In the case of Don McGlynn’s loving portrait of Angeleno sax man Teddy Edwards, context counts for a great deal. The preem of “The Legend of Teddy Edwards” occurred within days of concluding broadcast of Ken Burns’ latest PBS epic, “Jazz,” and McGlynn’s accurate depiction of Edwards as a neglected jazz figure and exponent of the bop tradition tends to underline one of the many glaring weaknesses in Burns’ supposedly wide-ranging historical study. Indeed, “Teddy Edwards” reps the docu alternative to Burns’ Mt. Rushmore approach to the music: McGlynn, by contrast, is interested in the living, more humble practitioners. Pic will enjoy a lush life first in fests looking for interesting music films and later as an evergreen ancillary title.
McGlynn has made a host of docus on several of the very jazz masters Burns either gave cursory notice or ignored altogether, including the revolutionary Charles Mingus, Dexter Gordon, Art Pepper (like Edwards, an L.A. great) and the wide-ranging Louis Prima, who was the basis of McGlynn’s previous docu, “Louis Prima — The Wildest!”
Employing two key L.A. jazz chroniclers on the production end — documentarian and archivist Mark Cantor and critic Kirk Silsbee (who also comments on camera) — proves a shrewd move here, further demonstrating that in order to do proper coverage of the history of jazz, West Coast-style, it helps to have West Coasters to do it.
While we are told early on that Edwards is a pioneer of the modern jazz tenor sax, his friends and even his son, Teddy Jr., acknowledge he never had the kind of extraordinary career his talent should have commanded. With this taste of a sad story to come, pic shifts gears into unreeling generous clips of Edwards, now in his 70s, earnestly blowing with his current band at the Jazz Spot in Los Feliz.
Backed by trumpeter James Smith and a rhythm section of Larry Nash (piano), Wendell Williams (bass) and Gerryck King (drums), Edwards displays a variety of temperaments; even though his whole group finds itself in several lethargic moments, he is still remarkably able on an instrument designed for physical strength.
Edwards himself is aware of this point when he regularly refers to his horn, and all instruments, as “machines,” learned through “understanding and repetition.” His own lessons took him from Jackson, Miss., to Detroit, where his uncle helped him get gigs as a 16-year-old in some fairly seedy joints.
Band touring brought him to L.A. during the height of the vibrant scene on Central Avenue, the key pre-WWII conduit for new jazz ideas west of the Mississippi. A genuine reflection of his time, Edwards was at the birth of bebop, recording, according to Fats Navarro, the first tenor bebop solo. He also experienced the decline of Central Avenue after WWII, while falling under the sway of heroin.
Most at home with charging, uptempo tunes, the younger Edwards is briefly shown in brilliant flourish in a 1963 clip, suggesting that he could have had — with different career moves and different fortunes — the fame of a Sonny Stitt or Wayne Shorter.
Digital video work, under mostly low-light conditions, is suitably moody.