Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Teagarden, Jack (Weldon Leo)

Trombonist and singer Jack Teagarden may have been at ease in the tailgate style of his generation, but he was the first to step out of that role and stand on his own as a melodic improviser. Where his trombone playing was highly decorative and technical, his singing was understated, a subtle baritone coated with very light vibrato. But both, while different in timbre, achieved the same goal: they convey a deep melancholic sadness rooted in the blues.

Teagarden's style as a soloist was closer the clarinetists of his time than to other trombonists; he achieved this by cultivating licks in the upper register, supported by his comfort over three octaves on the instrument and ability to use the special mechanics of the slide to help carry his phrases. As he matured musically, he also developed a very sophisticated double-time rhythmic feel that complimented this style of melodic phrasing.

Weldon Leo "Jack" Teagarden was born on August 29, 1905 in Vernon, Texas. His mother, Helen Giengar, taught piano lessons in their home and his father, Charles Woodbury "Woodie," was an enthusiastic although not particularly talented amateur trumpet player and community band organizer.

Teagarden always claimed that the abundance of music in his childhood home led him to develop perfect pitch. Teagarden's three siblings Charlie, Norma and Clois also became professional musicians. Starting at age five, he began taking piano lessons with his mother. At age seven, he began to play the tenor horn, a brass instrument still used today in British-style brass bands and Mexican banda music, motivated by his distaste for piano lessons. Three years later, he switched to trombone and began playing duets with his mother at the local movie theater to accompany silent films.

In 1918, Teagarden's father died and the family moved to Chappell, Nebraska, where he continued to work in theaters with his mother. A year later, the family moved to Oklahoma City. By age sixteen, he was working professional career with Cotton Bailey's Dance and Jazz Band in San Antonio, Texas, then joined Peck Kelley's Bad Boys. Based in Houston, the Bad Boys were known as one of Texas's premier territory bands, and toured all over the Southwest, including tours to New Orleans and the northern states of Mexico. It was Peck Kelley who gave Teagarden the nickname "Jack."

By this time, Teagarden had developed a hobby as an amateur mechanic, and was responsible for keeping the band's Stanley Steamer in working order. He also made mechanical innovations to his trombone, including new mouthpieces and what is believed to be the first trombone "spit valve." He became well-known for playing trombone solos with the trombone bell removed, such as on the 1928 recording of Makin' Friends. During this period he me and married his first wife, Ora Binyon, with whom he had two sons.

The success of the Bad Boys caught the attention of visiting bandleader Paul Whiteman, who offered Teagarden a position in his New York band. Teagarden chose to continue playing locally, however, and didn't travel to New York until 1926 on an eastern tour with Doc Ross' Jazz Bandits. He finally went to New York on his own in 1927 with the intention of joining Paul Whiteman's orchestra. However, upon arriving in New York he heard the Ben Pollack group and set his sights on playing with them.

After two months with the Tommy Gott orchestra, Teagarden was able to replace Glenn Miller as Pollack's first trombonist. He made his first recording with an offshoot of the Pollack band, the Kentucky Grasshoppers. "She's a Great, Great Girl", recorded in March of 1928, provides a good example of Teagarden's playing at this point: he is already using a wide range of pitches and using lip trills, shakes and "against the grain" playing, scalar patterns played by moving the slide outwards towards the alternate positions in the mid-to-upper register, and fluid improvisation.

During the next few years, Teagarden performed with many notable early jazz pioneers including Pollack, Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Bix Beiderbecke, Red Nichols, Jimmy McPartland, Eddie Condon, Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang. One such example is his recording with Ben Pollack and brother Charlie Teagarden of "Cryin' For the Carolines" in 1930.

Teagarden also began recording vocal numbers during this period. His laid-back, husky baritone was most commonly featured on blues numbers. Working with Glenn Miller, he co-wrote new lyrics to "Basin Street Blues," which became one of the staples of his repertoire for the rest of his career. Like many of the early jazz pioneers, Teagarden had by this point developed a serious pattern of alochol abuse which would darken much of the rest of his life.

In early 1933, Teagarden relocated to Chicago where he played with Wingy Manone, only to return to New York later in the fall, when he cut a number of sides with clarinetist Bennie Goodman, including Billie Holiday's recording debut "Riffin' the Scotch" and his own vocal rendition of "I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues."

On "I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues," Teagarden is featured as the group's first soloist, and although he has not developed the rhythmic sense that would define his later career, his unique melodic style and flexibility are evident, especially with his trill-like decorations. He is also featured as a vocalist, where his presentation is vital and aggressive but with the same subtle vibrato and long phrasing. His playing in the group improvisation at the end of the piece also foreshadows the development of the fast upper-register phrasing that he perfected later in his career.

