Wednesday, 25 July 2012

JAZZ ICONS #4: Jack Teagarden


Just want to go on playing as long as I'm able.  I don't want to show off or outplay anybody.  Just want to stay in the race –– and to keep on plugging.
March 1957

The trombone has never been the most celebrated or the most popular instrument in the history of jazz.  While jazz fans have been eager to praise the work of trumpeters, saxophonists and pianists, they've usually been less willing to extend the same courtesy to trombonists unless, like Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller, they happened to be high-profile bandleaders with long strings of catchy well-known hits to their credit. 

Thankfully, this was never the case with Weldon Leo (or John) 'Jack' Teagarden.  'Big T,' or 'Big Gate' as he was sometimes known, was to the trombone what his friend and future boss Louis Armstrong was to the trumpet – a virtuoso of such staggering originality that he permanently altered the public's perception of what it was possible to do on his instrument and influenced, either directly or through a gradual process of musical osmosis, every trombonist who followed him.  Teagarden's seemingly effortless ability to extract every subtle nuance of feeling and emotion from his instrument was so unprecedented that Glenn Miller, then a young sideman sharing the bandstand with him in Ben Pollack's orchestra, once refused to play a solo after him, declaring that he had no intention of embarrassing himself by 'trying to beat that!'.

Teagarden also happened to be an equally gifted vocalist whose laidback, behind-the-beat phrasing was every bit as distinctive as his supple self-taught trombone technique, influencing dozens of singers (including his friend and occasional collaborator Bing Crosby) who were instantly captivated, as were audiences everywhere, by his ability to combine easy listening accessibility with a profound and deeply moving feeling for the blues.  Teagarden is still regarded by some critics as being the only truly authentic white blues vocalist the jazz tradition has ever produced.  The critic Gunther Schuller, author of the groundbreaking study Early Jazz (1968, reprinted 1986), called him 'a remarkable and wholly unique singer, undoubtedly the best and only true jazz singer next to Billie Holiday, Cab Calloway, and Louis Armstrong (whom he, unlike dozens of others, did not imitate).'

Teagarden was born on 20 August 1905 in the town of Vernon, Texas into an extraordinarily musical family.  His father Charles, an oilfield worker, was a semi-professional cornet player while his mother Helen taught piano and played the organ for the local church.  Jack's siblings sister Norma (piano, born 1911) and brothers Charlie (trumpet, born 1913) and Clois (drums, born 1915) –– would all go on to become professional musicians in adulthood, frequently sharing the bandstand with their more famous (but not necessarily more talented) brother.  Helen Teagarden was still appearing on-stage with her eldest son at the age of eighty, playing piano solos during the intermissions of his shows and occasionally joining him mid-set to perform a well-received duet or two.

In November 1918 Teagarden's father died of influenza, forcing Helen to move her young family to Nebraska so they could stay with relatives while she got back on her feet emotionally and financially.  While in Nebraska, thirteen year old Jack began accompanying her on trombone when she performed at parties or at the local cinema where it was now her task to provide the musical backgrounds for silent pictures.  He returned to Texas in 1919 (or perhaps 1920, sources disagree) to live with an uncle and soon joined the San Angelo Municipal Band and a small local dance orchestra led by Cotton Bailey.  Attracted by the more vibrant nightlife in nearby San Antonio, he quit both bands and moved to this city in late 1920 (or early 1921), eventually gaining a nightly residency at a roadhouse called the Horn Palace Inn, leading the jazz quartet he had gone on to form in the meantime.

It was while working at the roadhouse that Teagarden met a pianist from Houston named Peck Kelley.  They hit it off immediately and Kelley soon asked the young trombonist to join his band –– a somewhat casual arrangement which persisted until 1925 but did not prevent Teagarden from joining Doc Ross's Jazz Bandits in 1924 or from moonlighting with other Texas-based 'territory bands' like the Original Southern Trumpeters.  During his time with Kelley he was also offered a position in the orchestra of Paul Whiteman –– at that time the most popular bandleader in the country, host of his own weekly radio program and a hugely successful recording artist into the bargain.  The trombonist refused Whiteman's offer, deciding to remain in Texas to pursue a quickly abandoned career in its oilfields.  During this period he also married for the first time and became the father of two sons.

In November 1926, with Whiteman's still-open offer to spur him on, Teagarden offered to drive a friend from the Jazz Bandits to New York City so the friend could take part in a recording session.  It didn't take the kid from Texas long to fall in love with the city or to find his own sources of regular freelance work in its many speakeasies and hotels.  Within a few months he was offered, and had accepted, the first trombone chair in the Chicago-based orchestra of white bandleader Ben Pollack and also made his recording debut as a member of the Kentucky Grasshoppers – a pick-up band featuring other moonlighting members of the Pollack organization. 

By the end of 1928 he was a firmly established star, wowing audiences and his fellow musicians alike with the bluesy, relaxed, seemingly effortlessly crafted solos he played each night during Pollack's year-long residency at New York's Park Central Hotel.  He remained with Pollack until May 1933, often sharing the bandstand with his brother Charlie and making many now-legendary recordings as both a sideman and a leader in his own right (including a version of Basin Street Blues as a member of The Louisiana Rhythm Kings in 1929).

Basin Street Blues (1929)
RED NICHOLS [trumpet], JACK TEAGARDEN [trombone, vocal] & others

Teagarden worked as a freelancer for most of 1933, then in December accepted a new offer to join the Paul Whiteman Orchestra.  Whiteman's band did not play jazz as such –– its arrangements tended to be of the light classical, highly structured variety that its white, ultra-conservative fans liked to tell themselves was jazz –– and neither Jack nor his brother Charlie, who again joined him on the bandstand not long afterwards, were especially happy to be playing such safe, decidedly 'unswinging' music every night.  (Although they must have been grateful to receive their weekly paychecks when so many other musicians were struggling to find work as a result of the Depression.)  Nevertheless, the Whiteman era saw the trombonist make several of his finest recordings, including the first version of A Hundred Years From Today a tune that would forever after become closely associated with him.

