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Jack Teagarden

Module by: Catherine Schmidt-Jones. E-mail the author

Summary: A short biography of the great jazz trombonist Jack Teagarden.

Jack Teagarden was a trombone player, singer, and band leader whose career spanned from the 1920’s territory and New York jazz scenes to shortly before his death in 1964. Teagarden was not a successful band leader, which may explain why he is not as widely known as some other jazz trombonists, but his unusual singing style influenced several other important jazz singers, and he is widely regarded as the one of the greatest, and possibly the greatest, trombonist in the history of jazz.

Teagarden was born in 1905 in Vernon, Texas. Born Weldon Lee Teagarden or Weldon John Teagarden (more sources say Weldon Lee, but John makes more sense considering his nickname), Jack’s earliest performances were working with his mother Helen, who played ragtime piano, in theaters. His siblings also became professional musicians: his younger sister Norma played piano, his younger brother Charlie, trumpet, and his brother Clois (“Cub”), drums.

Jack Teagarden began playing piano at age five, took up baritone at age seven or eight, and had settled on trombone by age ten. Some sources claim his unusual style of trombone playing stemmed from the fact that he began playing before he was big enough to play in the farther positions. He moved to Chappell, Nebraska, with his family in 1918, but by 1921 was back in Texas playing with Peck Kelley’s Bad Boys. Through the early and mid 1920’s, he played with several other territory bands, including Doc Ross’s Jazz Bandits, and the Orginal Southern Trumpeters. My sources disagree concerning which band brought Teagarden to New York, and with whom he made his earliest recording, but there is agreement that he arrived in New York in 1927 and was playing with Ben Pollack’s orchestra by 1928.

Although Teagarden enjoyed a long career, it was at this point that he had the greatest effect on the history of jazz. The reaction to his unique style of trombone-playing appears to have been both immediate and widespread. Historians and critics widely agree: “No one disputes Jack Teagarden’s place in the trombone pantheon”(Morgenstern, 2004, p.292). Teagarden “is considered by many critics to be the finest of all jazz trombonists....”(Kernfeld, 1988) Teagarden “single-handedly created a whole new way of playing the trombone – a parallel to Earl Hines and the piano comes to mind – and did so as early as the mid-twenties and evidently largely out of his own youthful creative resources.”(Schuller, 1989, p.590)

His unusual approach to trombone playing had both a technical and a stylistic component. His technical approach in particular was quite unorthodox. A short digression into the mechanics of trombone playing will explain why. The trombone slide has seven positions where traditionally notated (chromatic scale) pitches can be played. Each position causes the instrument to be a slightly different length, and the instrument can play a (different) harmonic series at each length.

Figure 1
Figure 1 (TromboneHarmonics.png)

As is apparent from the figure, the notes in any harmonic series are much closer together in the upper part of the series. This has a practical effect on trombone playing: in the lower register of the instrument, there are fewer notes in any given position, and often only one position in which a note can be played. In the upper register, notes in any position are closer together, and many notes can be played in more than one position. New Orleans-style trombonists tended to play in the lower range of the instrument, where it is simply impossible to change notes as quickly as a trumpet or clarinet does; entire arms can’t move as fast as a single finger. So the traditional trombone stylists specialized in playing simpler accompaniment parts featuring cute special effects like glissandos. Jack Teagarden apparently did not like this “tailgate” style of trombone-playing. Instead, he played higher in the instrument’s range, using mostly the first and second positions, and rarely moving beyond fourth position. Using “alternate” positions and an embouchure that was apparently extremely flexible (meaning he could change the pitch of a note using only small changes in his lips, mouth, and face muscles), Teagarden could play in the way that appealed to him. It apparently also greatly appealed to other musicians as soon as they heard it, but it relied so heavily on using unusual slide positions and on his ability to bend notes with his unusually flexible embouchure, that his style is generally considered to be literally “inimitable.”

