The career of the nonpariel bassist Teddy Kotick divided into two parts. There was the New York Teddy of the 1950s. Of that Teddy Kotick, the New Grove Dictionary of Jazz says he was “highly valued by his contemporaries for his impeccable sense of timing, secure choice of notes, and vibrant tone.” Furthermore, Charlie Parker supposedly claimed that Kotick was one of his favorite bassists. Such praise firmly fixes Kotick in the upper echelon of bop-era bassists.

Then there is the much later Boston Teddy of the 1980s. That Teddy Kotick emerged from a long self-exile to share bandstands with Jimmy Mosher, Tony Zano, and other New Englanders in a too-short comeback ended at age 58 by cancer, in 1986.

Photo of Teddy Kotick 1979

Teddy Kotick, 1975. Photo by Don Bacon.

It’s a sad fact that Kotick’s work is little remembered today, 34 years after his death. It’s a good time for a brief retrospective.

Teddy Kotick was born in Haverhill, Mass, on June 4, 1928, but his family soon moved to nearby Lowell, where he was raised. Music came early, starting with guitar lessons before he was ten. He picked up the bass in high school. After a few years gigging around the Merrimac Valley, Kotick moved to New York in 1948 and landed his first name-band job with Johnny Bothwell. He went from Bothwell to Tony Pastor, and then to Buddy Rich. He swiftly climbed the ladder. In 1949 he was with Buddy DeFranco’s sextet, a group that made a notable visit to Boston’s Hi-Hat club. Then came work with another clarinetist, Artie Shaw, and the 1950 edition of his Gramercy Five.

With Parker and Getz

Kotick was in and out of Charlie Parker’s orbit between 1951 and 1954. He met Parker in 1950, at Jimmy Knepper’s apartment, the site of frequent jam sessions. Kotick joined Parker in the recording studio in January 1951, in a group with Miles Davis, Walter Bishop and Max Roach. That session, for Verve Records, yielded “Star Eyes” and “Au Privave.” Kotick also recorded with Bird and Bishop in April in Boston, in an after-hours session at Christy’s. And he played on Bird’s last album, Charlie Parker Plays Cole Porter, for Verve in 1954.

Kotick had another notable encounter in 1951, with Stan Getz. That group, with guitarist Jimmy Raney, played a week at Boston’s Storyville in October. One night of that engagement was recorded and released on a pair of albums by Roost. They were were reissued decades later by Mosaic. “Reliable and lively” is how Bill Crow described Kotick’s playing in the Mosaic liner notes. Kotick’s playing is strong and confident throughout, and if you want examples of what Grove called his “secure choice of notes and vibrant tone,” you’ll find them here.

Teddy Kotick was by this time living a life of musical hyperactivity. He turned up everywhere. He rejoined DeFranco in 1952, in a group with Jimmy Raney. Next came the Teddy Charles New Directions Group with Bob Brookmeyer in 1953. Kotick was the first bassist in the Bill Evans Trio in 1956, alongside drummer Paul Motian. (his replacement was Scott LaFaro.) He was with George Wallington in 1956-57, and Horace Silver in 1957-58. Silver’s was his last road band; he gave up traveling to freelance close to his New York home and family.

Kotick wasn’t just busy on the bandstand. He made many recordings, with Teddy Charles, Hall Overton, Jimmy Raney, Nick Travis, and Phil Woods, among others. Teddy Kotick was a man in demand.

Falling Silent

Things changed after sessions with guitarist Rene Thomas in 1960. Kotick’s presence on the jazz scene diminished. He worked on Broadway, and he surfaced in 1969 in a trio with pianist Wolfgang Knittle and Paul Motian. I can only find one Boston reference for him during this time, a week at the Jazz Workshop in May 1966 with Bill Evans, subbing for Eddie Gomez.

Then Teddy Kotick went quiet. In 1973, he moved back to Lowell, a recovering alcoholic with a marriage on the rocks. He’d sold his bass and wasn’t playing at all. He took a job as a watchman at the Boott Mill in Lowell. It was that way until the late 1970s. And then, slowly, the musician in him began to stir.

Kotick’s friends in Lowell encouraged him to start playing again. The most significant engagement of this reawakening involved another boppish player from his past. From 1979 to 1981, he worked extensively around the Albany area with saxophonist J.R. Monterose, like Kotick a refugee from New York City. This was a reunion for J.R. and Teddy. They’d played and recorded together often between 1955 and 1960, with Teddy Charles, George Wallington and others.

Photo of Teddy Kotick 1979

From the Live at Albany album cover

If Kotick was rusty, he didn’t show it. John Litweiler reviewed Monterose’s album Live in Albany for Down Beat, and although he wasn’t enthusiastic about the 1979 date overall, he gave high marks to the bassist: “The most alive element is Teddy Kotick’s bass playing, which is most rewarding in melodic solos but continually fine throughout the album.”

Career Revival

After Monterose, Kotick was ready, anxious even, to play. He worked in lounge trios at the Meridian Hotel and the Bay Tower Room, but not surprisingly, he seemed most at home with musicians who shared bop roots, like saxophonist Jimmy Mosher, drummer Joe Hunt, and pianist Tony Zano.

There were numerous club engagements with Mosher, and also at high-profile events like the 1985 Boston Globe Jazz Festival. I’ve heard private recordings of an outstanding Jimmy Mosher  quartet with Kotick, Hal Galper and Bill Goodwin recorded at Ryles. And I remember hearing Kotick in other settings, for example with the Bill Hardman-Junior Cook Quintet at the 1369 in 1985, with Donald Brown and Joe Hunt.

In 1985, Kotick was gigging regularly with saxophonist Allan Chase’s quartet at the Flower Garden in Faneuil Hall. Chase had reserved studio time to record the quartet, but the day before the session he learned Kotick had taken ill and couldn’t make it. Rather than arrange for a last-minute substitute, Chase chose to wait for Kotick’s return. He never did, and Chase never made the album. Teddy Kotick was diagnosed with a brain tumor, and died on April 17, 1986.

Kotick never recorded as a leader, but he was featured prominently on one trio date led by his friend, the pianist Tony Zano, with Hunt on drums. In Retrospect was recorded in 1983. It’s some of Kotick’s best work, if only because he freely solos, something he was reluctant to do in earlier years. Perhaps his staying in the background was a reflection of his personality. He was a shy person who could come across as gruff. And he was never one to talk about himself.

I’ll end with this anecdote. When I was first starting these chronicles, I met a guy from Lowell, and he was talking about Merrimac Valley musicians, and he mentioned Kotick. Turns out he had worked with Teddy at the Boott Mill in the ’70s. Teddy didn’t talk about himself much, but when he learned that Miles Davis was coming to Paul’s Mall, he mentioned that he knew Miles, and had even played with him. Kotick’s coworkers were skeptical. But a group got tickets and went to the Mall. The band finished the first set, and Miles, instead of retreating offstage, walked straight over to their table and said, “Teddy, how have you been, I haven’t seen you in a long time,” and the two launched into a conversation. And that’s how Teddy’s rather astonished coworkers from Lowell learned about his past. The conversation on their ride home that night must have been fascinating.

To the music. First up is the Stan Getz Quintet at Storyville in 1951, with Jerome Kern’s “The Song Is You.” It shows what Kotick was all about in the 1950s.

Here’s “Que Bassa,” the Tony Zano Trio, from In Retrospect, with a Teddy Kotick solo starting at about the 2:45 mark.