Teddy Edwards, 78; Bebop Tenor Sax Player Was in L.A.’s Jazz Scene

Times Staff Writer

Teddy Edwards, the bebop-era tenor saxophonist considered one of the crown jewels of Los Angeles’ Central Avenue jazz scene of the 1940s, died Sunday in Los Angeles after a long bout with prostate cancer. He was 78.

Because Edwards remained loyal to Los Angeles as his home base and inspiration rather than heading to the more lucrative jazz mecca of New York City, his contributions have often been minimized or obscured -- sometimes by the very East Coast-based players he had influenced.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. April 23, 2003 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday April 23, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 ..CF: Y 2 inches; 79 words Type of Material: Correction
Edwards obituary -- An obituary of jazz saxophonist Teddy Edwards in Tuesday’s California section said his middle name was Monroe. In fact, it was Marcus. The obituary also spelled Al McKibbon’s name incorrectly as Al McKibben. The film “One From the Heart” was released in 1982, not 1992. A reference to Edwards’ quotation that he earned $41.27 for recording the tune “Blues in Teddy’s Flat” was incorrect. He told The Times in a 1992 interview that he earned $41.25.

Despite his West Coast address and a career marked by scattered fits and starts and missed opportunities, he is widely credited with recording the first bop solo for tenor sax, on the recording by the ensemble of trumpeter Howard McGhee of “Up in Dodo’s Room,” and with influencing a sturdy line of tenor players as diverse as Sonny Rollins, Stanley Turrentine and Joshua Redman.


“He was one of the first to play full-blown bebop,” said Steve Isoardi, editor of “Central Avenue Sounds, Jazz in Los Angeles,” a comprehensive oral history of the era. “There were people here earlier, like Coleman Hawkins, who had bands that were just passing through.” But Edwards and McGhee, Isoardi said, were local. “And in regard to shaping the young guys coming up, you can’t overstate his influence.”

Born Theodore Monroe Edwards in Jackson, Miss., Edwards moved to Detroit in 1940 at the urging of an uncle who wanted to expose his nephew to a range of professional opportunities. It was there he first picked up the alto sax. Within months, he was collecting a string of paying gigs. He ultimately fell in with various touring bands in Michigan and Florida, where he was exposed to hard-playing proto-boppers McGhee, Wardell Gray and Al McKibben.

Eventually, Edwards settled in Southern California, taking advantage of the wartime boom and finding his place in the kinetic music scene that had lighted up along L.A.’s Central Avenue. L.A. was a 24-hour town, dotted with crowded clubs and after-hour rooms where the space between R&B; and jazz was narrow. It wasn’t uncommon for jazz musicians to perform alongside or become members of R&B; bands.

Consequently, Edwards honed his craft in various settings, picking up the tenor saxophone and learning how to blow hot and cool: blues-inflected or soulful. After playing with R&B; singer Roy Milton, he was invited to join McGhee’s ensemble, where his signature sound and improvisational style began to take shape.

“He always reminded me of the old saxophone players, like Prez [Lester Young], Dexter Gordon and all those guys,” said L.A.-based jazz pianist Art Hillery, who was from Edwards’ hometown. “He just had that big sound.”

Up until then, the horns of Hawkins and Young had set high standards for the tenor. “Dodo’s,” with its Charlie Parker-like speed and jutting lines, played on tenor rather than alto, took the scope of tenor playing elsewhere.


“He was known for his originality,” said Central Avenue alumnus and L.A. jazz great Buddy Collette. “He always went his own direction. There are always people who want you to sound like someone else. But Teddy had this fast, choppy sound, and they wanted him to sound melodic. But he went his own way. He always wanted to prove something. ‘I can make it on my terms. I don’t have to do studio work!’ ”

Edwards became known for a charging, up-tempo, bluesy style. But he was equally effective coaxing a sweet, burnished tone out of the tenor. “I’m trying to learn how to make love to the thing now,” Edwards told The Times in 1995. “I could always run up and down the horn, but when it’s all boiled down, I’m at my best when I’m playing a pretty song.”

His most famous tune, “Blues in Teddy’s Flat,” recorded in 1947 for Dial Records, became a jazz standard, though Edwards told The Times in 1992 that he had earned $41.27 for the recording, “and I haven’t seen another quarter since.”

Another recording, “The Duel,” was an energized follow-up to another famous saxophone pairing -- “The Chase” by Wardell Gray and Dexter Gordon. The 1947 recording pitted Edwards against Gordon in a classic “cutting session,” testing the prowess of the soloists as they traded a flurry of searing, one-upmanship blasts. Ultimately, Gordon became known as king of bop tenor.

As the Central Avenue scene slowed, Edwards looked toward other options. He joined a high-profile power quintet led by Max Roach and Sonny Stitt, but when pressed to choose between staying home with his young family and going on the road with the ensemble, Edwards chose family, and he was replaced by Harold Land. Working the local scene, he also became part of Howard Rumsey’s original Lighthouse All-Stars.

Like many jazz musicians who remained on the West Coast, Edwards pieced together a living playing clubs, casuals and parties. He recorded a smattering of solo dates for the Contemporary, Pacific Jazz and Prestige labels, but none of them were as pivotal as his early work. Through the ‘60s and ‘70s, Edwards shared stages with Benny Goodman, Milt Jackson and Sarah Vaughan. His Brass String Ensemble, for which he started writing in 1976, allowed him another creative outlet.


Though Edwards had been battling cancer and other ailments, he continued to work well into his 70s. Singer-songwriter Tom Waits toured with Edwards in the early ‘80s and recorded the “One From the Heart” film score with Edwards in 1992. Waits also resurrected Edwards’ career in the early ‘90s when he hooked up Edwards on the Antilles label and sang two of Edwards’ compositions on the album “Mississippi Lad.”

Waits said Monday he was “sad because he was a good friend. I loved him.

“I think music is going to miss him as one of the architects of bebop. That tone of his is just unmistakable. He sounded like he was drinking champagne on a train, you know what I mean?”

Edwards is survived by a son, Teddy Edwards Jr., and a sister, Velma Diaz-Infante, both of Los Angeles, and numerous nieces and nephews.

Plans for services are pending. The family requests that contributions be sent to the Teddy Edwards Memorial Scholarship Fund, Compton College, 1111 E. Artesia Blvd., Compton, CA 90221.