Episode 12: Jack Teagarden

Among the many landmarks of the jazz scene is one that seems destined to last forever.

It’s the trombone artistry of Jack Teagarden. An honest kind of artistry, Teagardens tromboning is generally credited with having advanced the instrument to the high level of technical achievement it enjoys among today’s modern musicians, and, at the same time, has stated a case for the lyrical quality in jazz for the nearly forty years he has been playing professionally.

Although he once sang a blues line that testified he was born in Texas and raised in Tennessee. Weldon Leo Teagarden was born in Texas and raised in Oklahoma. His birthplace was Vernon, Texas, and the date was August 20, 1905. While still in his childhood he moved to Oklahoma. His mother gave him early piano lessons, and his father, a bit of a musician himself, presented Jack with a trombone on his seventh Christmas.

His brothers, Trumpeter Charlie and drummer Clois, have played on stand with him, off and on during the decades Jack has been blowing jazz. Jack spent considerable time as a youth listening to the music and the hymn singing at Negro religious meetings. Out of this, it’s surmised, he drew his earliest feeling for the blues.

He joined the Peck Kelly band in 1921, when he was sixteen years old, and hasn’t been off the scene since. He has played with Paul Whiteman’s big band, Benny Goodman’s recording groups, Louis Armstrong’s All Stars, Ben Pollock’s band, countless groups and orchestras, many of them under his own leadership. These days, he leads his own combo, one he has traveled successfully with to the Far East for the U.S. State Department.

Of this venture, nothing but praise—-both musical and personal—-rang from every port of the band’s call. The trip covered a grueling eighteen weeks and as many countries. It was studded with many highlights. For instance, Jack and crew jammed with the King of Cambodia who as clarinetist had jammed with his idol, Benny Goodman, when Benny had toured that area few years earlier.

Also Teagarden tuned the two available pianos in the remote city of Kabul, Afghanistan, where most of the populace had never seen brass musical instruments before.

Playing under adverse conditions of weather and health. Teagarden became ill in Japan, and returned after the tour a very weak and very sick man. He played the last six weeks of the tour with a serious hernia, but refused to undergo surgery until the commitments had been filled and all his dates had been played. He went, it appears, to superhuman lengths to live up to what he has stated to nearly interviewer: “I try to play what people like.” Generally, what people seem to like is Teagarden.

He has a disposition as easy-going as the languid phrases he blows so often, and as sunny as the warm grin which cracks his face into scores of merry wrinkles. His is an open face, with character, rather than age or weariness or boredom etched into it. His voice is midway between a heavy drawl and an outright yawn. His singing is wry and gutty, and, again, has a naturally lazy sound.

But throughout his long career Jack has been anything but lazy. It is well known, that he was rarely content to let his night’s work end when the band trouped off the stand, but would always be ready for some after-hour sessions. During the recent Playboy Jazz Festival in Chicago, Teagarden and his gang came into town a couple of days early to help out on promotion for the event (by appearing on TV shows, radio interviews, and even a race track where he blew the call to the post), and to spend some time with many of his old friends who were playing in Chicago’s jazz spots, music his element.

Needless to add, the time Jack and his friends spent together was quite often on stand. Teagarden seems strangely uncomfortable without his trombone in hand and at least a rhythm section nearby to back him up.

There have been times when Teagarden didn’t need a rhythm section. One such occasion was recounted by Jimmy McPartland in Hear Me Talkin’ to Ya, a book telling the story of jazz in the words of the musicians who live it.

“I was having a couple of drinks With Bud Freeman and Pee Wee Russell one evening Pee Wee began talking about a trombone player, the greatest thing he had heard in this life. “We said we would like to hear the guy, and Pee Wee said, right, let’s just pop over and get him. Two drinks later, Pee Wee was back with the guy, who was wearing a horrible looking cap and overcoat and carrying a trombone case under his arm.

“Pee Wee introduced us. He was Jack Teagarden, from Texas, and looked it. “Fine,’ we said. ‘We’ve been hearing a lot about you. Would sure like to hear you play.’Solo Stuff“The guy says, ‘All right,” gets his horn out, puts it together and blows couple of warm-up notes and starts to play Diane. No accompanist, just neat. He played it solo, and I’m telling you he knocked us out. He really blew it. And when he’d done with that, he started on the blues, still by himself. We had to agree with Pee Wee, we’d never heard anyone play trombone like that. We were flabbergasted.”

