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Ornette Coleman at the SF Jazz Festival

Louie Bellson

How is the measure of a man equated after his death? By the amount of people who come out to celebrate his life and accomplishments. Tenor saxophonist Teddy Edwards, who passed away at 78 on April 20, never became a marquee star like fellow top players of the early ’40s, such as Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray. Nonetheless, he was widely respected by peers and greatly adored by Los Angeles’ jazz community, which was his home base. That love was unquestionably apparent during the memorial celebration held for him at the Hollywood Musician’s Union on May 4th. With attendance overflowing into the lobby, there was a highly emotional show of affection and adulation for the pioneering bebop reedist.

In what amounted to cross merging of performances and funeral eulogies, friends, family and fellow musicians expressed condolences. Bernie Hamilton, brother of famed drummer Chico, led things off and passionately recited poetry much like a Baptist minister gives a sermon. To say the least, it was quite moving and accentuated the more spiritual aspects of the commemorative event. Still it was Edwards’ music and his contributions to jazz that were mostly celebrated.

Trumpeter Clora Bryant, also a treasured Los Angeles jazz fixture, stated that the deceased saxophonist was definitely underrated as a composer and player. In his memory, she sang a musical portrait with a taped backdrop using the letters of his full name, Theodore Marcus Edwards. The audience also consisting of fans and supporters were visibly moved by the grand dame’s oratory and strongly applauded to show their approval. On the heels of that, Pete Peterson told of how he and writer Gary Giddins were responsible for getting Edwards, who wouldn’t move to New York for more lucrative gigs, his first job as a bandleader. For a lighter moment Ernie Fields Jr., whose father’s band originally brought the saxophonist to L.A., comically remembered how Edwards always thumped him on the head.

Continuing on a lighter and happier note, impeccably dressed drum icon Louie Bellson, also had funny and kind words regarding Edwards as the occasion shifted its focus to live music. Vocalist Diane Witherspoon, Edwards’ longtime friend, got things underway with a tune that epitomized the saxophonist, “After Dark.” Backed by drummer Garrett King, tenor saxophonist John Stevens, trumpeter James Smith, bassist Victor Lewis and pianist Art Hillary, Witherspoon sang about the “glory days” of Central Avenue, which Edwards was very much part of. Getting into a blues with the same band, singer Gene Diamond went into some romps and a surprisingly pleasing version of “The Way We Were.”

Bebop Niles, better know as Chuck Niles, the voice of Southern California jazz radio at KKJZ, proclaimed that he had without a doubt played Edward’s music more than anyone else. At a rate of at least once a week since 1956, totaling well over several thousand spins, he’s not likely to get much of an argument. Also bandleader great Gerald Wilson wouldn’t get any disagreement as far as being one the saxophonist’s best friends. They were both from Mississippi, played in each other’s groups and Wilson was also his best man.

Musically, things started really heating up with two of Los Angeles’ top-notch vocalists turning the somber occasion into a hot jam. Sweet Baby J’ai sang “Jazz Is,” with rousing accompaniment that featured saxophonist Carol Chapin wailing away. The vocalist interjected that she started with Edwards and also played one of his last gigs with him too. Ernie Andrews, well recognized as being “the voice of Central Avenue” during its glory years, said he loved the saxophonist for 50 years and rendered “Next Time You See Me, Things Won’t Be the Same.” Accompanied by some of L.A.’s finest players, including guitarist Kenny Burrell and pianist John Hammond, he easily had everyone in attendance fully swinging. After that, there was no way that, he could get away with doing only one tune. He graciously replied with a poignant and scaled version of the fitting classic “God Bless the Child,” featuring Burrell and Hammond.

Also equally enchanting, but unexpected was Tom Waits’ raspy singing and light piano playing for a solo performance of “Little Man.” He mentioned being on the road with Edwards and their continued friendship afterward. Other notable moments came from Carl Saunders Sextet doing Ellington’s “I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good” and “Caravan,” along with a full-blown jam session that was open to all musicians capable of holding their own.

Overall, the memorial was a great sendoff for musician that did things on his own terms and didn’t believe in holding back. Proceeds from the event went to a scholarship in Edwards’ name at Compton College. His family asks that contributions be sent to: The Teddy Edwards Memorial Scholarship Fund, Compton College, 1111 E. Artesia Blvd, Compton, CA 90221.

Originally Published