Teagarden’s style is also often described using words such as lyrical, vocal, legato, relaxed, fluent and smooth. The two premier trombonists on the New York scene when Teagarden arrived had also already rejected “tailgate” style playing, and there is disagreement about how much Miff Mole and Jimmy Harrison influenced Teagarden. But Teagarden appears to have arrived in New York with a clear idea of how he wanted to sound, and although the three players do seem to have influenced each other somewhat, they each also retained their distinctive styles. Harrison also played in the upper register of the instrument, so that he could play fast trumpet-style licks, but his playing is still firmly in the jazz brass tradition, with hard, clear articulations. Mole also specialized in technically spectacular playing, with staccato phrasing, big leaps, and surprising note choices. Teagarden’s gently-articulated style gives the trombone a lyrical, almost vocal quality (without having the extremely “sweet” ballad-type sound that, for example, Tommy Dorsey made famous) and has in fact been compared to his own (Teagarden’s) singing style. And although his playing style was also technically brilliant, featuring difficult techniques such as lip trills, his laid-back, vocal style of delivery – often described even as a “lazy” sound – effectively disguised his technical proficiency (“lazy and lightning-quick”(Shapiro, 1957, p.68)). One source reports that Tommy Dorsey specialized in sweet ballads specifically because he felt his jazz was “inferior next to Jack Teagarden” (Yanow, 2003, p.100) and that Glenn Miller “de-emphasized his own trombone playing” (Yanow, 2003, p. 91) after a stint playing beside Teagarden in Pollack’s orchestra.

Although it was not as important an influence as his trombone playing, Jack Teagarden’s approach to singing was also unique and influential. Collier says he “was the leading, and virtually the only, white male singer in jazz.”(Collier,1978, p.137) Yanow lists him with Louis Armstrong and Bing Crosby (who was a friend and was apparently influenced by Teagarden’s style) as “the most important male vocalists of the early 1930’s.” (Yanow, 2003, p. 141) Schuller calls him “a remarkable and wholy unique singer, undoubtedly the best and only true jazz singer next to Billie Holiday, Cab Calloway, and Louis Armstrong (whom he, unlike dozens of others did not imitate).” (Schuller, 1989, p.591, italics Schuller’s) This may be overstatement, but it does underscore a fact that all sources seem to agree on; like his trombone style, his singing style seems to have been both uniquely his own and authentic bluesy jazz. Both were deeply affected by a knowledge of and ease with the blues that was available to few white players of the time. The Texas town in which Teagarden grew up had a large black population, and he must have heard spirituals, work songs, and blues from a very early age; in fact, revivals were commonly held within earshot of his home. It was this background that was probably the greatest influence on all of Teagarden’s work, both vocal and instrumental, and his use of the blues idiom was so convincing that Fletcher Henderson apparently suspected that Teagarden was “colored” (Ward, p.163).

As mentioned above, by the summer of 1928, Teagarden was playing with Ben Pollack’s orchestra, and he stayed with Pollack, performing and recording, for nearly five years. During this period, he was involved in a large number of recordings, with Pollack’s orchestra, with other groups, and leading his own sessions. Teagarden particularly made some noteworthy contributions while working at this time with Eddie Condon. Teagarden was one of the musicians on the first interracial recording session, organized by Condon. Teagarden’s first vocal recording was made with Condon, and also the first recording featuring his use of a water glass as a mute. Teagarden had a mechanical bent and a life-long interest in tinkering with things, and he invented the water glass mute effect, in which the bell section of the trombone is removed and an empty water glass placed over the end of the instrument tubing (of the mouthpiece section). The effect is a stifled, plaintive sound which makes the instrument sound even more like a blues singer. Another interesting aspect of the recordings of this period is that they show very clearly that, unlikely many other jazz musicians of the time, Teagarden was a true improviser, giving notably different solos on different takes of the same piece – even when the recordings were made on the same day (Schuller, p. 599).

