Teddy Reig: Jazz Hustler

The following is an expanded portrait of Teddy Reig that was originally part of the manuscript for my book Godfather of the Music Business: Morris Levy. I am posting it here for those interested in learning more about this colorful character. To learn more, I highly recommend Reig’s memoirs written with Edward Berger, Reminiscing in Tempo: The Life and Times of a Jazz Hustler.  Scarecrow Press and Institute of Jazz Studies, 1990.

*****

One of the most colorful figures in early bebop was Teddy Reig, a second-generation Jewish immigrant born in Harlem who became a major promoter of bop acts, arranging for some of the most important early recordings made by future stars like Charlie Parker and others for labels like Savoy Records. Born Jewish, jazz culture had stronger appeal to him, and Reig became in his own words a “jazz hustler.”

Reig forged a new identity by working in the underbelly of the entertainment business.  He was born in Harlem in 1918; his Jewish, immigrant father started out as an insurance agent and then worked as a luggage salesman but, seeking financial independence, had opened up a little candy store, hoping his son would eventually join the business.  However, Teddy had little enthusiasm for the family store, and even less interest in “bettering himself” through education.  Attracted by the nightlife of postwar Harlem, Reig felt more at home among black musicians, drug dealers, and hustlers than in his own family.  He would eventually marry a black woman and for all intents and purposes remade himself as a black man.  Just as his parents erased their Eastern European past and became Americans, Reig erased his Jewish ethnicity and became African-American.  “When I met and married my wife, that was it for family reunions for us with my people,” he said dryly.

As a teen in the early ‘40s, Reig admired jazz musicians and began hanging out with the members of the bands that played in the Harlem nightspots.  Eventually, he was given small jobs, like placing signs announcing a gig.  Promoter Cy Shribman took him under his wing hiring him to work as a “band boy” for Mal Hallett’s band, which was playing at Shribman’s Boston ballroom. Band boys were responsible for managing the band’s equipment and scores, and arranging the stands and chairs on stage before the band played.   Reig’s other “duties” included keeping an eye on the band’s stash of marijuana.  As Reig recalled:

Down by the docks in Boston you could get all that crap [drugs] that you wanted.  The band always had a gang of shit in the bus.  We had a trunkful.  I was in charge of the bag, and became everybody’s buddy—blacks and whites.

The code of personal friendship—carried over from urban gangs and small-time gangsters—permeated the jazz world.  It was dangerous to be African American in the city; cops were on the lookout for anyone causing trouble, and the clubs were homes to drug use, felonies, and brawls.  Just being a black musician opened you to being a suspect.  So white go-betweens like Reig became valuable conduits to the outside world of recording companies—many controlled by Jewish entrepreneurs—as well as the police, local politicians, and others who were more willing to deal with a white man, no matter how low-class, than directly with a black musician.

In 1947, Reig began his recording career working as a scout/producer for Herman Lubinsky’s Savoy Records out of Newark. Born Hyman Lubinsky, he operated out of his Newark, New Jersey, electronics store where he sold used radio parts (often passing them off as new by dusting them off and applying a fresh coat of clear finish to them). Lubinsky was famously tight with a dollar, and ran his label like he did his business by watching ever penny; even his own daughter characterized him as being “paranoid about money. … You have no idea of the cheapness.”  Reig had little respect for Lubinsky—he later described him as “this little mental patient” — viewing him as a greedy man with little imagination or understanding of jazz music.  Nonetheless, Reig saw the opportunity to serve as a go-between for Lubinsky and the many black acts who wanted to chance to make a hit record.  Lubinsky tried to sign musicians himself, but he angered the club owners by setting up an informal office at the jazz clubs, refusing even to buy a “glass of water,” according to Reig:

One night I was sitting on a car bumper in front of the Three Deuces, surveying the scene, and suddenly here comes Herman flying through the air.  “Get the fuck out and stay out!” they were yelling.  “This is a club, not an office.”  So I walked up to him and said, “Schmuck, come here.  What are you trying to do with these people?”  He said, “I’m trying to record them.”  I said, “Listen, I’ll make a deal with you.  Give me $100 for four weeks.  If I don’t double it, I’ll give you your money back.”

Reig’s interest was purely monetary; he saw recording as another way to support his love of jazz. “I thought it might be a good way to make some loot on the side, this recording business,” he said.  Reig knew how to speak to musicians, to get them to relax, and particularly to get them to produce the desired sound at a recording session without spending valuable session time getting a record made.  Reig’s touch was so good that Lubinsky quickly promoted him from serving as a hustler for acts to being a true session producer.

