Teddy Edwards had a natural command of the saxophone and clarinet that had him playing professionally—with Doc Parmley and the Royal Mississippians—at the age of 12. Born Theodore Marcus Edwards on April 26, 1924, in Jackson, Mississippi, by the early 1940s, when Edwards was only 16 years old, an uncle from Detroit sent for him, hoping that the talented boy might find opportunities there. While in Detroit, Edwards jammed at the Band Box, an Adams Street club at the heart of Paradise Valley, the economic and cultural center of the African-American community. By 1942 he was playing alto sax for the floor shows at the Norwood Hotel’s Congo Club, the city’s hottest black club. Edwards found that he couldn’t go to school and still keep up with rehearsals and gigs, so he dropped out of school. A family illness took him back to Mississippi, where he was persuaded by Ernie Fields to join his band. After touring the United States, Edwards landed in Los Angeles, where he played some of the first modern jazz heard on the West Coast.
In 1945 he joined Roy Milton’s Rhythm and Blues Band. He also played occasionally at Billy Berg’s Cocktail Lounge with Howard McGhee and Coleman Hawkins, who suggested to Edwards that he switch to the tenor saxophone. “When Howard McGhee came out here with Coleman Hawkins’ band, he decided to stay and form a band, but he couldn’t find any tenor players who had the speed or the knowledge that he needed, so he asked me if I would switch from alto to tenor,” Edwards recalled in the Detroit Free Press.
The group’s first recording was backing blues singer Wynonie Harris on his hit “Around the Clock.” In 1946 Edwards released “Up in Dodo’s Room” on Dial Records with Howard’s group, a recording considered by many jazz historians to be the first tenor saxophone solo in the be-bop style.
Edwards made his debut as a leader in 1947 on the Rex label, recording “The Duel” with Dexter Gordon, a release that featured Edwards and Gordon in a follow-up to Gordon and Warden’s Gray’s “The Chase.” On the same day, Edwards recorded his million-selling “Blues in Teddy’s Flat.”
In 1949 Edwards became an original member of the Lighthouse All-Stars at the famous jazz nightclub the Lighthouse, and spent the early 1950s working in California clubs. In 1954 he helped Max Roach and Clifford Brown, who were working at the California Club in Los Angeles. Here he recorded his famous composition, “Sunset Eyes,” originally written in 1948. Unfortunately, Edwards had a string of missed opportunities, leaving both the Lighthouse All-Stars and the Roach/Brown groups right before they each became widely recognized.
For the Record…
Born Theodore Marcus Edwards on April 26, 1924, in Jackson, MS; died on April 20, 2003, in Los Angeles, CA; children: Teddy Edwards, Jr.
Began professional career at age 12; went to Los Angeles in to become the first tenor saxophonist to record in the be-bop style, mid-1940s; played with music greats Ray Brown, Benny Goodman, and Vince Guaraldi; began composing orchestral music and created the Brass Strings Ensemble, 1976; contributed to soundtrack for Francis Ford Coppola movie, 1982; recorded prolifically despite battle with cancer, 1990s.
Edwards recorded “It’s About Time” with the Les McCann Trio in 1959, which led to a contract with Contemporary Records. Three years later he taped a biographical film with Steve Allen called Jazz Scene USA. During this same period, he was recording with Pacific Jazz under the direction of Gerald Wilson.
He played in Disneyland with Benny Goodman in 1964, then toured the East Coast with Goodman, Bobby Hackett, Vince Guaraldi, and Marilyn Monroe. He stayed in New York with Goodman long enough to write and arrange music for the World’s Fair, then he returned to his beloved California. He played at Shelly’s Manne Hole with Ray Brown and Milt Jackson, with whom he recorded the highly acclaimed “That’s the Way It Is.”
He toured Japan with Milt Jackson and Ray Brown in 1976, and, that same year, while recovering from an surgery, began to compose orchestral music. “I had all this time on my hands,” he told the Los Angeles Times in November of 2002, “so I told myself I should write something to show people that I wasn’t just lying around wasting my time.” Edwards reviewed some the music he had with him at the hospital and chose a piece that was scored for full orchestra. “I sat there and though about it for a few minutes,” Edwards told the Times, “and I finally thought, ‘OK, I’ll just write for everything that’s laid out here on this manuscript paper.’” After this epiphany, he organized the Brass String Ensemble to perform his compositions, which were written predominantly in a big band style. The ensemble proved too costly to keep together full time, but they reassembled for occasional concerts throughout the years, recording the album Blue Saxophone in 1992 on the Antilles label.
