Record collecting is primarily about personal consumption, the possible rewards and various pitfalls thereof. But alternately, finding your way to the used vinyl shops of any city can help re-orient the non-native tourist, let alone provide a specific insight into that location’s musical interests and the depth of its contemporary cultural artifacts. Where these bits and pieces lead is another story altogether.
The OCT complex in Shenzhen, China, the city directly across the border from Hong Kong, typifies China’s booming economy, its “soft power”, what we might also call “trendy”. Formerly an industrial area, it has been turned over to various “creative industries” including a museum and art galleries, but also, as might be expected, cafes, restaurants, and high-end clothing stores.
One shop in the OCT complex better suited to touristic re-orientation is Old Heaven Books, a (primarily) Chinese language bookstore and café. Its focus on literature and/or cultural imports distinguishes itself from other OCT venues, let alone that, in this case, it had taken the initiative to stock a used Teddy Charles record, A Word From Bird on the Atlantic label (originally released in 1956, but for our purposes, a Japanese re-issue from 1960).
Unfortunately the title track from A Word for Bird is not available on Youtube. This song from the album is (and it’s a good one) but the link misidentifies the song as a Charles Mingus composition, “Blues Green”:
Japan is a country where all manner of original and appropriated cultural artefacts have been piling up for quite awhile, so much so that it can pass on its excess to post-Maoist China. In contrast, China’s Cultural Revolution, which occurred between 1966 and 1976, forbade or destroyed any leisurely pursuit deemed bourgeoisie, “anti-revolutionary” or “rightist”. For this reason, most records, including Chinese artists from Taiwan and Hong Kong, are currently being re-imported into China.
After noticing Old Heaven Books eclectic, well-curated music section, which includes digital and analog productions, I settled down to my usual record-buying parameters: find something inexplicably attractive but inexpensive, something less than a crapshoot but far from well-known. The Atlantic label was enough to go on, a label that had invested in jazz and R&B; furthermore the jacket’s information revealed that Charles Mingus was onboard, and finally the record came in at 100 yuan, or about $14US.
Teddy Charles was a vibraphonist, particular to the bebop and post-bop era. Born in 1928 in Chicopee Falls in western Massachusetts, he started as a drummer, gigging in nearby Springfield. Like any ambitious young jazz musician, he moved to New York City where he soon realized that his skills as a drummer were more suited to the Gene Krupa era; a pounding, big band style compared to the bop finesse of drummers like Max Roach. Charles switched to piano and then vibraphone.
I didn’t know any of that at the time, but after I crossed the border, returning to Hong Kong, played the record a few times, looked at the credits more closely, I realized a return on my investment that went far beyond its actual price: Hal Overton plays piano on most of the tracks. It’s not as if Overton, like Charles, will register as prominently as Mingus. It was something else that sparked my enthusiasm: my previous immersion in the fantastic documentary, The Jazz Loft (both an audio series
and a movie) in which Overton plays a significant part.
The Jazz Loft was a decrepit post-industrial loft building in Manhattan’s flower district that was leased between 1957 and 1965 by photographer W. Eugene Smith who, among other things, had worked for Life Magazine. As the documentary plays out it becomes an America-at-its-best kind of myth, more specifically of bohemian Manhattan, where once again a community of artists expertly fitted between the cracks, pushed them open and created something strange but beautiful. But of course, as with many a New York City cultural production, there was a physical and psychological toll.
Smith obsessively took and developed photographs inside and outside the premises, but he also ran audio pick-ups all over the building, recording ordinary conversation, phone conversation, and the on-going jams of jazz musicians that dropped by at all hours of the day or night. The loft’s embedded decades-old industrial grime mixed with this nascent industry, making for a heady yet precarious situation fuelled by amphetamines, alcohol, and tobacco. Overton, who died from cirrhosis of the liver at age 52, is said to have never been without a cigarette in the corner of his mouth (as well demonstrated in Smith’s photography). On the upside, one of Overton’s most notable accomplishments was aiding Thelonious Monk, in the aforementioned Jazz Loft, with the arrangements for Monk’s famous Town Hall orchestra concert in 1959.
Musicians like Hal Overton, Bob Brookmeyer, Bud Shank and Teddy Charles are in a lineage of white jazz musicians who were tangentially and/or directly involved in expanding the theoretical aspects of bebop, what is sometimes called “Third Steam”, a genre otherwise given the vague qualifier of “Cool Jazz”, a genre that will perpetually be associated with the USA’s West Coast, as it is sometimes referred to as “West Coast Jazz”. The difficulty in classifying musical trends should be apparent given all those tangents, seeing as some of those musicians are dyed-in-the-wool New Yorkers, let alone that I have tagged them with a racial qualifier.
Fast forward in my own history to many years later in Los Angeles, when I arrive at the must-visit-once-in-your-lifetime record-buying mecca Amoeba Music. That huge store in Hollywood carries every and all recorded format, and not just a sampling of each type but whole rooms dedicated to, say, 78rpms. Back in Hong Kong, I had set up a 78rpm turntable and a short stack of thick platters. There is no need to go overboard, I need a few and play a few so I can turn off or avoid the digital. It’s a whim, but one imbued with a didactic outcome, as we shall soon see.
My parameters for this item are even more facile: find 78rpms with unique labels (and of course, as ever, a reasonable price). And so I find this groovy yellow and blue labeled 78rpm with a drawing of a saxophone under the brand “New Jazz” with two tracks by someone name Teddy Cohen.
We now consume jazz as a whole, though it was Duke Ellington who stated, “I don’t know how such extremes as now exist can be contained under one heading” (from “Jazz” by Gary Giddens and Scott DeVeaux, 2009). One might give this 78rpm a spin and simply think “jazz”, but the Teddy Cohen ensemble was quite progressive for its time. A drum-less trio consisting of vibraphone, guitar, and bass. (Released in 1952 with Don Roberts on guitar and Kenny O’Brien on bass, the audio for this release is nowhere to be found on the internet. The band covers two standards: “The Lady Is a Tramp” and “I’ll Remember April”).
The vibraphone’s sound is enticing, its sustained bell-like tone providing an angelic touch that nevertheless gets under my skin. There are only so many stand-out vibraphonists in jazz; its sound, while enticing, might provide less room for individual style. As it turns out, that other jazz vibraphonist Teddy Cohen is actually Teddy Charles, something I would never have latched onto unless I set my arbitrary record-buying parameters. Apparently, his manager thought Cohen was “too ethnic” (tell me about it) so Teddy began using his middle name as a professional moniker.
Cohen’s/Charles’ contribution to jazz as a collaborator, composer, and arranger is quite significant, let alone that he did session work with the likes of Bobby Vinton and Paul Revere and the Raiders; but who, on average, can lay out his résumé? This is the gold mine of jazz that, while producing many a discouraged and far from well-compensated player, probably could care less if you note the gold beneath your feet or not. It maintains, making a genuine claim for the classifier “art”. These kind of stories, in this case Teddy Charles and The Jazz Loft, make a case for jazz being far more than a musical genre, music for sure, but also a legacy whose tangents provide a fascinating alternate narrative compared to what is usually deemed “official history”. Try tripping over one of those stories sometime by setting your own arbitrary record-buying parameters.
In the next installment of Vinyl Archeology: How to find an artifact that survived the Cultural Revolution in a junk shop in Shanghai — a banged-up 78rpm by an obscure Tango-oriented big band.