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Teddy Edwards, strong in spirit

The saxophonist, who's been battling cancer and other ailments, brings his ensemble to Spazio Saturday.

November 01, 2002|Don Heckman | Special to The Times

If someone ever decides to write a "Jazz Profiles in Courage," saxophonist Teddy Edwards should rank high on the list of possible candidates.

Battling cancer and associated ailments for the last eight years, he has nonetheless continued to expand upon a productive career reaching back to the mid-'40s.

On Saturday night at Spazio in Sherman Oaks, Edwards, 78, will lead his 17-piece Brass String Ensemble in a program of his compositions and arrangements. He will do so despite the fact that he has not been at the top of his form physically in recent months.

"I haven't been doing too well lately," he says. "I got food poisoning the first part of the year and lost over 30 pounds. And I've been having trouble getting my weight back up again, so I don't have much strength. But I'll be there Saturday night."

The Brass String Ensemble has been one of Edwards' favorite projects since he began writing for large ensembles in the '70s. Prior to that time, he was best known for a number of considerably different musical accomplishments.

In 1946, on a recording with trumpeter Howard McGhee's ensemble titled "Up in Dodo's Room," he offered what is generally acknowledged to be the first recorded tenor saxophone solo in the bebop idiom.

His million-selling tune, "Blues in Teddy's Flat," was released in 1947, and later in the decade he became one of the original Lighthouse All-Stars.

Edwards' vital presence in the Southland jazz scene has continued ever since. Looking across the panorama of activities of the past four or five decades, his name seems to be everywhere, from the Hollywood Bowl to the Monterey Jazz Festival, from Disneyland to the rotating cycle of area jazz clubs.

In 1976, while recovering from an operation, Edwards' always-curious mind led him in a new direction, beyond the small-group music he had favored.

"I had all this time on my hands," he recalls, "so I told myself I should write something to show people that I wasn't just lying around wasting my time."

Taking a look at the various pieces of manuscript score paper lying around his room, he focused on one that was laid out for full orchestra -- winds, strings, percussion, etc.

"I sat there and thought about it for a few minutes," Edwards says, "and I finally thought, 'OK, I'll just write for everything that's laid out here on this manuscript paper.' "

And thus, from such a randomly spontaneous beginning, were born the compositions that eventually surfaced as the Brass String Ensemble.

Since that genesis, Edwards has written, as he says, "much more than we've ever had the chance to play." What has been presented has surfaced in numerous settings, in the Southland, around the U.S., in Europe, and on a mid-'90s recording.

Despite the physical problems Edwards has experienced over the last decade, he has produced -- in addition to his writing for the Brass String Ensemble -- a remarkable range of other creative work.

He reports that a musical he has been chipping away at is close to completion. And a novel, "Paris Nights," he notes, "is just about ready for publication. It'll be out on Vantage Press, and we're going to include in the book the song I wrote that was the inspiration for the story."

Far from viewing his story as particularly courageous, Edwards tries to take on each new day as it comes.

"The bottom line, man," he says, "is that I'm fighting a bout with cancer. But a lot of people fight a lot of battles, and I've got mine. After eight years, you can get pretty tired. But we're working on it. I've got several doctors and lots of friends, and I'm slowly getting stronger.

"And the good thing," Edwards says, "is that, with a little help from a few pain pills, I can still get out there and play, and play strong. And that's what I'll be doing on Saturday night in the middle of all those brass and strings."

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Jazz in Print

The jazz bookshelf keeps expanding: biographies, review collections, personal perspectives and philosophical overviews, all seeking to find the words to describe and explain an art that is, almost by definition, nonverbal and nonspecific. Here are some recent arrivals:

"Drummin' Men -- The Heartbeat of Jazz: The Bebop Years," by Burk Korall ($35, Oxford University Press). Korall follows up his first book, "Drummin' Men -- The Heartbeat of Jazz: The Swing Era," with an examination of the striking changes in drumming that have taken place since the arrival of bebop in the '40s. In the process, he ranges from such seminal figures as Jo Jones, Max Roach and Kenny Clarke to the lesser-known Denzil Best, Tiny Kahn and J. C. Heard.

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