Remembering Teddy Charles: Composer, Vibraphonist, Sailboat Captain
This album cover represents some of the greatest work of one Teddy Charles. As a vibraphone player, composer, arranger and record producer based in New York City (and briefly Los Angeles), he had opportunities to work with the greats of the '40s, '50s and '60s: Charles Mingus, Mal Waldron, Miles Davis and many others. These talents and opportunities coincided with the January 1956 recording sessions most famously released as The Teddy Charles Tentet, on Atlantic Records.
Charles died Monday at 84, after a storied life in and out of music. He was as much Teddy Charles, jazz pioneer, as Captain Ted Charles, operator of commercial charter sailboats. He left music in the early 1960s to run boats in the Caribbean, and even when he returned to the New York region, he continued to own and operate charter vessels alongside his musical activities. In recent years, collaborations with saxophonist Chris Byars brought about a small resurgence of interest in Charles' music, including a studio album (2009's Dances With Bulls) and increased performance opportunities — including with a 10-piece ensemble.
In 2011, saxophonist Brad Linde was asked to curate a new jazz series at the Atlas Performing Arts Center in Washington, D.C. He worked with Charles to learn and arrange the tentet repertoire for a D.C.-based ensemble, and Charles came down to perform with the group. The Oct. 5, 2011 performance was one of Charles' last concerts. Linde wrote in with this remembrance. --Ed.
I discovered Teddy Charles' music through my study and performance of Miles Davis' Birth of the Cool repertoire, music by Charlie Mingus, and Thelonious Monk's concert at Town Hall. Teddy's Tentet recording exemplified all of the things I was looking for in chamber jazz: a basis in bebop with influences from 20th-century classical music and free improvisation, creative instrumentation and tonal colors, a relaxed delivery. Many of the composers and arrangers for the Tentet were involved in the "third-stream," cool jazz and free jazz movements. All of those elements coalesced into an advanced and fresh sound, even for today.
Shortly after this discovery, I was fortunate to find Teddy performing in New York at the Village Vanguard with Chris Byars' group. It was the first part of a revival and eventual return of Teddy's famed tentet. I would attend nearly all of Teddy's performances in various formats in New York City over the years, and came to know Teddy through Chris Byars. (Teddy referred to saxophonist Sarah Hughes, pianist Alex Shubert and myself as "The Washingtonians" each time he saw us at one of his performances.)
When I was asked to curate a new jazz series at the Atlas, I immediately thought of the Teddy Charles Tentet. During the summer of 2011, I made several trips to his home in Riverhead, N.Y., to talk to him and to organize the music for our October concert, and also began taking composition lessons with him. I didn't know Teddy as well as many, but he did have a profound influence on me, through his recordings and my brief time with him.
Teddy was influenced primarily by non-jazz composers, citing as his favorites Russian composers such as Prokofiev, Stravinsky and Rimsky-Korsakov along with Bartok, Jimmy Giuffre and Charlie Mingus. (Teddy insisted that Mingus went by "Charlie," not "Charles.") At his home, his piano was covered with music by Debussy, Chopin, Bach and a piano sonata by his colleague, Hall Overton.
Teddy was influenced by bebop and the music of Charlie Parker, but he saw bebop as just a starting point. His broad listening habits led to the stark originality of his music. He instructed me to listen to the development and structure of certain pieces and identify the essential ideas. It was also his way of discussing the creation of new compositions –- finding the key elements and being conscious of elaborating and keeping with those ideas.
He gave me lists of recordings and books to study, and also suggested that I craft jazz arrangements of music from Marx Brothers movies. (One of Teddy's last appearances was a masterclass at SUNY-Fredonia. He took the gig only because it was the name of a fictional place in the movie Duck Soup.) I began the project, but I didn't get a chance to check in with Teddy on the progress.
The Tentet performance at Atlas may have been Teddy's last public appearance, and I'm very glad we were able to present the music with Teddy at the helm. He was a true icon of his era, and he rehearsed and performed with us in the spirit of the Jazz Workshops that he started with Mingus nearly 60 years ago. With Teddy, the process is as important as the presentation. He remained an improviser and composer his entire life — the two were inseparable in his vibraphone playing, and he even attempted to complete new arrangements for our performance. His mind was always on music (or the sea), and he could vividly recall his unbelievable and precious memories of greats like Tadd Dameron, Mingus, Jimmy Giuffre, Miles Davis and Gil Evans.
His health was in steady decline even in advance of our performance — he spent all day in the hospital — but he was willing to make the long journey to D.C., and performed as best he could with the Tentet. Teddy Charles' compositions leave a legacy of the limitless possibilities in bebop-inspired music, and he will always rank among the most original voices on the vibraphone.
Rest in peace, Captain Ted.
For more reading on Teddy Charles, visit:
- Teddy Charles' web site, with links to articles and discographies compiled by historian Noal Cohen
- The Shelter Island Reporter's obituary
- The Los Angeles Times obituary
- JazzWax remembers
- A 2003 New York Times profile, and a Times article on aging jazz musicians
- WNYC's Jazz Loft Project radio series, who interviewed Charles extensively. Audio clips of his voice are available here.