Reig knew what he wanted, and wasn’t shy about telling musicians how to make a hit record.  When Lubinsky sent Reig to audition a little-known saxophonist named Paul Williams in a New York club, Reig urged the musician to switch his focus from alto to baritone, and to emphasize the low, honking sound that was then the rage at dance clubs. As Williams later recalled:

At the time I was playing mostly alto and sometimes clarinet. Teddy wanted me to play baritone. … And he had very definite ideas about what I should do. He wanted me to honk. He kept telling me not to play a whole lot of notes. He kept saying: “Honk! Honk! Honk!”

The result was a million-seller for Williams called “The Hucklebuck.”  It helped put Savoy on the map as a label and burnished Reig’s reputation as a producer.

Reig eventually got tired of dealing with the tight-fisted Lubinsky, so he jumped at the opportunity to partner in Royal Roost Records. The label was an outgrowth of the popular nightspot run by Ralph Watkins. Reig hung out at the Roost and other clubs helping arrange recording sessions for many of the boppers. He described how the record label was born in the spur-of-the-moment over drinks at the popular club:

A bunch of us were sitting around the Royal Roost, stoned to the bone.  I said, “Let’s chip in $1000 apiece and open a record company.”  So Ralph Watkins, who owned a piece of the Roost, Symphony Sid, Monte Kay and I each put in a thousand.  Although I was the ringleader I only had eight hundred, so I owed the two.  And that’s how Roost Records was born—in a drunken moment.

In 1949, Billboard announced that music promoter Jack Hooke (born Horowitz) and bandleader Sammy Kaye (born Samuel Zarnocay, Jr) had purchased the label from the original partners (with the exception of Reig who held onto his share).   Kaye’s involvement may have been fleeting or limited to financing the deal, as essentially Hooke managed the label and Reig put together most of the sessions through the mid-‘50s.

In operating the label and dealing with talent, Reig freely admitted that he always put himself first. While it was almost expected that artists would be ripped off by their managers, there was still a code of ethics when it came to how the hustlers dealt with each other. However, Jack Hooke soon discovered that Reig had few qualms about ripping off both the artist and his partner if it meant he could make more money. The duo briefly managed Chuck Berry in the mid-‘50s. One of Reig’s tricks was to demand a fee of $5000 for Berry from a promoter and then tell Berry that he had negotiated a deal for $3000 for the performance, enabling him to pocket the different (in addition to taking the normal agent’s fee). When Hooke discovered Reig’s scheme, he was angered not because Reig was ripping off Berry but because he hadn’t included his partner in the deal. Hooke later recalled:

We were two street guys, we both came up from Brooklyn together. The right thing, if I was agreeable to it, was for him to come to me and say, “Hey, Jack, you went down, you signed [Berry] for me, I’m getting five, I’m giving him three, so we’ll split the two.” That guy never told me nothing. Just said to me, “Look how great I’m doing for Chuck.”

Reig was not alone in his sometimes flexible notion of what “honor among thieves” meant when it came to dealing with his partners.

The label enjoyed some success through the mid-‘50s, particularly when Reig had Stan Getz bandmember and guitarist Jimmy Smith record the standard “Moonlight in Vermont” in 1952.   Dedicated to releasing advanced jazz— its motto was the grandiose “The Music of the Future,” aligning the enterprise with bop’s forward-looking aesthetic—the label began suffering when R&B records began replacing jazz on the charts.  Hooke later admitted that they were always short of cash and anxious to find surer financial footing.

Morris Levy first made a play for ownership of the label in mid-1955.  The deal called for Levy to invest $50,000 for a half-interest in the label, with Hooke and Reig continuing to run it.  The deal fell through when Levy pursued a bigger opportunity with the well-established RCA label, but was revived once again in late 1956.  Eventually, Roost was absorbed into Levy’s Roulette Records empire, and Reig was hired to produce the new label’s jazz acts.  He played a key role in bringing Count Basie’s orchestra to Roulette.  As he recalled:

When I went over to Roulette in 1957, Basie used to drop in to see how I was doing.  Morris Levy noticed how strong the relationship was and kept pestering me to get Basie to sign with Roulette.  Basie was with Verve at the time, and Norman Granz [the owner of Verve] was always very good to him.  So I told Morris, “He ain’t leaving Norman, and I ain’t getting in the middle.”  But Morris wanted him desperately, and he put together a fabulous offer.  Basie was very honorable about it, and insisted on giving Norman a chance to meet the offer. . . .  To Norman’s credit, he accepted the situation with Basie very graciously.  He couldn’t match Levy’s offer and parted on friendly terms with Basie.

Reig would continue to produce Basie’s work for Roulette—among many other jazz sessions—through 1962.

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