In December, Teagarden finally agreed to join Paul Whiteman's orchestra. Seeking financial security in the midst of the Great Depression, he signed an exclusive five-year contract with Whiteman which limited his other playing opportunities. One highlight, however, came in 1936, when Whiteman allowed him and his fellow improvising bandmates Frankie Trumbauer and Charlie Teagarden to headline an after-hours small group at Hickory House on 52nd street, billed as "The Three Ts."

Teagarden was featured as a star soloist and vocalist in the Whiteman band through 1938. One example of his playing with Whiteman can be found on "Blue Belles of Harlem." During this time he married and divorced, successively, Clare Manzi and Edna "Billie" Coats.

When his contract expired with Whiteman, Teagarden decided to form his own big band and take it on the road. His timing, however, was unfortunate, as other big bands such as Tommy Dorsey's, Glenn Miller's and Benny Goodman's had already become popular. Teagarden's first attempt at starting a band, with high-profile (and high-paid) sidemen including Charlie Spivak, quickly proved to be financially untenable. Notably, his brother Charlie chose to remain with Whiteman during this time rather than join Jack's big band venture.

The combination of poor management and Teagarden's own unreliability, alcoholism and lack of business sense led to the first group's breakup. Despite facing bankruptcy, Teagarden stubbornly tried to re-start his band with lesser-known sidemen, partially thanks to the help of his friend Bing Crosby, who helped him land a speaking role in the 1941 film Birth of the Blues. It was around this time that he met his fourth and final wife, Adeline Barriere Gault, whom he married in September 1942.

Even though his big band ventures were unsuccessful, Teagarden was being recognized by many listeners as one of his generation's best performers - evidenced by his performance of "I've Got Rhythm" with the Esquire All Stars in 1944. His band did last until 1946, when Teagarden, again facing bankruptcy, finally abandoned his big band asiprations and joined the Louis Armstrong All-Stars sextet.

Teagarden's work with Armstrong is generally regarded as the best of his career. Not coincidentally, he had recently stopped drinking at the behest of his new wife Addie. His collaboration with Armstrong lasted for four years, and resulted in some fantastic cuts of Armstrong classics such as Muskrat Ramble, Baby Won't You Please Come Home and Black and Blue. Teagarden was also featured on some of his own better-known songs including Lover and Stars Fell On Alabama.

His 1947 recording with Armstrong of Mitchell Parrish's 1934 hitStars Fell on Alabama, his signature song, featured him both as a trombone soloist as well as a singer, and demonstrate his mature sound and rhythmic sense. From the beginning of the piece, he plays the "A" section of the melody with his characteristic trills and embellishments.

His success with Armstrong led Teagarden to start his own sextet in 1951, the Jack Teagarden All-Stars. His wife Addie served as his business manager, and his brother Charlie joined him for a time on trumpet. He was a featured performer at the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival, as captured in Bert Stern's documentary film Jazz on a Summer's Day, which includes his duet witih Armstrong on "Rockin' Chair."

Teagarden was also selected to co-lead two U.S. State Department goodwill tours, which he regarded as the highlight of his career. His first tour, co-led with Earl Hines, traveled across Europe in 1957, followed by a three-month tour of the Far East in 1958 that took him to Thailand, Cambodia, India, Afghanistan, Vietnam and Japan. By this point Teagarden had taken to drinking again and by the performance in Japan was visibly ill.

Teagarden continued to perform until the end of his life. His final performance, at the Dream Room in New Orleans, had to be cut short due to Teagarden's poor health. He was found dead in his hotel room the following morning, January 15th, 1964, at the age of 58. The cause of death was reported as bronchial pneumonia, brought on by complications from chronic liver problems.

It has been widely reported that despite his brilliance, Teagarden failed to have a lasting impact on future trombonists. The younger J.J. Johnson is commonly considered to be the father of the modern jazz trombone, and there is little similarity in the two musicians' styles; however, it is easy to find Teagarden's influence in many aspects of modern trombone playing.

Unlike Johnson, he uses his lip flexibility to create melodic improvisations; whereas Johnson used his tongue to articulate almost all of his attacks, Teagarden combines a light attack with "against the grain" playing to great lyrical effect. Other great trombonists of his generation, most notably J.C. Higganbotham and Vic Dickenson, used lip trills more as decorative effects than as melodic devices.

Teagarden also pioneered the use of alternate positions in jazz improvisation, borrowing from the technical innovations of classical trombonists such as Arthur Pryor. Teagarden's techniques are evident in the playing of many subsequent trombonists such as Bill Harris, Curtis Fuller, Frank Rosolino, Carl Fontana and Conrad Herwig. Teagarden has also earned the distinction of being well-respected among all kinds of jazz fans, even those who derided many of his contemporaries in the Dixieland-revival movement as "moldy figs."

Select Discography

Stars Fell on Alabama (Giants of Jazz, compilation)

Mis'ry and the Blues (Verve, 1961)

Big T (Proper Box UK, compilation)

Jazz Ballads 19: Louis Armstrong and Jack Teagarden (Intense, compilation)

Contributor: Alex W. Rodriguez