Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Jack Teagarden, Basin Street Blues and New Orleans [From the Archives]

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“‘Jack was just a gentle, good-natured, soft-spoken guy,’ said bassist Jack Lesberg, who worked with Teagarden countless times in the 1940s and '50s. ‘Never craved attention, or asked anything special from anybody. Never wanted to put himself forward. Just wanted to play and sing, and let life take care of the rest in whatever way it was going to.’

But all too often life doesn't take care of the rest. Even the yellow brick road can be all uphill, and there are indi­cations aplenty that, for Jack Teagarden, the slope was sometimes pretty steep.”
- Richard M. Sudhalter, The Complete Capitol Fifties Jack Teagarden Sessions [Mosaic MD4-168]

Thanks to its location in a small suburb about a dozen miles west of New Orleans, business trips to visit one of my oldest and largest clients often brought me to The Crescent City.

If truth be told, due to New Orleans’ famed Epicurean delights, my boss spent more time with the client over the course of a year than I did.

His explanation for this disparity was so that he could properly help them savor the wining and dining delights that the city is famous for as his way of saying “Thank You” for their business.

I generally got called in to smooth over any trouble spots and to do the “minor things” like the contract renewal!

Although the client was located in a suburban community just outside the city, we stayed at one of New Orleans’ downtown hotels, preferably The Fairmont.

And since I usually wasn’t a part of the eating rich foods and staying up late drinking 18-year old Scotch brigade, I often spent my free time walking along streets of the city’s French Quarter; streets whose names had been made famous in the titles of Traditional or Dixieland Jazz such as Bourbon Street, Rampart Street and Basin Street.

Of course, by the time I got there, with the exception of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and occasional appearances by trumpeter Al Hirt and clarinetist Pete Fountain, Traditional Jazz had since been long gone from the streets of New Orleans, and especially from the French Quarter.

Still it was fun to amble down some of these historic venues in the early afternoon with the refrains of Jack Teagarden singing Basin Street Blues going through my mind.

For as long as I can remember, Jack Teagarden was a vicarious member of our family; my Father loved his playing so much that he would have easily adopted Jack into it.

He had many of Jack’s original 78 rpms records and played them constantly all the while miming Jack’s trombone sound by pressing an imaginary horn’s mouthpiece to his lips with the first, two fingers of his left-hand and working a make-believe trombone slide with his right.

My Dad’s devotion to Jack Teagarden did ultimately benefit me as he gave into my teenage pleadings to attend the Newport Jazz Festival [NJF] in July, 1957 after he found out that “Big T” would be there as part of a birthday celebration for Louis Armstrong.

Here are some thoughts, observations and comments about Jack as drawn from the writings of a number of respected authors.

Whitney Balliett, American Musicians: 56 Portraits in Jazz [New York: Oxford University Press, 1986, excerpts taken from pages 160-164].

“Jack Teagarden was obsessed by music and by machines. In New York in the late twenties, when he was with Ben Pollack's band, he would some­times play around the clock. He would start at 6 p.m. with Pollack at the Park Central Hotel and would finish somewhere in Harlem, where he had gone to jam, the afternoon of the next day. …

Teagarden's love of machines was an extension of his love of his instrument. He thought of his trombone as a kind of machine, and he spent his life mastering its deceptive, resistant techniques, and redesign­ing mouthpieces, water valves, and mutes. His father, an engineer who took care of Texas cotton gins, taught him mechanics. When Teagarden was thirteen, he replaced the pipes in his grandmother's house, and a year later he became a full-fledged automobile mechanic. As an adult, he re­built and drove two Stanley Steamers. He was a flamboyant inventor. … Sometimes he built machines simply for the sake of building them. He constructed one that filled a room, and when he was asked what it did he replied, "Why, it's runnin', ain't it?"

His trombone and his machines were the interchangeable lyrical centers of his life, and they helped hold it together. It was, in many ways, a desperate life. Women flummoxed him. He was married four times, and none of the relationships worked very well. (He had two children by his first wife, and one by his last.) He had no head for money, and he was a gargantuan drinker—almost in the same class as his friends Fats Waller and Bunny Berigan. He was careless about his health: he had lost all his teeth by the time he was forty, and he had several bouts of pneumonia. He had little sense about his career.  …

Teagarden's demeanor and appearance always belied his travails. He was tall and handsome, solid through the chest and shoulders. He had a square, open face and widely spaced eyes, which he kept narrowed, not letting too much of the world in at a time. His black hair was combed flat, its part just to the left of center. He was sometimes confused with Jack Dempsey. He liked practical jokes, and he had an easy, Southern sense of humor, the kind that feeds on colloquialisms. (Asked once why he slept so much, he said that, like all Southerners, he was a slow sleeper.) …

Teagarden had several different tones: a light nasal one, a gruff, heavy one; and a weary, hoarse, one—a twilight tone he used for slow blues, and for ballads that moved him. He had a nearly faultless technique, yet it never called attention to itself. Opposites were compressed shrewdly in his style. Long notes were balanced by triplets, double-time spurts by laconic legato musings, busy­ness by silence, legitimate notes by blue notes, moans by roars.

