© - Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
Jack Teagarden (1905-64)
“A Texan, Teagarden took the trombone to new levels, with his impeccable technique, fluency and gorgeous sound, allied to a feel for blues playing which eluded many of his white contemporaries. He was also a fine, idiosyncratic singer. He was with Ben Pollack for five years from 1928, with Paul Whiteman in the 305, and finally led his own swing orchestra, though it left him broke in the end. He joined the Louis Armstrong All Stars in 1946, stayed till 1951, then led small groups of his own and toured for the rest of his life. He died in New Orleans….
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.”
- Richard Cook and Brian Morton, The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.
“But Teagarden was different, and defining what made him different calls for a brief digression. Creative jazz soloists seem to fall into two general types. There are the proteans, endlessly questing, discovering, reinventing, reshaping—all in pursuit of some half-glimpsed, fugitive perfection. Among these, Coleman Haw-Jans springs readily to mind: over four decades his basic style took various forms, from silken smoothness to something occasionally approaching brutality. Like composer Igor Stravinsky, he seemed to devise and perfect a given mode or approach only to desert it, again auf der Suche. [literally “in search;” with the connotation of a quest].
Others, by contrast, arrive relatively early at an effective mode of expression, then spend the rest of their days adjusting, refining, polishing their creation to a high luster. Beyond argument, Jack Teagarden belongs to, exemplifies, the latter group: his style "set" quickly, and thereafter changed only subtly. It included not only recognizable patterns but entire "master choruses" on familiar numbers, delivered often enough to become trademarks. There were certain blues solos, all the more beloved for their familiarity; pet cadenzas, richly decorated with lightning triplets and gruppetti of impeccably executed sixteenth notes; set routines on such standards as "Basin Street Blues," "The Sheik of Araby," "Rockin' Chair," and the aforementioned ' 'St. James Infirmary.”
- Richard Sudhalter, Lost Chords: White Musicians and Their Contribution to Jazz, 1915-1945.
“Because he was just the way he sounded — relaxed, warm and wonderfully creative — Jack Teagarden was one of the most beloved and most admired musicians in all of jazz history. He brought to music his own very personal, languid style, singing or swinging the blues on his trombone with a minimum of effort and a maximum of emotion. His admirers spanned two generations, beginning with fellow musicians like Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller and the Dorseys during the twenties and extending well into the sixties when a comparative youngster, Gerry Mulligan, proclaimed "He has everything a great jazz musician needs to have — a beautiful sound, a wonderful melodic sense, a deep feeling, a swinging beat, and the ability to make everything, even the most difficult things, sound relaxed and easy."”
- George T. Simon, The Big Bands, 4th Ed.
The emergence of Jack Teagarden as an important jazz stylist was a significant feature of the 1920s jazz scene. Big T, as he was affectionately known by his fellow musicians, brought a maturity and a solidity to the sound of the trombone and until late in his life played with a laconic grace that few, if any, on his instrument have equaled. His collaborations with Louis Armstrong — who rated their musical relationship higher than any he had known — was one of the great partnerships in Jazz history. The story of this funny, happy Texan is told with affection and detail in Jay D. Smith and Len Guttridge’s Jack Teagarden: The Story of a Jazz Maverick.
Originally published in 1960 by Macmillan and Company, Martin Williams, the esteemed Jazz author and critic, wrote the following forward to the paperback edition published by DaCapo Press in 1988.
“In 1950, on the occasion of his 50th birthday, Louis Armstrong granted a long and generally fascinating interview to the editors of a magazine called the Record Changer. The publication was read by jazz record collectors, so there were many questions about Armstrong's early days and about his musical relationship to his mentor Joseph "King" Oliver. It was the elder cornetist who first brought the young Armstrong out of New Orleans, and who was an early influence on his style. Louis, as usual, was properly respectful of "Papa Joe." But he made it clear that he also wanted to talk about his current "brass team," and about Jack Teagarden. He rated that later musical relationship most highly, higher than any such he had ever known, it is safe to say.
