“Jack Teagarden was one of those rare jazz musicians who seems to have emerged into the world whole, so completely adapted to his instrument that it sometimes appeared he and the trombone had been invented at the same time and had grown up together.” So wrote Leonard E. Guttridge in his narrative accompanying the compilation Giants of Jazz: Jack Teagarden. Indeed, for those familiar with Tea-garden and his followers, trombone playing that lacks his technique, fluency of ideas, drive, robust sound, and deep-rooted blues feel seems archaic. Unanimously credited—along with Jimmy Harrison and Miff Mole—by fellow musicians and critics with inventing the trombone jazz idiom, Teagarden transformed the instrument from its New Orleans “tailgate” roots to its present status as a thrilling solo instrument. It is not surprising that many equate Louis Armstrong’s trumpet, Coleman Hawkins’s tenor sax, Earl Hines’s piano, and Jack Teagarden’s trombone as the models for generations of jazz players.
Two widely circulated stories illustrate the high regard in which Teagarden was held. Trombonists Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller were among the most successful leaders of the Swing Era’s big band years, each a gifted musician. Dorsey was known to slip anonymously into clubs where Teagarden played in order to soak in the soulful sounds of “Big T.” On one occasion, when the two recorded together as members of an all-star jazz band, Dorsey insisted, “Let Jack play the jazz.” As for Miller, who in 1928 was struggling mightily to sound like pioneer jazz trombonist Mole in Ben Pollack’s band, when Teagarden tried out with Pollack, Miller exited as trombonist, staying on as principal arranger for the group.
Jack Teagarden—the trombonist changed his given name from Weldon Leo to Jack when he became a professional musician—grew up surrounded by music, in Vernon, Texas, 12 miles from the Texas-Oklahoma border. Though he often stated that his father had a “tin” ear, Teagarden and his siblings apparently inherited their mother’s musical gifts. Blessed with absolute pitch, Jack became one of four Teagarden children to establish substantial careers in the field of jazz. The youngest, Clois “Cub” Teagarden, performed on drums. Brother Charlie, Jr., became “Little T,” an excellent trumpeter, appearing and recording with Jack professionally at many levels. Sister Norma was a pianist who also played professionally with her brothers and on her own well into the 1980s. Of their early training, Norma
For the Record…
Born Weldon Leo Teagarden, August 20, 1905, in Vernon, TX; changed given name to Jack c. 1920; died of apparent heart failure, January 15, 1964, in New Orleans, LA; son of Charles (a stationary engineer and amateur cometist) and Helen Ceingar (a piano teacher and silent-film accompanist) Teagarden; married Ora Binyon, 1924 (divorced, 1930); married Clare Manzi, c. 1930 (divorced, 1933); married fourth wife, Adeline Barriere (his tour manager), c. 1942; children: (with Binyon) Gilbert, Jack Jr.; (with Barriere) Joey (son).
Began playing baritone horn c. 1910 and trombone c. 1913; worked as film projectionist, San Angelo, TX, 1920; became professional trombonist, 1920; joined Peck Kelley band; worked as oil field “roughneck,” 1923; played with Doc Ross’s Jazz Bandits and the Southern Trumpeters, 1924; became professional vocalist c. 1924; made numerous radio broadcasts; joined revamped Kelley band; played with Ranger Ross and His Cowboys; joined Scranton Sirens, 1927; joined Ben Pollack orchestra, 1928; made over 300 recordings, 1928-33; played with Paul Whiteman orchestra, 1933-38; led big band, 1939-46; led small combo, 1946; joined Louis Armstrong All Stars, 1947, and toured Europe, 1948; led small groups, 1951-64; participated in U.S. Department of State tour of Asia and Far East, 1958. Appeared in 39 films (some shorts). Patented trombone spit valve.
Awards: Metronome trombone poll winner, 1939; Esquire Gold Award, 1943; Playboy trombone awards, 1957-58, 1960.
remembered in The Mississippi Rag, “We had a piano—if we didn’t have a stove.”
