Saturday, June 29, 2019

Jack Teagarden: The Man with the Blues in His Heart by Otis Ferguson

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

The JazzProfiles blog is as much a tribute to Jazz writers as it is an homage to the music and its makers. Jazz authors, editors and critics provide us with insights and information that helps enrich our listening experience.

Although we have previously featured his work on the blog, the name “Otis Ferguson” may still be an unfamiliar one

Malcolm Cowley, his closest friend at The New Republic, the magazine that published much of Otis Ferguson’s writings, had this to say about him:

“Ferguson's name is legendary in the field of jazz. He has been called "the best writer on jazz who ever lived" and "the most brilliant of them all." One of the first critics to write seriously about this native American music, he brought an understanding and appreciation of jazz to an audience far wider than the original small group of aficionados. Professional jazz musicians have been among his most ardent admirers.” [The Otis Ferguson Reader, p. 1].

Malcolm also offered these observations about Otis in his Foreword to The Otis Ferguson Reader:

“I find with regret that the work and even the name of Otis Ferguson are generally unknown to readers under sixty. Older persons are likely to remember the work with pleasure. Much of it dealt with swing bands or unpretentious, well-crafted films and, by extension, with the revival of popular culture during the 1930s, an aspect of the period that is often neglected. Otis—I can't address him coldly as "Ferguson"— approached those subjects freshly, accurately, with lyrical enthusiasm and with contempt for anything faked. Everything he wrote was attentively read in its time, besides leaving echoes in the work of later critics. But the author, who had volunteered as a merchant seaman, was blown up by a German bomb in the Gulf of Salerno, and soon his writing became hard to find except in the back flies of magazines, chiefly The New Republic. Now, after forty years, it is good to learn that the best of the writing, in many fields, is being collected as an Otis Ferguson Reader.”

If you haven’t read Otis Ferguson, you are in for a treat. The following appeared in The New Republic on July 14, 1937.

“Jack Teagarden (otherwise Jackson, Mister Jack, Mister T., Big Gate, etc.) is one of the really high men in the jazz collection, I'll tell you more about it. At the outset it should be said that he has been playing around half his lifetime in a business that sets the most grueling pace of any. On the stand, off the stand, on the train, and up on another stand night after night after night, rehearsals and recording dates, a different hotel and different babes but the same arrangements and iron routine. And the same bottle. Yet a man is supposed to bring it out clean and inspired every time his number is called, and it is a mortal truth that playing it that way in jazz means playing as though you had a fire under you. Teagarden has been on this griddle a long time. Though still a fine musician, he seems tired and cynical, his creation a bit shopworn-which knowing gentlemen have not hesitated to remark or less knowing gentlemen to echo, which in itself is enough to embitter a fellow and make him listless.

Word about him is always going around. He was with Whiteman in the long stretch when they were playing Jumbo and it was getting him down and he was taking more heavily to drink and just about on his deathbed. Then it was over and the word was that Jack was sitting in with the Boys in the Spots and this was a new lease on life. Then he went to Texas and then he and a few others were playing nightly at the Hickory House in a very weary and dispirited jam combination, and it was common knowledge that Jack was taking more heavily to drink and practically on his, etc. Then they were on the road for months, and I saw them in Miami, where they were playing a slew of marches for the greyhound races, and it struck me that Jack did not like marches or greyhounds either, and it didn't help any when he put a dollar on a dog out of sheer boredom and the pooch would stop and go to work on a flea somewhere around the back stretch. Then this spring the Goodman band was playing that New York sweatbox with the odd name of Roseland, crowds bulging the walls out and all, and when the boys finally got away from the stand in the first intermission, the word was that Jack was sitting right on the edge of the platform and his eyes were bugging out, and he was very happy and he had a jug. The new-lease-on-life idea, of course. Now he is down in Texas with Whiteman again and I presume the word is still going around. Well, the point is that a man's bones get weary after a while, and if he doesn't want to go on forever playing it as though it were being torn out of him, and playing for practically marbles, why all right, then. Jack could stop playing as of today and still have more splendor behind him than the latest fourteen-year-old wonder will pick up in the next ten years. Happy is he, in this game, who dies before his time.

Jack Teagarden was born in Texas a little over thirty years ago, with two brothers to follow in the family (Charles plays trumpet beside him in the Whiteman band today). When he was fifteen, he was playing trombone with a brass band, and after that he had jobs with cowboy bands, etc. By the time he was twenty-one, he had come up from Texas and was playing in the Ben Pollack orchestra, which had Benny and Harry Goodman, Jimmy McPartland, etc., and was one of the high-water marks of its time. His face was round, his hair was black and he parted it in the middle and slicked it back. He had a lazy baritone voice that was musical even in speech and Texas all over the place, strong-fibered and rich for singing-though in the early days he made his way wholly on his instrument, which up to his time had been a sort of sliding musical joke.

If there is less doubt today that the trombone is a beautiful horn, full of color and ring and deep power—its high notes played against such exciting resistance, its lows so broad, dark, and hoarse—it is thanks to Jack, along with Jimmy Harrison, Charlie Green, Higginbotham and (with more mechanical verve) Miff Mole, Tommy Dorsey, Bill Rank. I mention these names because no one has quite done for the trombone what Bix Beiderbecke did for the cornet, mastering the instrument completely as a medium for the gusty winds of music that brewed within him. Mole and Rank had that explosive round perfection of each note as hit; Dorsey has a truer singing quality on the "sweet" side than anything recorded; the Negroes (Harrison, etc.) had the raw creative strength. But as an all-around man, Teagarden for me comes nearest to that high spirit in brass. There is the same singing strength and style of his own, the same feeling that this was the instrument with just the timbre and interval to suit him best and he the best suited to it.

