Teddy Charles dies at 84; jazz vibraphonist and composer

Teddy Charles, a jazz vibraphonist who performed with Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Charles Mingus and other bebop-era jazz greats before becoming a charter boat captain in the Caribbean, died Monday at Peconic Bay Medical Center in Riverhead on New York’s Long Island. He was 84.

Charles died of complications from heart disease, according to a niece, Sally Phillips.

Although he was grouped with Milt Jackson and Terry Gibbs as a premier vibraphonist of the bebop years reaching from the late 1940s through the ‘50s, Charles was also well-regarded as a pianist and composer whose cutting-edge recordings of the mid-1950s were forerunners of the avant-garde jazz of the following decade.

Drummer Ed Shaughnessy, who played with Charles during that period, described him as “a world-class jazz vibist, a completely original composer, and a visionary for the musical future.”

In addition to his own writing, Charles was closely associated with other cutting-edge musical figures. Composer/arrangers George Russell, Gil Evans and Charles Mingus contributed to his extraordinary 1956 album, “The Teddy Charles Tentet.” Charles was also one of the original members of bassist Mingus’ influential Jazz Workshop.

“Charles was concerned with the interaction of improvisation and composition in jazz,” wrote Max Harrison and Barry Kernfeld in Oxford Music Online. “The written and improvised contrapuntal textures of his own works [of the ‘50s] looked forward to the collective extemporization in the jazz of the 1960s.”

Throughout the ‘50s, Charles was also an active record producer, most notably with the Prestige New Directions albums featuring artists such as Donald Byrd, Kenny Burrell, John Coltrane and Mal Waldron.

When the ‘60s arrived and the jazz world began to change, Charles already owned a charter sailboat and was working occasionally as a salvage diver. After performing with Mingus in his 1960 alternative Newport Festival at Cliff Walk, he reduced his jazz activities, eventually devoting full time to his charter boating interests in the Caribbean. Sailing the Golden Eagle, a yacht once owned by the DuPont family, he eventually established himself as one of the premier American charter boat skippers in the area and an experienced owner-operator of commercial sailing charters on the East Coast.

Charles revived his playing career in recent years, while living in Riverhead, where he sailed the skipjack Pilgrim in tours of Peconic Bay. But his extended departure from the jazz community may well have diminished the visibility that his considerable skills could have generated.

Born Theodore Charles Cohen in Chicopee Falls, Mass., on April 13, 1928, he was the youngest of four siblings. After taking some piano direction from his older brother George, he decided to concentrate on the drums. In 1946 he auditioned for Juilliard, was accepted and moved to New York City. Hanging out on the 52nd Street jazz scene, he jammed with the likes of Stan Getz, Brew Moore and Shaughnessy — who eventually became one of his closest friends. But Charles soon felt that the drums were not the right instrument for him and switched to the vibes, quickly gaining skills via his piano background.

Soon joining the young cadre of players in the burgeoning new bebop jazz movement, he became an in-demand vibraphonist by the time he was in his early 20s. In addition to performing as a sideman with the likes of Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Coltrane, Bill Evans and Aretha Franklin, Charles also recorded more than 20 albums as a leader. And his work as a producer resulted in a series of influential, cutting-edge jazz performances by important young artists.

Charles’ own earliest performances and recordings identified him by his birth name, Teddy Cohen. Taking Mingus’ advice, he changed it, using his middle name as a surname, before his career reached full speed.

When he moved to the Caribbean to begin his decade-long career as a charter boat skipper, he did not make an overnight transition.

“It was like playing piano the first time,” he told Newsday in 2009. “I didn’t know beans about chartering, but I learned.”

And he did so quickly enough to establish his identity as Capt. Ted Charles, while living on the island of Martinique. But he never completely abandoned his passion for jazz.

Returning to New York in 1980, he rekindled his playing and recording career, and spent the rest of his life blending his two primary interests. As recently as 2009, his album “Dances With Bulls” — his first studio recording in 40 years — received widespread critical acclaim.

Charles is survived by numerous nieces and nephews.