Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b Weldon Leo Teagarden, 29 August 1905, Vernon TX; d 15 January 1964, New Orleans) Trombonist, vocalist, bandleader; one of the all-time greats in the history of jazz. (According to a biography by Smith and Gutteridge, "Weldon Leo" was the hero of a popular novel of whom Jack's Aunt Barbara was fond.) The New Orleans tail-gate bass-line trombone style was described by trombonist Vic Dickenson as sounding like 'a dying cow in a thunderstorm'; with Jimmy Harrison and Miff Mole in New York, Teagarden re-invented the jazz trombone, but he did it single-handedly in the Southwest, and more thoroughly than anyone else. His father was an engineer; Jack became an auto mechanic and was fascinated by gadgets all his life, and he approached the trombone like a machine, redesigning mouthpieces and mutes (he'd sometimes take the bell off his trombone and play into an empty water-glass, getting a moving vocal-like tone). He'd played horns with valves, and as a child with short arms he taught himself to use his lip rather than the slide to change notes; perhaps he liked the sound of the trombone because of its vocal qualities but didn't want the effect of the slide, and so minimized it by discovering 'short positions'. The style he came up with has been described as doing the difficult thing at the last moment and making it sound easy. His laid-back yet precise drawl marked both his horn and his singing, which were remarkably similar; he was one of the few true jazz singers, along with Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday and not many others. His sister Norma played piano (b 29 April 1911; d 5 June 1996; played with Jack '44-6, '52-5; also with Ben Pollack, Pete Dailey etc; taught music, then played on jazz cruises and at the Washington Bar and Grill into '90s), brother Cub was a drummer (b Clois Lee Teagarden, 16 December 1915; d 1969) and Charlie was a fine trumpet player (b 19 July 1913; d 10 December 1984) often with Jack, Pollack, etc.

Jack started on piano at five, baritone horn at seven, trombone at ten, turned pro at about 15; played with Peck Kelley's Bad Boys and other territory bands; reached NYC and first recorded '27, depping for Mole on a Roger Wolfe Kahn session. At first he seemed less spectacular than Mole, then the reigning wizard of the trombone, but while Mole (and Harrison, who played in Fletcher Henderson's band) were both highly skilled musicians and good jazzmen, for Teagarden the technique and the jazz were the same thing. Black musicians like Harrison and Coleman Hawkins became his close friends; some even questioned his ancestry, having never heard a white man play and sing the blues like Teagarden. His trombone style immediately became the most influential, yet he remained unique; musicians and fans alike were astonished at the amount of music that came from somebody who never appeared to be working hard. He had plenty of session work, often leading his own pickup band on records while with the Ben Pollack band '28-33: sides with Eddie Condon '29 'That's An Awful Serious Thing' and 'I'm Gonna Stomp Mr Henry Lee' were jazz classics, the 78 staying in print for many years, with solos and vocals by Teagarden, solos on the latter by Joe Sullivan on piano and by Happy Cauldwell, who tried to play jazz on the tenor sax before it had been invented by Coleman Hawkins (and with an enthusiastic drummer soloing all the way through). Teagarden first recorded with Louis Armstrong '29 on 'Knockin' A Jug'. Of many freelance records under Teagarden's name, most featuring Charlie as well, highlights were 'You Rascal You', 'That's What I Like About You' and 'Chances Are' '31, including comedy with Fats Waller on the first two as well as good singing and blowing; 'Someone Stole Gabriel's Horn' '33, 'I've Got ''It''' '34, 'The Sheik Of Araby' and 'Cinderella, Stay In My Arms' (with Charlie Spivak) '39. With a Benny Goodman studio band 'Texas Tea Party', 'Ain't Cha Glad', 'Dr Heckle And Mr Jibe' and 'I Gotta Right To Sing The Blues' '33 were classics. On 'The Blues' from an RCA Victor All-Stars date '39, Tommy Dorsey played the simple theme (a beautiful legato) while Jack improvised. He recorded and gigged '36 in NYC with Frankie Trumbauer and Charlie as the Three T's: 'I'se A Muggin' ' on Victor. There is a wonderful radio air check from '38 with Armstrong, Waller, Bud Freeman, Al Casey and George Wettling. Jack Teagarden's Big Eight recorded privately for a record club '40 with Ellingtonians Ben Webster, Barney Bigard and Rex Stewart, tracks later on Riverside and OJC; a date with Bud Freeman and his Famous Chicagoans same year included 'Jack Hits The Road'. His voice was unmistakable on 'If I Could Be With You One Hour Tonight', 'I Ain't Lazy, I'm Just Dreaming', 'Meet Me Where They Play The Blues' and many others. He was one of those who improved every date he attended, yet he never wanted to be the star.

