NEW YORK - Teddy Charles, a gifted vibraphonist who teamed with many of the musicians who revolutionized jazz in the 1940s and ’50s and then literally sailed away to become a sea captain, died April 16 in Riverhead, N.Y. He was 84.
The cause was heart failure, his niece Gail Aronow said.
Mr. Charles, a native of Springfield, Mass., played with Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Max Roach and, he said, at least once with the legendary saxophonist Charlie Parker. He wrote and arranged pieces recorded by Davis and Mingus and drew praise for his sophisticated compositions.
As a studio musician, he backed singers such as Aretha Franklin and Bobby Vinton. He produced 40 records, including albums by John Coltrane and Zoot Sims. The New York Times in 1956 hailed Mr. Charles’s “imaginative feeling for a swinging beat.’’
His 10-piece combo, which included a tuba, drew excellent reviews that year at the Newport Jazz Festival. Three years later, Mr. Charles was sailing his boat from New York to the festival when the wind died; he missed his scheduled appearance.
Soon he left everything behind - including his wife, Diana, a fashion model. In the mid-1960s, he took his schooner to the eastern Caribbean and became a charter boat captain, transporting first people, then cargo, including rum and soap.
He abandoned a career that had gained impressive altitude. He had recorded with Mingus and produced a record for Coltrane; his “New Directions’’ albums for the Prestige label and its New Jazz imprint were admired for their explorations of polytonality. He taught his four-mallet vibraphone technique to Tito Puente, a Latin jazz and salsa musician.
All that seemed far away as he sailed the Caribbean, returning periodically to the New York area to run a sailing club, work as a sail rigger, and take people for sunset sails. In an interview in 1981, he said: “It was nice to make a little money for a change. It was a paid vacation of sun and fun. I had little time for music.’’
Music still bounced about in his mind, but on Antigua, where he lived, nobody wanted to play jazz, only calypso. Musicians shunned his suggestion that they play some Basie. In other ports, he would sometimes look for a church organ to play. In Grenada, he jammed with steel drummers.
Then, around 1980, he met a clarinetist in Antigua, and since there were no vibraphones, he played piano with him. “That stimulated my interest in music again,’’ Mr. Charles said.
And, in truth, he was getting a little tired of the imperfect performance of the six-man crew on his schooner. “Unlike a band, they have no talent,’’ he told The New York Times. He compared this to the trials of working with Mingus, the celebrated bassist and composer who was famously eccentric and difficult - but brilliant. “You can put up with anything from him,’’ he said.
Theodore Charles Cohen was born April 13, 1928, in Springfield. He later dropped his last name at the urging of a manager who said it sounded too ethnic. He grew up in Chicopee Falls, Mass., where his brother, a self-taught pianist in the Fats Waller school, tutored him. He escaped the local polka bands he loathed by moving to New York to study music at Juilliard.
He pursued his education just as fervently on 52nd Street, the fabled boulevard of jazz, where he began sitting in with the bebop elite. His breakthrough came when he was asked to fill in on piano for a tardy Thelonious Monk, who was appearing with the saxophonist Coleman Hawkins’s group.
After returning to New York and jazz in the 1980s, he ran a charter-boat business, working out of City Island in the Bronx, or Greenport on Long Island in summer, and returning to the Caribbean for the winter.
He performed in Europe and New York, held weekly jam sessions in his home and lectured on jazz at colleges. The Times described his house as “Melville meets Kerouac,’’ noting that “everything seems to have come off a ship deck or a bebop bandstand.’’
Mr. Charles leaves no immediate survivors.