Teagarden developed a set of master solos for his bread-and-butter tunes—the tunes that his listeners expected and that he must have played thousands of times: "Basin Street Blues," "A Hundred Years from Today," "Beale St. Blues," "Stars Fell on Alabama," "St. James Infirmary," "I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues," "After You've Gone." Each time, though, he would make generous and surprising changes—adding a decorative triplet, a dying blue note, a soaring glissando—and his listeners would be buoyed again. Sometimes he sank into his low register at the start of a slow blues solo and rose into his high register at its end. Like his friend and admirer Bobby Hackett, he stayed in the bourgeois register of his horn, cultivating his lyricism, his tones, his sense of order and logic. Teagarden was a good jazz singer. His singing, a distillation of his playing, formed a kind of aureole around it. He had a light baritone, which moved easily behind the beat. The rare consonants he used sounded like vowels, and his vowels were all pureed. His vocals were lullabies—lay-me-down-to-sleep patches of sound.

Teagarden gathered friends wherever he went. His playing stunned them when they first heard it, and it still stuns them. [Pianist] Jess Stacy:

"I thought he was the best trombonist who ever lived. When I made those Commodore sides with him in 1938—'Diane’ and 'Serenade to a Shylock'—he just walked in, warmed up, and hit out, and he played like an angel. He was an ace musician who could talk harmony like a college professor. He'd sit at the piano after a take and say, ‘Try this chord on the bridge, this C with a flatted ninth,’ and he'd be right. Of course, he was a wizard with tools, too. He always carried a tuning fork. He had perfect pitch, and he couldn't stand out-of-tune pianos. So he'd work at a bad piano between sets until he got it where it didn't drive him crazy anymore. They couldn't make them any nicer than Jack—never any conceit, never got on anybody's nerves."”

Ross Firestone, Swing, Swing, Swing: The Life and Times of Benny Goodman [New York: Norton, 1993, excerpts drawn from pages 50-51].

“ …. We never heard anything like it. Such style and good taste and the way he knew his harmonies. It was such a wonderful feeling inside to hear someone do something so well."

Teagarden's warm, richly melodic, blues-drenched playing was com­pletely unlike the technically accomplished but emotionally remote approach to the instrument favored by Miff Mole, the premier white jazz trombonist up to now who was emulated by most other white trombone players, including Glenn Miller. Teagarden's impact upon the Pollack musicians and the rest of the jazz community in New York, black as well as white, can hardly be exaggerated. Gil Rodin thought he was the best trombonist he'd ever heard and claimed that the main reason Miller didn't return to the band was that he was humbled by Teagarden's hands-down superiority and knew everyone else really wanted him.

Benny and Teagarden took to each other's playing immediately. "Benny has always thrilled me," Teagarden said. "When we worked together in the old Ben Pollack orchestra ... he used to leave me so weak I couldn't hardly get out of the chair." For Benny, Teagarden "was an absolutely fantastic trombone player, and I loved to listen to him take solos." According to Pollack, "Benny Goodman was getting in everybody's hair about this time, because he was getting good and took all the choruses. But when Jack joined the band, Benny would turn around and pass the choruses on to Teagarden."

"I got about as many kicks out of hearing Jack play as any musician I've ever worked with," Benny maintained. But the peculiar remoteness that eventually became such a puzzling part of Benny's personality kept it from seeming that way at the beginning. "Benny used to worry me," Teagarden recalled. "He'd keep looking at me all the time, and it got on my nerves. One day I asked him, 'Say, you keep staring at me all the time. Do I annoy you—or is anything wrong?' Benny laughed and said, 'My gosh, no. But the things you play just keep surprising me!' " "Benny was hard to read,"

McPartland agreed. "He'd get a look on his face, and you really didn't know what he thought about anything. But he meant no ill will." "I never was much of a hand for talking about things I like, especially in those days," was Benny's comment on the incident. Bud Freeman claimed that Teagarden's advent changed the style of the band and left a permanent mark upon Benny's playing. "Benny Goodman, up to the time of hearing Jack, had not played much melody. He became a strong melodic player. I'm certain that this influence contributed strongly to Benny's greatness."

Richard Sudhalter, Lost Chords: White Musicians and Their Contributions to Jazz, 1915-1945 [New York: Oxford University Press, 1999, excerpts drawn from pp. 709-710; 718].

“… [Jack’s] fascination with things mechanical found its most lasting expression in the unique way he played the trombone, particularly the solutions he devised to its technical problems

He found a solution, based on an intuitive understanding or now brass in­struments work. The higher a trumpet or trombone plays, the closer together the notes … and the more options it offers for producing a given note. Some such alternatives are so naturally out of tune that (on a valved in­strument especially) they can't be used at all. A trombone slide offers a chance to correct such pitch anomalies with often finely calibrated adjustments.

Multiplying this by all the levels of the overtone series makes clear what young Weldon discovered very early: with diligent practice, and relying on an unusually acute ear to adjust intonation, he could play almost any note he wanted (save the very low ones) by favoring positions which kept the slide close to his face.

