times at the Burlesque House for strippers. Oh, I’m a great burlesque saxophone player, you know!” 

© Time Out London April 4, 1981

reprinted with exclusive permission

Brian Case meets the man.

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