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Legendary sax player Edwards dead at 78

Musician was fixture of Central Ave. scene in '40s, '50s

Tenor saxophonist Teddy Edwards, the embodiment of Los Angeles jazz for more than half a century, died Sunday morning in his Los Angeles home of prostate cancer. Edwards, who had battled the disease for eight years, was 78.

On a 1946 recording of “Up in Dodo’s Room” with trumpeter Howard McGhee, Edwards is credited with the first tenor sax solo in the bebop idiom, according to trumpeter Fats Navarro.

But Edwards, born in 1924 in Jackson, Miss., and playing professionally by 12, is most greatly associated with the jazz that was made on L.A.’s Central Avenue in the 1940s and ’50s, when the South Central street was a mecca for jazz and blues clubs.

McGhee left Coleman Hawkins’ band and formed what is considered the first West Coast modern jazz band, a sextet with Edwards, whom he hired from Roy Milton’s band in which Edwards was paying alto. They secured a gig at the Downbeat Club on 42nd and Central and, by the end of 1945, they were working Hollywood clubs such as Billy Berg’s.

On the ‘cutting’ edge

The band, like many early bebop acts, was dismissed by swing fans, and, to hold onto audiences, the group added another tenor player to engage Edwards in “cutting sessions” in which the musicians duel onstage. The style became a trademark of Central Avenue, and Edwards was in a list of combatants that included Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray. One of his final recordings, 1999’s “Close Encounters” on High Note, was a cutting session with fellow tenor man Houston Pearson.

Edwards was a part of Gene Norman’s Just Jazz Concerts, which consistently filled the nearly 7,000 seats in the Shrine Auditorium and the 3,500-seat Pasadena Civic Auditorium.

As the decade came to a close, L.A.’s jazz scene saw a geographical shift that landed Edwards in Hermosa Beach as one of the Lighthouse All-Stars, an act named for the just-opened nightclub that would become L.A.’s premier jazz venue.

During the ’50s, he also played in the legendary Clifford Brown-Max Roach band and then with Benny Carter. He would later perform at Disneyland with Benny Goodman and had a long association with Gerald Wilson’s big band.

Lengthy recording break

Edwards recorded consistently as a leader for Pacific Jazz and Contemporary between 1959 and 1967 but made only four albums over the next 24 years as his work was mostly limited to television and film work, including the soundtrack to “One From the Heart” that featured music by Tom Waits. In the 1970s, he also composed pieces for orchestra and his own Brass String Ensemble

Waits repaid the debt by singing on Edwards’ comeback recording, “Mississippi Lad” in 1991, which paved the way for Edwards to release an album about every other year. His last album, “Smooth Sailing,” was released March 11.

Though ill, Edwards had continued to tour and compose as well as write his first novel, “Paris Nights,” to be published later this year by Vantage Press.

Edwards is survived by his son, Teddy Edwards Jr., and sister, Velma Diaz-Infante, as well as a number of nieces and nephews. A memorial service will be held 1-4 p.m. on May 4 at the Musicians Union, 817 N. Vine St. in Hollywood. In lieu of flowers, please send donations to the Teddy Edwards Memorial Scholarship Fund, c/o Professor David Cobb, Compton College, 1111 E. Artesia Blvd., Compton, Calif., 90221.

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