Jazzmen who heard Teagarden throughout his career were often amazed that such a musical torrent could come of so little apparent slide movement. British trumpeter Humphrey Lyttelton, for one, ‘marveled at the way in which [Teagarden's] huge, square right hand seemed to wave languidly an inch or two in front of his face while the notes tumbled out.’

…. [Lyttelton goes on to say that] ‘It is hard to find a single Teagarden record which he did not enhance with his beautiful, curiously blunted tone, his marvelously fluent articulation, his perfect rhythmic poise and the sheer elegance of his musical thought.’”

Richard Cook and Brian Morton, The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed., [pp. 1429-30]

“… Teagarden took the trombone to new levels, with his impeccable technique, fluency and gorgeous sound, allied to a feel for blues playing which alluded many of his white contemporaries. …

Teagarden's star is somehow in decline, since all his greatest work predates the LP era and at this distance it's difficult to hear how completely he changed the role of the trombone. In Tea's hands, this awkward barnyard instrument became majestic, sonorous and handsome. By the time he began recording in 1926 he was already a mature and easeful player whose feel for blues and nonchalant rhythmic drive made him stand out on the dance-band records he was making.”

Gunther Schuller, The Trombone in Jazz, in Bill Kirchner, ed., The Oxford Companion to Jazz, [New YorkOxford University Press, 2000, pp. 631-32].

“Jack Teagarden brought a whole new level of musical sophistication and musical expressivity to trombone playing.

… Teagarden had a very easy, secure high register, and as a con­sequence was one of the first trombonists to develop an abundance of "unorthodox" alternate slide positions, playing mostly on the upper partials of the harmonic series and thus rarely having to resort to the lower (fifth to seventh) positions. Since many of these alternate posi­tions are impure in intonation, it is remarkable how in tune Teagar-den's playing was for that time. He had also developed an astonishingly easy lip trill—a sine qua non for today's trombonists, but still a great rarity in the 1920s—and was constantly experimenting with novel so­norities, produced by, for example, playing with a water glass held over the bell of his horn, or removing the bell altogether.

Teagarden was unique among trombonists in playing with a laid-back, "lazy" style, which many observers called a "Texas drawl." He also had quite a reputation as a singer, particularly of the blues, again in a superbly relaxed manner. Teagarden's essentially vocal, lyric trombone style, using lots of what brass players call "soft tonguing," has its parallel in the "slurred speech" approach—almost to the point of mushiness—in his singing.”

Ted GioiaThe History of Jazz, [New YorkOxford, 1997, excerpts taken from pp. 82-84].

“Only one other white brass player of the day could approach [Bix] Beiderbecke in terms of individuality and creativity. Jack Teagarden stands out as the greatest of the traditional Jazz players on the trombone, and also left a mark as an important Jazz singer. …

Teagarden had few models to draw on—either on record or in person—during his formative years. The New Orleans tradition, despite its frequent use of the trom­bone, had done little to develop its possibilities as a solo voice. It more often served as a source of counter melodies or rhythmic accents, often linking harmonies with the slurred chromatic glissandi that characterized the "Tailgate" sound, a stock New Or­leans device associated most closely with Kid Ory….

In many ways, Teagarden's playing showed a disregard of formal methods, especially in his reliance on embouchure and alternate positions rather than slide technique; …, by the time of his arrival in New York [1927], Teagarden was already a seasoned musician. …

Teagarden displayed a sensitivity to the blues that few white players of his gener­ation could match. …

Although he was capable of virtuosic displays, Teagarden was most at home crafting a carefree, behind-the-beat style. Especially when he was singing, the lazy, "after-hours" quality to his delivery— incorporating elements of song, patter, and idle conversation—proved endearing to audiences, especially in the context of a jazz world that was only just discovering the potential of understatement. Teagarden was just as comfortable in simplifying the written melody as in ornamenting it.”

And let’s close this overview of Jack Teagarden with these comments from Martin Williams Preface to Jay D. Smith’s and Len Guttridge’s Jack Teagarden: The Story of a Jazz Maverick [New York: Da Capo, 1988].

“Obviously a man like Teagarden, with his mastery of his in­strument, might have stepped into almost any kind of music and made a career for himself. But one thing that Jay D. Smith's and Len Guttridge's book makes clear is that Jack could not have been any kind of musician except a jazz musician.

A jazz musi­cian simply has to make his music and dedicate his life to it, even though he may not tell you (or himself) why he has to. He may not, indeed, even be able to say why, or need to say why. The need is to make the music and, necessarily, lead the life that makes that possible. All of which has little or nothing to do with ego or acclaim or money. He needs to give his music to the world and he hopes the world will understand.

You will find out about that need in these pages. You will also find plenty of the pranks and boys-will-be-boys anecdotes that seem so prevalent, diverting, and (under the surface) necessary a part of the musical life.

I could say that Smith and Guttridge engaged in a labor of love in researching and writing their book for Jack. But I would also describe it as a labor of infatuation, and
I offer that further description with respect.”

— Martin Williams October 1987”

“Infatuation” is a good word to use with Jack Teagarden’s music.

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