 A Hundred Years From Today (1941)
Recorded 26 May 1941
A remake of the original version but equally good. 

Teagarden's contract with Whiteman expired in 1939, finally allowing him to branch out and form his own band –– the first of many failed attempts to break into the big time under his own name that saw him rack up debts amounting to $46,000 before he finally abandoned the experiment roughly one year later.  (He would be plagued throughout his life by financial and romantic problems, which probably accounted, at least in part, for his lifelong habit of heavy alcohol consumption.)  Undaunted, he formed a second big band in 1940 which he was able to keep on the road by sacrificing his now-legendary blues sound for the sweetly sentimental arrangements that the outbreak of World War Two soon made so popular.  Although it became difficult to keep the band on the road as petrol rationing and the draft took their respective tolls on its ability to travel and hire the best musicians, it kept the trombonist in steady employment until 1946, when nearly every major band of the swing era was forced to disband thanks to the arrival of a frenetic and, to some ears, new 'tuneless' style of jazz known as 'be-bop.'  Virtually overnight, swing was out and be-bop was in, forcing the once-crowded ballrooms in most American cities to shut their doors forever.

Body and Soul (1951)
LOUIS ARMSTRONG [trumpet, vocal];  JACK TEAGARDEN [trombone]
EARL HINES [piano]; BARNEY BIGARD [clarinet]
ARVELL SHAW [bass]; COZY COLE [drums]
Recorded live at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium, 30 January 1951
One of the most beautiful trombone solos ever recorded!

Verve Records, 1961
Ironically, the death of swing encouraged another old-timer named Louis Armstrong to return to his roots and break up his own big band in favor of forming a new, scaled-down group that he simply chose to call 'The All-Stars.'  Teagarden joined The All-Stars in November 1946 and remained with the group until September 1951 when, encouraged by the unexpected resurgence of interest in traditional or 'Dixieland' jazz, he left to form his own sextet, employing several members of his immediate family as sidemen (or sidewomen in his sister's case).  Forming his own band also allowed him to pick and choose the gigs he wanted to play, meaning that he could at last take a break from touring and spend more time with his fourth wife Addie and their children in his new home base of Los Angeles.   

The Jack Teagarden Sextet, which successfully toured the Far East in 1958-1959 as 'musical ambassadors' for the State Department, remained popular throughout the 1950s and only began to lose favor with the public with the arrival of The Beatles and the impact their incredible success had on every branch of the music industry.  In 1961 Teagarden recorded what many consider to be his finest full-length album, Mis'ry And the Blues, a Verve LP which, along with its 1962 follow-up Think Well Of Me, served as poignant reminders of everything that made his music so appealing, haunting and timeless.

Mis'ry And The Blues (1961)
JACK TEAGARDEN [trombone, vocal]; HENRY CUESTA [clarinet]
DON EWELL [piano]; DON GOLDIE [trumpet]
STAN PULS [bass]; BARRETT DEEMS [drums] 
Full album

In December 1963, separated from Addie and with steady work now becoming much more difficult to find, Teagarden arrived in New Orleans – the city he always said he loved best of all those he'd ever lived or worked in –– to begin an extended engagement at a club called the Dream Room.  Depressed about his future and physically weakened by six years of constant touring (his precarious finances had made it necessary for him to return to the road in 1957) as well as several months of prolonged heavy drinking, he allowed a cold he'd caught to develop into pneumonia –– a condition he'd first been diagnosed with in the 1940s and had suffered recurring bouts of ever since.  He refused to go to hospital to be treated for it and died, alone, in his room at the city's Prince Conti Motel on 15 January 1964.  

His friend and collaborator, the trumpeter Bobby Hackett, said this of him after his death:
I sometimes think people like Jack were just go-betweens.  The Good Lord said, 'Now you go and show 'em what it is,' and he did.  I think everybody familiar with Jack Teagarden knows that he was something that happens just once.  It won't happen again.  Not that way
One listen to Teagarden's music should be enough to convince even the most hardened cynic that Hackett was right.  To this day he remains a touchstone for his fellow trombonists, a white performer who played and sang with black musicians at a time when mixed-race bands were practically non-existent and were still very much frowned upon by the majority of Americans, particularly in his native south.  In recent years his music has been widely reissued on CD, usually in compilations which allow listeners to gain a good general overview of what, in anyone's terms, still ranks as a remarkable career. 

Biographical Sources:    
Liner notes for Texas Tea Party: Original 1933-1950 Recordings by JOE SHOWLER (Naxos 8.120585, released 2001).  

The Virgin Encyclopedia of Jazz, edited by COLIN LARKIN (2004).  

Jack Teagarden: King of the Blues Trombone, a website maintained by Jack's son JOE TEAGARDEN.    

Click HERE to listen to more great music by JACK TEAGARDEN.  You can also click HERE to read a scholarly article about what made his trombone technique so revolutionary and HERE to visit the website launched and maintained by his son JOE TEAGARDEN.   

Special thanks to everyone who takes the time to upload music to YouTube.  Your efforts are appreciated by music lovers everywhere.

You might also enjoy:
JAZZ ICONS #7: Graeme Bell
JAZZ ICONS #2: Django Reinhardt
JAZZ ICONS #1: Lester Young

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