Meanwhile the Great Depression had intervened; Teagarden played on over a hundred records '29, but none at all '32; he signed a five-year contract with Paul Whiteman '33. Whiteman was the biggest name in show business at the time; he led a superb band and played good arrangements, some of them remarkably modern-sounding and good settings for jazzmen like Bix Beiderbecke and Jack Teagarden (Charlie was also there); musicians admired the band, but the fatheaded jazz fans of the period didn't know how to listen to arrangements, and the legend persists that Bix and Jack were unhappy in the Whiteman band. There is no evidence of this. Teagarden may have been as happy during this period as at any time of his life: he made a secure living, he was highly valued by everyone and was free to pursue freelance work, and anyway he was no businessman and seemed only to want to play and sing and let somebody else take care of the rest.

When the Whiteman contract ran out, the Depression seemed to be easing and Teagarden had had some hit records with his own pickup groups, so was persuaded to lead his own big band '39-46, and it was a disaster. The band backed Hoagy Carmichael in his eponymous short film '39 (with Cub on drums), appeared in other films such as Birth Of The Blues '41; records on Varsity '40 had vocals by Kitty Kallen and 17-year-old David Allyn as well as Jack and Marianne Dunne; the band recorded for Decca and the lovely ballad 'A Hundred Years From Today' '41 belonged for ever to Jack; a novelty 'The Waiter And The Porter And The Upstairs Maid' had vocals by Jack, Bing Crosby and Mary Martin. But his luck was bad: at prime venues with radio wires such as the Meadowbrook and the Black Hawk Hotel, war news cut them off the air and the band lost both money and radio exposure; the Big Band Era was passing its peak and he ended up $50,000 in debt. Teagarden played and sang at Louis Armstrong's famous 1947 Town Hall concert including a classic vocal duet on 'Rockin' Chair'; Armstrong gave up his big band and formed his All-Stars, with whom Teagarden played until '51; for the rest of his life Teagarden led his own small groups except for periods with Pollack '56 and Earl Hines '57.

There were Teagarden albums on Bethlehem '54, Roulette '61, Verve '61-2 (the Verve album Think Well Of Me '62 contains mostly songs by Willard Robison, such as 'Cottage For Sale' and 'Guess I'll Go Back Home This Summer'; his singing on the Jimmy McHugh-Harold Adamson 'Where Are You?' makes the easy-listening arrangement by Claus Ogerman disappear.) And there was a priceless period at Capitol. The Bobby Hackett album Coast Concert '55 was made in Hollywood all in one night with Hackett on cornet, Bob Crosby alumni Matty Matlock on clarinet, Nappy Lamare, guitar; Abe Lincoln on second trombone (b 29 March 1907, Lancaster PA, d 8 June 2000: replaced Tommy Dorsey in the California Ramblers '26, later with Kahn, Whiteman, Ozzie Nelson, then studio work), Don Owens on piano, Phil Stephens on bass and tuba and Nick Fatool on drums, including Teagarden's classic vocal and 'tram-bone coda' on 'Basin Street Blues': the album was a delicious miracle, one of the most delightful of the decade, as if these old friends had said, 'Where've you guys been?' and then had the time of their lives. Jazz Ultimate '57 in NYC was co-led by Hackett and Teagarden; Hackett switched to trumpet, with Ernie Caceres on baritone, Peanuts Hucko on tenor (both also on clarinet), Billy Bauer on guitar, Condonites Jack Lesberg on bass (b 14 February 1920, Boston), Gene Schroeder on piano (b 5 February 1915, Madison WI; d there 16 February 1975), Benjamin 'Buzzy' Drootin on drums (b c1920 in Russia; grew up in Boston; d mid-2000 in Englewood NJ). Big T's Dixieland Band '58 presented his touring group, with Don Ewell on piano, and there were big-band albums: This Is Jack Teagarden and Swing Low, Sweet Spiritual '56 (a few tracks on the latter weakened by a vocal group, something Capitol was prone to in those years), Shades Of Night '58. All of Teagarden's Capitol sessions were examples of the way he could play and sing something he'd done a thousand times and make it fresh; all were compiled '96 on Mosaic's limited edition The Complete Capitol Fifties Jack Teagarden Sessions. Like Armstrong, Jack Teagarden was exceptionally and quintessentially a soloist and an entertainer, but he had nobody like Armstrong's Joe Glaser to look after him, and never made enough money. He died in a hotel room. There were other albums and compilations on Jazzology and other labels.