Teddy Edwards interview, 1991

LA Weekly, 12/91
by Greg Burk

"It only took me 45 years to get here from 42nd and Central." That was Teddy Edwards' joke/non-joke from the stage of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion at the Music Center as he fronted a combo of L.A. jazz seen-it-alls a few months ago, holding his tenor sax like an award. He stood there, a careless dandy at age 67, laughing the laugh that says both "I'm rollin'" and "fuck you." He has a great time, and he also knows who he is and where he's been.

So the fact that he has a new recording out, his first as a leader in 12 years, is a plus, but no Beatific Vision to him. Tom Waits, Edwards' friend and collaborator through years of tours and studio work (they contributed to the Oscar-nominated soundtrack of Francis Coppola's 1982 One From the Heart), thought it was time Edwards got seen outside of the smoke of jazz clubs, and talked PolyGram's jazz people into carving a slot for Mississippi Lad. Waits sings on a couple tunes, the idea being to bring Edwards to a broader audience. Since Waits is no Julio Iglesias himself, "broader" is a relative term, but broader is better for any jazz artist. Edwards can rightly claim that he's known all over the world and sells out shows from Brussels to Brisbane; still, as with any of his kind, he has fans who know his every note, but numberwise they wouldn't sell out too many nights at the Coliseum, even if you could advertise an encore jam with Charlie Parker and Miles Davis and Max Roach and the dozens of other boppical high priests he's played with.

Why do they call it Mississippi Lad? Must be because Edwards was born in Jackson in 1924, his father a trombonist and his grandfather a bassist. He's pictured on the cover, a cocky little devil in a cocked straw hat, at age 14, with his first professional gigs already two years behind him. His music teacher had put him through six months of lessons at 35 cents a week -- "After that he said he didn't have anything else he could teach me."

The blues sprouted up out of slavery and Mississippi mud, and to this day, Edwards has the blues, in a way he could've gotten only from having his feet stuck in his native soil. For one thing, he often plays what a college kid might call "out of tune." This is also called "the blues." He can and does play in perfect concert pitch whenever he wants to; this is not what the blues is about. An appropriately altered note or series of notes can give your riff that nasty feeling, lend it shading and suggestiveness, enrich the harmonies you play with other horns, make your sound bigger and realer and sexier. This has to sound perfectly casual and unpremeditated, too, of course. And Edwards is deft. He can float the airiest accompaniment you can imagine behind a singer on one song, and on the next smear out a series of vile musical proposals, tipping the transition only with a glance out of the corner of a slitted left eye.

Edwards hit the road with the 15-piece (plus two singers) Bolden Townsend band in the early '40s, becoming the group's leader while still a teenager when the leader was drafted. He settled in Detroit for a few years too, and in that hot jazz town he played every kind of blues and jazz there was.

Then he hit the highway to L.A. in 1945, and after he saw it, he dug in here for good. "We had a gig at Club Alabam on Central Avenue between 42nd Place and 42nd Street. When we got there about 3 o'clock in the morning, the whole avenue was swingin', boy, people out on the streets havin' a good time, everything was happening. Central Avenue as far down as 98th Street, I think it was, where the Plantation was. It was a big club, that played bands like Billy Eckstine, Billie Holiday, top-draw type people. My favorite ever was the Down Beat club on 42nd and Central. There was music all the way up to 1st Street."

Just to give an idea of the thick mess that was Los Angeles' Central Avenue scene, and to demonstrate his acclaimed power of memory, here's Edwards talking about that time and place (not necessarily in chronological order).

"For me, the middle '40s was the most creative period of American history. Music, clothes -- the country was at the highest tempo it's ever been.

"I joined up with Roy Milton and the Solid Senders at the Cobra Room at 1st and San Pedro, then we worked at the Rendezvous, which was on the northwest corner, after hours. We'd finish at the Cobra, take about a 30-minute break, then go to work at the Rendezvous. Lots of music. There was the Chef's Steak House down on Los Angeles and 1st Street, with Gerald Wilson's big band upstairs and Eddie Heywood's band downstairs. Music was everywhere: in Hollywood, all up and down Vine, Billy Berg's at De Longpre and Vine, the Hangover on the next block, and the next block was the Radio Room with Red Nichols and His Five Pennies. This is around '45, now. Then there was the Empire Room, run by Gene Norman.

"There were jam sessions going on all night long, like at Jack's Basket Room up around 32nd and Central, the Casablanca Club over on Avalon -- Frank Morgan's father, Stanley, eventually bought the place -- Caf<130> Society was in the next block, which featured two bands, one upstairs and one downstairs.

"Howard McGhee [the trumpeter who became Edwards' closest friend and most frequent performing partner] was at Billy Berg's. He came out with Coleman Hawkins. So I went out to see them. He said, 'Man, we been lookin' for you everywhere to join Andy Kirk's band.' A lot of guys were getting drafted, so the bands were changing personnel."