Teagarden left Pollack in 1933, and signed a five-year contract with Paul Whiteman’s orchestra. It was a steady, well-paying job, for which Teagarden was apparently grateful; he seems to have been perpetually unlucky with both women and money, and had already experienced some personal financial problems. But the Whiteman group was not particularly musically inspired. The Teagarden brothers (Jack and trumpeter Charlie) are generally considered the only interesting jazzmen to have been part of it, and yet Jack also felt a little out of the limelight. He did some playing and recording with other groups at this time, most notably with his brother Charlie and saxophonist Frankie Trumbauer as the “Three T’s”. But Whiteman’s group kept him a little too busy doing highly-arranged popular music, and he left when his contract was up.

This was the period when everybody who was anybody in jazz had their own band, so Jack Teagarden decided to organize his first band in 1939. Unfortunately, he had neither the dominant personality nor the business smarts to be a good bandleader, and by the end of that year he was already $46,000 in debt. Refusing to give up, he started a second band in early 1940, and this one he managed to keep going until late 1946, in spite of losing far too many good musicians to the draft. Unfortunately, this band also cannot really be considered a success. Desperate to keep afloat, the group played too many gigs at which they were expected to have a sweet, popular sound. Cut off from the developing edge of jazz, it had no real influence and produced few recordings of note. Hit hard by both the war and the competition from bebop, several of the more famous big bands called it quits in 1946, and so did Teagarden.

He headed back to New York, and by 1947 was playing with Louis Armstrong’s All Stars, a smaller group that is considered to have been a leader in the anti-bebop traditional jazz “revival” movement. The All Stars did well, but Teagarden left in 1951, in order to once again put together his own band. This All Stars group, a sextet along the same lines as Armstrong’s All Stars, with various musicians including at times Earl Hines, Teagarden’s brother Charlie on trumpet and his sister Norma on piano, was also a success, touring both Europe and Asia and playing traditional jazz in a way that made it sound fresh and creative.

Armstrong apparently considered Teagarden a friend, not a rival, and they continued to work together from time to time. Known affectionately as “Mr. T”, “Big T” (to brother Charlie’s “Little T”), “Jackson”, “Gate”, and “Big Gate” (again, Charlie was “Little Gate”), Jack Teagarden was by all accounts a big, easy-going, friendly man, well-liked throughout his career by his fellow musicians. At this point, he was also the grand old man of the instrument, well-respected both by traditionalists and (unlike many other traditionalist players) also by the more modern generation of trombonists. The “reunion” at the Monterey Jazz Festival, with his brother Charlie, sister Norma, and even his mother, who played a few ragtime piano solos, is considered to be a celebration of the life of a great jazz musician. He died only a few months later of pneumonia, at the age of fifty eight, in New Orleans.

Important Recordings and Discography

Jack Teagarden’s most important recordings include the recording with Benny Goodman of “Basin Street Blues”, with Teagarden on both trombone and vocals, which included extra lyrics written by himself and Glenn Miller that later became a standard (and usually unattributed) part of the song lyrics. Teagarden’s recorded work as a trombone soloist is considered very consistently high quality, but the following are often mentioned in particular: “Knockin’ a Jug” (1929, with Louis Armstrong), “She’s a Great, Great Girl” (with Roger Wolfe Kahn), “Makin’ Friends” and “That’s a Serious Thing” (1928, with Eddie Condon), “The Sheik of Araby” (1930, with Red Nichols), “Beale Street Blues” (1931, with Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang), “Jack Hits the Road (1940, with Bud Freeman), and “St. James Infirmary” (1947, with Louis Armstrong). His recordings of “I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues”, “Texas Tea Party”, “A Hundred Years from Today”(all 1933), “Stars Fell on Alabama”(1934), “I Hope Gabriel Likes My Music” (1936), and “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” may be considered his best vocal offerings. “I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues” in particular became a signature piece for him. Since much of Teagarden’s best work was as a sideman rather than a leader, many of his best recordings are included in collections of other artists’ work, but the following are a good place to start listening to his work:

The Indispensable Jack Teagarden (RCA) is the most comprehensive sampler of his high quality work from 1928 – 1957, including good samplings of his work with Pollack, Whiteman, and Armstrong.