Jack’s fluency on the trombone has continued to amaze everyone. Jazz critic Martin Williams recently flipped in print over a solo passage Teagarden played on a concert recording made well over ten years ago. While shaking his head in amazement at the creative prowess of the trombonist, Williams also delineated some of the man’s superb talent. It’s the closest thing in print to hearing Teagarden play.

“But perhaps the best introduction to Teagarden at his most brilliantly melodic, “ Williams wrote, “Is a solo on Pennies from Heaven that he played with Louis Armstrong at a concert at New York’s Town Hall (RCA Victor, LPM 1443). The tune is one that we all know well (which is a help, of course, and one that Teagarden assumes), and, for his part of the performance, Jack gets just the first half of the length of tune, right after Armstrong’s vocal course. Therefore he has to take something shorter than the original, and make it complete in itself — yet not so final that what follows his solo will sound like padding. On the spot, Teagarden invents a beautiful, original melody, with some brief references to the familiar tune, but one that is very superior to it in almost every way. It is also unlike the original since it is complete in itself and not an uncompleted ‘half’ of something. It is a beautiful thing, and I think that anyone who responds to melody can listen to it and understand its beauty and its orginality.

“It is for that kind of lyric and melodic beauty that we should listen to Jack Teagarden, because such are the standards he has set for himself.” It is difficult to realize that Teagarden is, after all, largely a self-taught musician. His formal train- ing has been acquired on the job. His creative instinct is unerring, rhythmically and harmonic- ally, and is creatively superb.

The author’s favorite Teagarden chorus (and everyone who professes a liking for jazz must have at least one favorite Teagarden chorus) is the one Jack plays on Jack Hits the Road, recorded for Columbia some twenty years ago, In it, Teagarden neatly demonstrates the things to come on his instrument. It’s a relatively simple blues chorus, but is constructed nimbly and, for the time, is pretty far out. The ease with which Jack pumps out the smooth overall line of the chorus as well as the occasional disagreeing spurts of melody, is still a revelation in the art trombone playing.

Although playing his horn and leading his group occupy most of Teagarden’s waking hours, he manages to find time for his family — wife Addie and his son Joe — and for his puttering and tinkering. He has a natural way with anything mechanical and spends a lot of time plying his tools in his home workshop. It’s a rare day when he opens his trombone case and hauls out his horn without moving a book or two on electronics or some phase of mechanics out of the way first.

Teagarden has appeared in movies, has sung on the air and on TV, and has recorded actually thousands of sides. Among the many tunes which are his are Basin Street Blues (he and Glenn Miller combines on the lyrics of the now-famous blues, although neither is credited on the sheet music), Stars Fell on Alabama, Pennies From Heaven, Rockin’ Chair, and I’ve Got a Right to Sing the Blues. They belong to him not because he had a hand in writing them (he didn’t) but because he pops in mind as the singer whenever these tunes are brought to mind.

When Jack was in Cambodia, the jazz-loving, clarinet-playing king of that country presented the trombonist with a medal for meritorious service to the arts.

Although has received no medals in this country yet; he has achieved a place of distinction in jazz shared by very few other musicians. It is in the favor of jazz fans of all schools. Jazz fans are noted for their fanatical devotion to one jazz movement to the exclusion of all others. Only the very rare exceptions are universal favorites among fans of all schools. Teagarden is one of them. That alone is well worth a chest full of medals.

In addition, he has won legions of musicians as fans, not only because of his playing but also because of his untiring battle against the percent tax, which has kept him from singing at many club engagements in the last decade. He places placards, printed at his own expense, on tables wherever he appears as a player but not a singer. The placards urge patrons to write their con gressman protesting the tax which has hurt the means of livelihood of many musicians and entertainers.

“The tax is murder,” he says. “It isn’t only that I like to sing, but people come to the stand, wanting me to sing, but people come to the stand, wanting me to sing particular tunes. It keeps me busy explaining why I can’t.”

There’s a sentimental streak in Teagarden that immediately warms an audience, whether it is made apparent in a song or a gracious act onstage, or even an introduction.

At the Playboy Jazz Festival, Jack introduced the trumpet player in his group, a fine young musician, Don Goldie, and recalled to the huge audience that Goldie’s father had played in a Teagarden band many years ago. As he spoke about the elder Goldie, there was a genuine catch in his throat. And when he placed his arm around the younger Goldie’s shoulder, there was genuine affection in the embrace.

He’s that kind of person … genuine—-and unashamedly sentimental. It comes through in his playing and his singing and the way he lives.

He wouldn’t be Jack Teagarden if it came out any other way.


— original source: http://www.jackteagarden.info

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