Edwards was quite popular in Europe, and in 1978 toured the International Jazz Festivals of Molde, Norway; Amsterdam, Netherlands; and Antwerp, Belgium. He returned to Holland in 1980 to record with the 60-piece Metropole orchestra for the BBC and NOS Dutch radio. In 1982 he toured Europe, Australia, and New Zealand with musician-entertainer Tom Waits, contributed to the Francis Ford Coppola movie soundtrack One from the Heart, and recorded an album with Tom Waits and Crystal Gayle.
Edwards enjoyed steady success in the early 1990s, signing with Polygram Records in 1990 and recording his first CD on the label, Mississippi Lad, the following year. In 1993 he played a lead in The River Bottom, a film about the homeless, and recorded a double CD, Spoken Word, for Alliance Records. A year later he played the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, where he was billed with the L.A. Sax Giants. He contributed to Volcano Blues, which was recorded in New York City.
Edwards was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1994, but he kept the illness quiet, determined to fight back and continue with his career. At first, when it seemed he would recover, he came back to even greater popularity. He recorded Tango in Harlem in 1995 with Billy Higgins and Christian and participated in the 1996 tribute to Ella Fitzgerald at the Hollywood Bowl with Ray Brown. In 1997 he played a tribute to Count Basie and Thelonius Monk at Lincoln Center.
Edwards liked living in California, even though he probably would have been more successful based in New York. In 2003 the New York Times quoted his 1996 remarks to the Detroit Free Press, “New York is pretty fast and a little too nervous for me. But I know my career would’ve bloomed faster if I’d been in New York.” Nevertheless, Edwards was a fixture in the Los Angeles music scene for over 50 years.
In April of 2001, the cancer began to overtake him and seriously affect his playing. A Teddy Edwards Celebration in Los Angeles was supposed to feature Edwards and his Brass String Ensemble. Sadly, Edwards was unable to play because chemotherapy treatments caused muscle spasms in his arms; he was replaced by tenor saxophonist Herman Riley. The program also featured a biographical documentary produced by Don McGlynn, The Legend of Teddy Edwards. Down Beat magazine called it a piece with “candid insights into drug use, womanizing, and missed opportunities.”
In February of 2003 the Los Angeles City Council honored Edwards with a plaque and a benefit concert at which his Brass String Ensemble played; proceeds went toward his medical care. Edwards observed the proceedings from a wheelchair.
The cancer finally won on April 20, 2003, after eight long years of struggle. He was survived by his son, Teddy Edwards, Jr., and a sister, Velma Diaz-Infante, both of Los Angeles, as well as several nieces and nephews.
Mark Stryker of the Detroit Free Press wrote, “His brawny tone packed a boxers punch. At swinging tempos, some phrases floated above the rhythm section like balloons and others cut a deep groove of articulation. He played the blues like a preacher and he played ballads like a lover; phrases sighed with tenderness. A coat of fur warmed his tone, but he sometimes shed it for a long, vibratoless note that was pure theater.”
The Foremost, Onyx, 1947.
Central Avenue Breakdown, Onyx, 1948.
Sunset Eyes, Pacific Jazz, 1959.
It’s About Time, Pacific Jazz, 1959.
Back to Avalon, Contemporary, 1960.
Teddy’s Ready, Contemporary, 1960.
Heart and Soul, Contemporary, 1962.
Nothing But the Truth, Prestige, 1966.
It’s All Right, Prestige, 1967.
Feelin’s, Muse, 1974.
Inimitable, Xanadu, 1976.
Out of This World, Steeple Chase, 1980.
Blue Saxophone, Polygram, 1993.
Spoken Word, Alliance, 1993.
Horn to Horn, Muse, 1994; reissued, 32 Jazz, 1999.
Midnight Creeper, High Note, 1997.
Close Encounters, High Note, 1999.
Ladies Man, High Note, 2001.
Smooth Sailing, High Note, 2003.
(With Howard McGhee) “Up in Dodo’s Room,” Dial, 1946.
(With Dexter Gordon) “The Duel,” Rex, 1947.
(With Howard McGhee) Together Again, Contemporary, 1961.
(With the Teddy Edwards Quartet), Good Gravy, Contemporary, 1961.
(With Tom Waits), Mississippi Lad, Polygram, 1991.
Billboard Bulletin, April 23, 2003, p. 3.
Detroit Free Press, April 23, 2003.
Down Beat, August 1999, p. 76; August 2002, p. 70.
Los Angeles Times, April 9, 2001, pE-11; November 1, 2002, p.E-22; February 1, 2003, p. E-10; February 4, 2003, p. E-2.
New York Times, April 23, 2003, p. B10.
Seattle Times, July 22, 1999.