That’s a Serious Thing (Bluebird) has fewer selections than Indispensable, but also chooses high quality work representative of his entire career.

B.G. and Big Tea in NYC (GRP/ Decca) has both Goodman and Teagarden in every selection, sometimes featured, sometimes in more of a side role, but always along with various other first-rate artists. It is also considered an important collection of Goodman’s early work.

A Hundred Years From Today (Memphis Archives), which also includes “Basin Street Blues” and “St. James Infirmary”, may be the best representation of his late work. It was recorded at the Monterey Festival.


Chilton, John. Who’s Who of Jazz: Storyville to Swing Street. Chilton Book Company. New York, 1972. This is an encyclopedia-style set of biographies. Each biography is short, but includes a very helpful bibliography, in this case a list of several books about Jack Teagarden which would be very useful to someone doing serious research on the subject.

Collier, JamesLincoln. The Making of Jazz: A Comprehensive History. Houghton Mifflin Company. Boston, 1978. Collier’s history is an overview, with a reasonable amount of technical information for the casual reader and plenty of anecdotes and a (somewhat dated) discography, but a short bibliography and no notes.

Erlewine, and Scott Bultman. All Music Guide. Miller Freeman Books. San Francisco, 1992. This is a large and comprehensive discography of recordings available, with suggestions as to their relative importance, in many genres, including jazz.

Kernfeld, Barry, ed. The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz. Macmillan Press Limited. New York, 1988. A short biography gives the widely accepted facts. Jazz histories seem to rely heavily on the memories of interviewees; certainly a very valuable resource, and one that should be pursued while they are still available for interview, but the result seems to be widely varying "facts" from one source to another. My sources in particular disagreed often on things like his middle name, childhood, and early career.

Morgenstern, Dan. Living With Jazz: A Reader edited by Sheldon Meyer. Pantheon Books. New York, 2004. This collection of Morgenstern’s best writings on jazz is taken from a great variety of sources; the most extensive writing about Teagarden here, for example, comes from the liner notes of Benny Goodman and Jack Teagarden, but there are also numerous other mentions of Teagarden in reviews, profiles and analyses.

Schoenberg, Loren. The NPR Curious Listener’s Guide to Jazz. Grand Central Press. New York, 2002. Oddly, this book does not have an extensive discography. Instead it focusses on reviewing a few important CDs. It does have a useful bibliography however, and short biographies of the major musicians.

Schuller, Gunther. The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz, 1930-1945. Oxford University Press, New York, 1989. This authoritative, well-footnoted book gives many musical examples and explains technical issues clearly. It was most useful in its understanding of what exactly made Teagarden’s playing so unique and interesting.

Shapiro, Nat, and Nat Hentoff, ed. The Jazz Makers. Rinehart and Company, Inc. New York, 1956. This is a collection of chatty, anecdote-filled but well-footnoted biographies, including one of Jack Teagarden by Charles Edward Smith.

Shaw, Arnold. The Jazz Age: Popular Music in the 1920’s. Oxford University Press. New York, 1987. This is an anecdote-driven popular history, but it is well-footnoted, which would be useful to someone trying to track down inconsistencies between the various sources.

Ward, Geoffrey C., and Ken Burns. Jazz: A History of America’s Music. Alfred A. Knopf. New York, 2000. Also an anecdote-driven popular history (with some fun anecdotes), but not footnoted at all, and with very little bibliography. Rather than a discography, an extensive set of recordings and video complements the book.

Yanow, Scott. Jazz on Record: The First Sixty Years. Backbeat Books. San Francisco, 2003. This comprehensive book is an overview of jazz history that includes a detailed discography for each period of jazz history, with discussions of the important recordings alongside the relevant history.

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