Teagarden began playing on a baritone horn, a valved instrument in the trombone range, when he was about five, switching to his beloved trombone, received as a Christmas gift, at eight. Much has been made of the fact that some of Teagarden’s astonishing technique was due to the mismatch between the short-armed child and his demanding slide instrument, several “positions” of which require an extended reach. Accustomed to the baritone and blessed with his great ear and lip control, or embouchure, Teagarden simply learned to adapt the four closest slide positions to all of the musical overtones available in achieving the notes desired. Teagarden’s self-teaching of unorthodox slide work is similar to that of Bix Beiderbecke, whose “invented” alternate fingerings created a different, much-imitated sound for his cornet. Likewise, latter-day trombone virtuosos, such as Lawrence Brown and Urbie Green, utilize Teagarden’s method as a matter of course, giving their playing great fluidity.
When Teagarden’s father died, in 1918, the family moved to Oklahoma City, then to Chappell, Nebraska, then back to Oklahoma City. Though struggling financially, the Teagardens always made music, with mother leading the way by giving lessons and accompanying silent movies on the piano, sometimes in duets with Jack, who was independently developing his skills on the trombone. Local band concerts and church music also provided musical influences, as did two other elements: Negro spirituals and American Indian chants. Teagarden absorbed and imitated the distinctive sounds of these ethnic expressions, revealing in a 1958 interview, “[I] just pick up my horn and play it to where you couldn’t tell the difference.... I don’t know how that came so natural.” Because of his affinity for indigenous music, his Oklahoma connection, and especially his dark good looks and high cheekbones, Teagarden was widely thought to be at least part native American. His parents, however, were both of German descent. Something else that came “natural” to Teagarden was mechanical ability. Throughout his life he tinkered with machines and musical instruments, at one point patenting a spit valve for the trombone.
Teagarden worked as a projectionist in 1920 in San Angelo, TX, simultaneously becoming a professional musician as he joined a four-piece band. His reputation grew, and within a year he had joined the band of legendary pianist Peck Kelley, playing mainly in the Galveston-Houston-San Antonio area. In his first year-and-a-half stint with Kelley, Teagarden absorbed the blues idiom, seeking out good black musicians wherever he could. He met trumpet player Louis Armstrong and listened to singer Bessie Smith on records and in person. Also at this time, aided by his mechanical bent, he developed a technique that served him throughout his career: The trombonist learned to remove the bell from his horn and play into a hand-held water glass (or beer mug), thus achieving the effect of a somewhat burry, muted vocal sound that proved especially effective on blues and ballads. Then, in 1923, Teagarden left music temporarily to earn money as an oil field “roughneck.”
Unable to stay away for long, however, Teagarden jumped back in shortly thereafter, quickly moving from Doc Ross’s Jazz Bandits to the Southern Trumpeters in 1924, at about which time he began to display another facet of his talent—singing. Radio broadcasts helped to spread his fame as he appeared in Mexico City billed as “The South’s Greatest Trombone Wonder.” Brief turns with a variety of territory bands followed before he rejoined a new Kelley band for a time, then reconnected with the Ross band—rechristened Ranger Ross and His Cowboys—with whom he gained some arranging experience. It was with this Ross group that Teagarden went to New York City in 1927.
Alas, on arriving in New York, no job awaited the band. Married in April of 1924 to Ora Binyon and needing a gig, Teagarden caught on with the Scranton Sirens, then playing as the relief band at the famed Roseland Ballroom, opposite the great Fletcher Henderson outfit. Jazz trombone in that band was manned by Jimmy Harrison. Harrison and Teagarden blended easily; Big T often sat in with Henderson’s band, amazing the players with his skills. From that point, Harlem jam sessions became a part of Teagarden’s accelerating schedule. Tenor ace Coleman Hawkins once remarked, as recalled by Guttridge, “You couldn’t keep Jack out of Harlem. He made every rent party. He must have never slept, playing horn night and day.”
On several occasions the modest, self-effacing Tea-garden made his way into better bands on the recommendation of fellow musicians. In Jack Teagarden’s Music, Howard J. Waters, Jr., related how Teagarden landed his first big job in New York: After playing a difficult arrangement written for trombonist Miff Mole and outdoing that reigning horn master, he was hired in June of 1928 by the very hot Ben Pollack orchestra, which also featured future bandleader and “King of Swing” clarinetist Benny Goodman. Teagarden recorded approximately 300 titles during the next five years, usually with a variety of Pollack’s sidemen. The studio time was sandwiched between Teagarden’s regular performances, mostly with Pollack, in ballrooms, hotels, on radio broadcasts, and in the orchestra pit for such Broadway shows as Top Speed, Hello, Daddy, and Everybody’s Welcome —plus, of course, the constant jam sessions.
