Remembering Teddi King

Sheer Joy in Singing

Whatever I've done as a reporter, novelist, organizer, and general pain in the ass has its roots when I was 11 and discovered jazz. Some people find God; I found Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Lester Young, and Billie Holiday. I was working then as a delivery boy on a horse-drawn fruit wagon in Boston, and so was able to buy recordings by my discoveries (three 78 rpms for a dollar).

On Sundays, I sneaked into jazz clubs to absorb this life force directly. At the Ken Club, moonfaced Sidney Bechet from New Orleans played his soprano saxophone with, it seemed to me, the impact of a typhoon. At the Berlin Jazz Festival in 1964, Martin Luther King said that black music, very much including jazz, had provided much of the momentum for the civil rights movement.

At 19, I got a job in radio, at WMEX, and the boss let me have a jazz program in the airtime he couldn't sell. That expanded into remotes from jazz clubs. I got to know many risk-taking improvisers, and some became my mentors—Rex Stewart, Count Basie's drummer Jo Jones, and Charles Mingus.

One night, Ben Webster, the tenor saxophonist, who could be volcanic but also intimate and tender when it came to ballads, gave me a credo for the rest of my life. He had left Duke Ellington, much to his later regret—that was the big leagues—and working on his own on the road, he had to rely on local rhythm sections. During a gig in Boston, the local musicians he'd hired were trying to find the groove, but came up short.

Sitting at the bar between sets, Ben Webster said to me, "If the rhythm section ain't making it, go for yourself!" Or, as Count Basie used to say, "Every tub's got to stand on its own bottom." That brings me to Teddi King.

There was a lively local jazz scene in Boston during those years: Ruby Braff, who became a world-class cornetist; Roy Haynes; Nat Pierce; Toshiko Akiyoshi, newly arrived from Japan; and George Wein, already a resourceful entrepreneur, as well as an exuberant jazz pianist. And there was a vocalist, Teddi King, who was also a musician. Not all singers are.

As New Yorker critic Whitney Balliett later described her—after Teddi had become a national presence in jazz—"She was barely five feet tall, but her voice was large and relaxed. . . . She had a rich contralto and a wide vibrato, and a peaceful, spacious way of phrasing. She never hurried a note, even at fast tempos, and she gave each song a serenity that carried it though the noisiest room."

Teddi's time was jazz time. And as her peers, the musicians, used to say, she was "a great audience." You can tell when a group is making it by the attention the players give to each other, and Teddi moved, grooved, with the band.

In the summer of 1970, while Teddi King was working a gig in Nantucket, she developed symptoms of what was eventually diagnosed as lupus, which helped lead to her death in 1977 at age 48. This degenerative disease is described by the S.L.E. Foundation, which supports lupus research, as "a dangerous, chronic autoimmune disease that can affect virtually any organ of the body. In lupus, the immune system that normally protects the body becomes hyperactive, forming antibodies that attack healthy tissues and organs—including the skin, joints, kidneys, brain, lungs, heart and blood." Deaths from lupus have been rising over the past 20 years (see Newsday, May 3, Health & Science section).

On this June 24, as part of George Wein's JVC Jazz Festival, there will be a concert, "We Remember Teddi King," a benefit to support lupus research through the S.L.E. Foundation. Among the performers: Marian McPartland, Barbara Lea, Bucky Pizzarelli, Daryl Sherman, Michael Abene, and Marlene VerPlanck. The place: the Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College, 8 p.m., 68th Street, between Park and Lexington avenues. Musician and critic Dick Sudhalter is the producer.

Teddi, as the disease took hold, kept working, and her audiences were unaware of her pain and fear because what came through, as before, was "her sheer joy in singing," as John S. Wilson wrote in The New York Times.

As Ben Webster's philosophy put it, her bodily rhythm section wasn't making it, so her spirit, her life force, was keeping her keeping on.

Lupus, however, did change her approach to singing: "I was afraid I might not have the voice I'd had, and I began concentrating on lyrics." Her mentor was Mabel Mercer, who was also a key influence, along with Billie Holiday, on Frank Sinatra.

Mercer, who mesmerized her listeners, me included, told Teddi that no matter how beautiful a song's melody might be, she would add it to her repertory only if the lyrics had meaning for her. And Teddi, using that criterion, deepened her singing. As she said, "If there is a person in the lyrics, I became that person. The lyrics direct my choice of notes . . . and the sound follows."

"So," she told Whitney Balliett, "I don't think ahead in my phrasing, and every time I do a song, it comes out slightly differently."

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