The meshing of Armstrong and Teagarden was a close one musically, no question. And it was partly a matter of Louis's own sizable effect on everybody's music. However much he was inspired by Oliver, Armstrong has offered music something new, something which Oliver, for all his accomplishments and importance, had merely hinted at — a new rhythmic sense, a new momentum, a swing based on several things, even on a new way of sounding the individual notes. Jack Teagarden was one of the first trombonists to absorb that Armstrong sense of swing in the Armstrong manner.
Teagarden's musical personality and demeanor were distinctly and unmistakably his own, however. Indeed, what Louis contributed could inspire the singularly concentrated ease of a Jack Teagarden on the one band, and (let us say) the stark three-minute dramas of a Billie Holiday on the other. And it could allow each of those artists (and hundreds of others) also to be themselves.
As I say, Teagarden was himself. And he was, technically speaking, a superb trombonist, a superb brassman. In the late 1950s, composer-arranger Bill Russo, himself a trombonist, declared that he had decided that Teagarden was, after all, the best trombone-player — and this at a time when a J.J. Johnson-inspired bebop virtuosity reigned supreme on the instrument, especially among the young. Earlier, Teagarden's 1950 recording of his dazzling variations on Richard Rodgers's Lover (a Broadway waltz converted into an up-tempo 4/4) was admired by young and old alike. And by audiences as well, for Lover quickly became something of a set-piece for Jack, joining Stars Fell on Alabama, Basin Street Blues, St. James Infirmary and I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues as a standard part of his almost-nightly repertory.
Most of the Teagarden standards were slower than Lover, of course, and they partly depended on the singular character of what has been called "the Teagarden aura." However, in those slower vehicles Jack's techniques often showed themselves at their best. His was an art of flourishes and ornaments, but flourishes so discreetly conceived and placed as to enhance and never draw attention to themselves. And his ornaments were executed with perfectly controlled combinations of the right embouchure and slide co-ordination. Perhaps only Ellington's virtuoso trombonist Lawrence Brown could rival them. And they depended on such quick, flexible lip techniques that perhaps only a man like trumpeter Harry Edison, some years later, might have challenged them.
The "live" recordings made at the remarkable 1947 Louis Armstrong All Stars, and of which you'll read more in these pages, were later issued on LP, and they show Jack's art succinctly. Here was Teagarden, mind you, on stage with Armstrong, and Armstrong was the kind of performer who needed only to walk in front of an audience to gain its full attention. And who needed only to blow a few of his powerful, authoritative notes to confirm that attention. In Teagarden's half-chorus solo on Pennies from Heaven (an Armstrong vehicle, after all) Jack distilled that piece's melody line to a simple, all-but-original lyric statement, and then ornamented his own lovely phrases with superbly understated terminal flourishes. And of course he made it all sound paradoxically easy. Then Jack, at center stage, played and sang St. James Infirmary with such totally straightforward, cool concentration that one would be hard put not to hang on to his every note and phrase.
Talk about a Teagarden aura! As if to say, "There is Louis's power (God bless him) and here is mine, and you see they aren't the same."
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”
If you are not familiar with the career and music of Jack Teagarden, you owe to yourself to check it out in all its manifestations and Jay and Len’s biography is a good place to start. [You may also wish to seek out Howard J. Walters, Jr., Jack Teagarden’s Music: His Career and Records although used copies of it are somewhat expensive].
Sure, Jack is one of “the old guys,” but when Jack was a young guy, he was one of the inventors of the music we institutionalize today as “Jazz.” He was a courageous and brave man, who walked the talk and created the foundation for Jazz trombone in his lifetime along with the likes of Kid Ory and Miff Mole.
Imagine, night-after-night, standing next to Pops and playing Jazz! Over the span of his brilliant career, Louis Armstrong didn’t share the stage with many, but there always was a spot for Big T.
Big T and Little Louie - when Giants Walked the Jazz World.