He will hit fuzzy ones sometimes, sometimes crowd his horn too much, and often bring back the same variation for a supposedly different theme; but taken at his best, he has that clear construction in melodic lines, that insistent suggestion through complexity of the simple prime beat. And in both tonal and rhythmic attack there is that constant hint of conquest over an imposed resistance which is peculiar to jazz and therefore indefinable in other terms. Something like the difference between driving a spike cleanly into a solid oak block and the hollow victory of sinking it in lath and plaster. Something like what it takes to hold a note and make it build powerfully, or hammer it back in at intervals to dominate a chorus, or come out of a whole burst of notes with three deliberate tones, mounted (as it were) in a sudden ringing silence. Not what it takes, certainly, to play in perfect unison and proper blare a march for Jumbo or the Biscayne Kennel Club—Jack does that, too, as he must to live, but there both instrument and man are merely the highly perfected instrument for somebody else's music —Sousa or whoever. Every man his own composer is the rule in jazz, which is demonstrated once more in the work of Teagarden, building up behind those single-tone vibrato attacks and tortured triplets, running clear in the wide long open beauty of the blues, the lazy rest and slur; every note true to its inner laws of pitch and overtone, true in its relation to the harmonic structure and mood of the piece; the man leaning back against the iron signature or riding it easily, or rampaging on against the van of it like some great brass bull.

Jack has been everywhere, but I suppose the time with Pollack, the first taste of real fame and flush of power were the best for him (his recordings with the Red Nichols outfits are really the best for us). After Pollack he went on the fierce grind of the Mai Hallett organization, along with Gene Krupa and others; and while he has been with Whiteman for years, it is hard to keep track of the men he has played or recorded with meanwhile. He played with the great Louis Armstrong orchestra that recorded "Knockin' a Jug," he is to be heard on some of the works of the Chicago group, he did a lot of jobs with Benny Goodman's recording bands (Someone once remarked that the Goodman family had everything but a trombone. "What do you mean?" one of them said. "We've got Jack"); he was in the movies, has always been featured by Whiteman and Trumbauer, and has made some records under his own name. When Hoagy Carmichael gathered all the stars to put some of his songs on wax, there was Mr. Jackson at the end of "Georgia" playing five or six phrases in as beautiful a mood of invention as you will hear; and when the Venuti-Lang team gathered an "all-star" group to make four sides, there he was again, prominent all the way through, particularly in the best of his recorded "Beale Street Blues";he played one date behind the great Bessie Smith.

And all the time he has been turning out music with a warmth and incessant play of the unexpected that you could never describe, but never confuse with anyone else's. He can take a group of notes in three simple progressions and make them a source of repeated surprise and delight by managing to shift the emphasis, invert the expected order, surge ahead and then hold all and then suddenly bring all out into one of those full measured tones he gets, true in the center and edged with a fine coarse vibrato (the controlled shake of the instrument, the pressure of air to the lips and lips to the mouthpiece—embouchure, if you wish). And, in the measure of his chorus, he always uses the savage velvet of a good trombone, the beat of jazz and lilt of the phrases to arrive at something that is terrific on a leash or sad, or gorgeous, or enchanting with echoes of a better day. His music all through has a true singing quality (though there are many heroes who can be just terrific or technically amazing, those who can throw out a line of notes that will make a kind of song are few and stand at the top) and indeed he can put away his instrument at any time and sing a chorus like an angel. But an angel from Texas, gone a little maverick. They delight to use him for kidding numbers, as witness the classic they did on "The Sheik," but his singing voice goes best with the blues and is a clue to the penetrating, lazy kind of sadness that hangs in his best overtones. I mentioned the "Georgia" number, and there are countless others where nostalgia might be explained by fidelity to content, but when you take the solo (as finely constructed a piece of work, incidentally, as he or anybody else has managed) in a number called "I'm Just Wild about Harry," and hear the phrases drop like an instinctive sorrowing for the sins of the race—then you can tell where he came from and where his heart lies. Running through all his work, singing or playing-“I was born down in Texas, raised in Tennessee” —you can catch the echo of it almost as distinctly as though someone had said it: the heritage, the true lift and music of the blues.

“Said I was born in Texas, raised in Tennessee.” It is an American form, peculiar and beautiful, and its naive turns are never foolish except in the mouths of those who burlesque it without knowing or seeing the enduring strength of its simplicities.

“And there ain't no one woman
Going to make a fat-mouth out of me.”

You have to have it early and have it plenty, it has to come from some reservoir of native experience, combining that expression of the world's sadness with that fine derision for the facts of common life.

(I said a fat-mouth out of me.)

So that old Beale Street jive ("New York might be all right, but Beale Street's paved with gold") seems to lie just behind this man's best work. And I am not joking or filling out an article when I say that Mr. Teagarden's best work is one of those things that has about its edges the strange and awful air of pure creation, something that was brought out because it was born in him like a gift and had to get out. It would be a far far better thing to be Jack Teagarden today, I think sometimes, blowing it out listlessly with Whiteman and perhaps hung over like a chimney full of bricks—and have that much behind you, irrevocable and accomplished—than to be any one of twenty young geniuses breaking out into no matter what art with no matter what talents. For a man lives best by the best that he has done, and so there can hardly be any premature burials of Jack Teagarden, because he has already done pretty fine.”

The New Republic, 14 July 1937

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