Although he was perhaps best known for his trombone prowess, many consider Teagarden one of the finest jazz singers—his voice a natural extension of his horn. In The Swing Era, Gunther Schuller ventured, ’Teagarden was ... a remarkable and wholly unique singer, undoubtedly the best and the only true jazz singer next to Billie Holiday, Cab Calloway, and Louis Armstrong.” On one record, 1928’s Makin Friends, Teagarden broke new ground, with guitarist Eddie Condon, as he etched his first vocal and the first recorded use of his water-glass mute.
This flurry of activity left little time for home life; combined with Teagarden’s growing drinking pattern, his virtual workaholism led to separation, then divorce, from the first of his four wives, in 1930. Though his professional status soared, Teagarden’s personal life rarely achieved any degree of stability. He demonstrated no savvy for business matters, becoming known as the classic “soft touch” for unrepaid loans and gifts. Clare Manzi became the trombonist-singer’s second wife soon after his divorce, this marriage lasting until 1933, just before Teagarden made his next major career move, signing on for a five-year stretch with Paul Whiteman.
The worsening Depression did not slow Whiteman’s pace, nor Teagarden’s. Whiteman pianist Roy Bargy told Guttridge, “I recall one stretch of two weeks when Whiteman played two sessions at the Biltmore, six shows a day at the Capitol Theatre, and on two of these days had morning and between-shows rehearsals for a Chesterfield broadcast.” Teagarden’s early Whiteman years featured the trombonist in both live and recorded solos, but, as the competition for entertainment dollars intensified, Whiteman’s brand of jazz took a back seat to concerts and “serious” music. There were always tours, dances, broadcasts, and theater shows, however. Increasingly, though, Teagarden’s musical gratification came from free-lance recordings and appearances, many with his brother Charlie and saxophonist Frankie Trumbauer—“The Three Ts.” When his Whiteman contract expired in December of 1938, Teagarden, covetous of the big swing bands led by Miller, Goodman, drummer Gene Krupa, and trumpet player Bunny Berigan, launched his own career as a leader.
From 1939 to 1946 Teagarden struggled with this mission, at least once securing the financial help of old friend singer Bing Crosby. During the early war years Jack married his fourth wife, Adeline Barriere, who became the best road manager he ever had. Nevertheless, in striking similarity to Berigan, the trombonist was ill-equipped to handle the business part of leadership. In fact, the parallels between the careers of Teagarden and Berigan are legion: unscrupulous management, bankruptcy, inept promotion, unpaid sidemen, schedule mixups, wartime personnel dilemmas, alcoholism, marital difficulties, and mounting health problems. Teagarden was also faced with the postwar demise of the big band, vocalists and small instrumental groups siphoning off the major share of attention. When he finally disbanded his group in 1946, the trombonist formed a small combo that included his brother Charlie. This group registered limited commercial success, but in May of 1947, Teagarden experienced a rebirth with Louis Armstrong.
Both masters’ careers had been in eclipse, attributable to many factors, not the least of which was the advent of bebop. While working with some success at the Famous Door, Teagarden was enlisted by Armstrong for a concert at Manhattan’s Town Hall. So great was the response to this showcase and later recordings that Louis formed his All Stars for an August debut at Billy Berg’s, in Hollywood. The group consisted of Armstrong, Teagarden, clarinetist Barney Bigard, pianist Dick Cary, drummer Big Sid Catlett, and bassist Morty Corb.
Before the ensemble departed, in February of 1948, to tour Europe, Earl Hines took over the piano bench, resulting in the residence of three seminal instrumentalists in the same band; even in the face of the bebop revolution, this group stirred worldwide excitement. Both Teagarden and Hines, however, tired of the repetitive repertoire of the group and left after roughly four years. Beginning in September of 1951, Teagarden formed a small group in California that again included “Little T,” along with drummer Ray Bauduc. Sister Norma later joined the combo and, with multiple personnel variations, Jack led this group until his death.