Edwards, who was then playing alto, joined up with Roy Milton, then McGhee himself. "Howard said, `My music is for tenor and trumpet. Would you mind playing the tenor?' I said fine, because his music was close to what I wanted to be doing. He was probably the second bebop trumpet player, after Diz. We were the first bebop band in California, even before Dizzy and Charlie Parker got there. Then Howard put a band together in '46 at the Finale Club up on 1st Street. We had four saxophones -- Gene Montgomery on one tenor, and I was the other tenor, and Charlie Parker was one alto, and Sonny Criss was the other alto, and a vocalist named Bill Jones, and the rhythm section that included Bob Kesterson, and a pianist named Earl Etman, and Roy Porter was on the drums.

"We had no problem with the people. We had followers immediately. People took to it . . . now, the press didn't. They wrote very degrading articles about the music and the musicians. The people who put us down most were the older musicians and the press. I remember of all things a women's fashion magazine did an article on Charlie Parker that made him cry. They said he was playing degenerate music.

"We weren't playin{g dance venues, we were playing strictly jazz clubs, where people come to listen. We played the Jade Room, opposite Kid Ory's band. We also played the Streets of Paris, downstairs between Las Palmas and Highland. And on the corner of Highland, opposite the Swing Club, Erroll Garner was playing at a place called the Suzie Q.

"Frankie Laine used to beg us to let him sing at the jam sessions at Billy Berg's, and we used to let him sing just to get rid of him. And then he made that big hit on 'That's My Desire,' and boy, he came back a big star about six months later, and he used to sit out in the audience and look at us like he'd never even seen us before.

"We went up to San Francisco in 1945, and while we were gone, the war ended. And when we got back to Los Angeles, the bottom had dropped out. The industry had quit, and soldiers and sailors who'd been on leave went home. The war had come to a halt, and so did the economy and all the activity. The money wasn't around anymore. Before, money was almost running down the street to meet you, everybody had something going.

"The first recordings I did on my own were on 78 for this guy who was a real crook. He later got busted for selling pornography to minors, and got sent to Alcatraz. He had recorded people like Art Tatum, Illinois Jacquet -- he had his label going. He was the kind of person that if he could make more money doing a legitimate deal, he would have to lose. He just couldn't do anything straight. Those records are available now on Spotlite. Those things will sell forever, and I don't get a quarter. Royalties, you can just about forget about it for most of those small companies -- they're just a terminology. For me, recording is a notch above voluntary slavery."

Edwards has led a narrow mailbox full of recording sessions over the years for Pacific Jazz, Contemporary and Storyville, but that particular form of bondage has been far from his only occupation: he's done studio work, worldwide radio broadcasts, television, soundtracks and however many thousand performances, from concerts to clubs to accompanying strippers.

The variety of his experience seems to be something he wanted to point at with Mississippi Lad, which has the scene-by-scene feel of a soundtrack to a movie entirely scripted by Edwards -- he wrote it all, music and words. As we fade in, Waits is singing "Little Man," a slow waltz lesson to his son, which manages to squeeze "Luck is when opportunity meets with preparation" into its intro without sounding stiff, while Edwards' sax provides gentle commentary. Then suddenly we cut to I don't know where with "Safari Walk," the disc's most original (and best) composition, a ponderously grand excursion with the feel of heavy smoke -- about the only reference point is Grachan Moncur III's '60s avant-Africanisms. Next we're in the middle of some ridiculoso Mexican festival with "The Blue Sombrero." The heart of the scenario, appropriately, is the blues of the next four numbers, each a different shade; on one, "I'm Not Your Fool Anymore," Waits has the most fun of his life, rolling on his back and howling "It's all o-vaahh!" as a cohort of horns bawl behind him. "Ballad for a Bronze Beauty" is an elegant, proudly sour meditation. Then, for reasons known only to God, Edwards and Howard Hawks, we fade out on "The Call of Love," an ambiguous cha-cha in some kind of dangerous Caribbean nightclub. Surprise: no bebop.

All this jump-cutting requires nimble hands, and the wo{rk is done effortlessly by Billy Higgins (drums), Ray Armando (percussion), Leroy Vinnegar (bass), Jimmy Cleveland (trombone), Nolan Smith (trumpet), and Art Hillery, a masterful pianist who doesn't get heard as much as he should.

Good as the record is, an even better place to catch Teddy Edwards is in a club, which you can probably do soon, since he's just returned from a European tour. He's a showman and a communicator, and up close you can really feel the nuances of his subtle and complete art. He says it: "I always give the instrument my best every time I pick it up, even if it's here in my room. It has to get the best I have to offer at the time.”

Here in L.A., of course, the Mississippi lad still tends to get treated as just an entertainer, leaving the art appreciation to other continents. "In Merksem, outside of Antwerp in Belgium, they have Billy Higgins' and my photograph up in the museum with Van Gogh and Rembrandt and all those guys," says Edwards, not entirely humbly. "That'll show you how they feel about the music.”