This last would prove the most tranquil period of Teagarden’s career and personal life. Following a separation, he and his wife Addie re-united, and in 1952, a third son, Joey, was born. (Teagarden and his first wife had two sons, Gilbert and Jack, Jr.) Recordings and tours followed; everywhere crowds reacted enthusiastically as Jack practiced his credo, stated in Down Beat: “I never did believe in looking back.... I try to play better tomorrow than I do today. It’s the only way I could ever see it.... But you can’t go out there and play every number fast to show off your technique. You’ve got to play some numbers for the dancers.” In 1958 Teagarden’s group toured 18 countries in Asia and the Far East under the auspices of the U.S. Department of State. Despite encroaching health problems— heart and liver ailments and pneumonia—Teagarden continued to play, sing, and tour until January 15, 1964, when he was found dead in his motel room on New Orleans’s Bourbon Street of apparent heart failure.
Teagarden was universally hailed by his early contemporaries as the catalyst and model for jazz trombone style. He is equally praised by many modern jazz masters. Tenor star Stan Getz, who played with Teagarden’s band when he was 16, once attested in Down Beat, “Jack is a wonderful musician. Gets the biggest sound on his horn I’ve ever heard. He’s a remarkable guy.” Composer-arranger-saxophonist Gerry Mulligan is also among those who have saluted Teagarden. Bill Russo, trombonist and arranger with Stan Kenton, put it this way: “The distinguishing characteristic is Teagarden’s excellent command of his horn. Here is a jazzman with the facility, range, and flexibility of any trombonist of any idiom or any time. His influence was essentially responsible for a mature approach to trombone jazz.”
Makin’ Friends, 1928.
Bugle Call Rag, 1928.
My Kinda Love, 1929.
Basin Street Blues, 1929.
After You’ve Gone, 1930.
Beale Street Blues, 1931.
Someday, Sweetheart, 1931.
I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues, 1933.
A Hundred Years From Today, 1933.
Stars Fell on Alabama, 1934.
Jack Hits the Road, 1940
St. James Infirmary, 1947.
Jack Armstrong Blues, 1947.
Giants of Jazz: Jack Teagarden, Time-Life Records, 1979.
Jack Teagarden With His Sextet and Eddie Condon’s Chicagoans, Pumpkin Productions, Inc., 1984.
Red McKenzie-Eddie Condon Chicagoans, Jazzology, 1984.
Tribute to Teagarden, Pausa, 1984.
Louis Armstrong All Stars With Jack Teagarden, RCA Victor.
Balliett, Whitney, American Musicians: 56 Portraits in Jazz, Oxford University Press, 1986.
Chilton, John, Who’s Who of Jazz, Time-Life, 1978.
Meeker, David, Jazz in the Movies: A Guide to Jazz Musicians 1917-1977, Arlington House Publishers, 1977.
Schuller, Gunther, The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz, 1930-45, Oxford University Press, 1989.
Smith, Jay D., and Lenoard E. Guttridge, Jack Teagarden — The Story of a Jazz Maverick, Cassell, 1960.
Waters, Howard J., Jr., Jack Teagarden’s Music: His Career and Recordings, Jazz Monographs No. 3, Walter C. Allen, 1960.
Williams, Martin, Jazz Heritage, Oxford University Press, 1983.
Down Beat, March 9, 1951; July 4, 1963.
Mississippi Rag, January 1987.
New York Times, June 3, 1984.
Saturday Review, November 15, 1958; March 14, 1964.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from liner notes by Leonard E. Guttridge to Giants of Jazz: Jack Teagarden, Time-Life Records, 1979.
Jack Teagarden (Weldon Leo Teagarden), 1905–64, American jazz trombonist and singer, b. Vernon, Tex. One of the earliest white bluesmen, he came from a jazz-playing family and was mainly self-taught. He sometimes played with his brothers, trumpeter Charlie and drummer Cub, and sister, pianist Norma. In his twenties Teagarden wandered across America's Southwest, playing in several jazz groups, and arrived in New York in 1927. He played in bands led by Ben Pollack (1928–33), Paul Whiteman (1933–38), and Louis Armstrong (1947–51), and also led his own groups (1939–47; 1951–57). He began recording in the late 1920s and made many albums throughout his career. Teagarden was one of the great horn players of the mid-20th cent.; his trombone playing, seemingly effortless yet extremely accomplished technically, was uniquely smooth and lyrical. In addition, his somewhat gruff, drawling voice was ideal for singing the blues.
See biography by J. D. Smith (1976, rev. ed. 1988); study by H. J. Waters (1960).