The September 1921 flood that brought death and devastation to San Antonio ended up being a lucky break for a 17-year-old who would go on to be known as the jazz world’s greatest trombone player. There had been a gangland-styled shooting at S.A.’s Horn Palace Inn in April of that year, and while the rest of Cotton Bailey’s dance band dove for cover, Jack Teagarden stood fixed on the action from the bandstand as if he was watching a movie. But reality hit hard after Teagarden was subpoenaed by the prosecution as its star witness, then received messages that testifying would not be good for his health. During the years of Prohibition, San Antonio was rightfully nicknamed “Little Chicago.”
Named after the deer head trophies that decorated the joint, not the hot brass sections that filled it, the Horn Palace was three miles outside the city limits, where booze was forbidden with a wink. The outskirts were where the Twenties Roared in the Alamo City.
Jazz was almost entirely a New Orleans thing at the time, but its spiritual Texas sister city caught on early, which made it the place to be for a Texas teenager who took the trombone from the back of the band to front and center. In his hometown of Vernon, 10 miles south of the Oklahoma border, he was known as Weldon Teagarden, but the kid with the big horn had a Dirk Diggler moment on the way to that first gig in San Antonio. The name in lights was “Jack Teagarden.”
He just wanted to play jazz, but there he was in 1921, stuck between a rock and a Horn Palace, with his choices being found in contempt of court by not showing up or possibly being rubbed out if he did.
And then the rain came, for 18 hours without a letup, creating a wall of water downtown that rose almost to the second floor of the Gunter Hotel. The courthouse was flooded, paperwork destroyed, and the Horn Palace case was dismissed. (Jim Cullum’s Riverfront Jazz blog https://rwjazz.stanford.edu/?q=program/texas-big-t-music-jack-teagarden is the main source of this part of the story.)
A jubilant Teagarden packed up his Stanley Steamer automobile and headed to Houston where he joined Peck’s Bad Boys, who had a summer gig at a Galveston Bay resort. Led by the sensational piano player John “Peck” Kelley, “the white Art Tatum,” the band also included 18-year-old clarinetist Pee Wee Russell, who came down from St. Louis thinking he was the hottest young thing in jazz. He was jamming with Kelley that first day in Houston, when Teagarden strolled in, took his trombone off a coat rack, and blew a phrase that almost made Russell faint. “He’d never heard a hot trombone with that kind of sound and fluency, and so deeply favored by the blues,” Richard M. Sudhalter wrote in his 1999 jazz history book Lost Chords.
Kelley preferred accomplished obscurity to all-consuming fame, so he refused to leave Houston for New York or Chicago and turned down offers to play with Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman and other hot swing bands. He made New York come to him, which John Hammond did in 1939 to write “Peck Kelley Is No Myth” for Down Beat. “If I was working with a top band,” Kelley said, “it would be rehearse, record, broadcast, play, rush, hurry, with no time to myself.”
That schedule suited Jack to a T, however. He moved to New York City in 1927, this big 22-year-old with a Texas drawl, and soon supplanted Glenn Miller as first trombonist for the Ben Pollack Orchestra. And then there were the after hours jams night after night. The great Fletcher Henderson, whose 1920’s Orchestra featuring Louis Armstrong and Coleman Hawkins, started the swing craze, took Teagarden all over Harlem and “showed him off like he was a man from Mars,” according to Dave Oliphant’s Texan Jazz. Nobody’d ever heard a white guy play- and sing- jazz with such feeling.
Teagarden “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,” wrote the jazz critic Leonard E. Guttridge. It was his calling to take the trombone from vaudeville, where it was mainly used for comedic effect, to the jazz clubs and concert halls of the world.
In that time of segregation, Teagarden couldn’t publicly perform with his musical kindreds, but he broke the studio color line in 1929 when he recorded “Knockin’ a Jug” with Armstrong. The two jazz giants maintained a close connection throughout their careers, with Armstrong canceling concerts in the South that didn’t allow integrated bandstands. Replacing his lone white bandmember, Teagarden, would’ve been easier, but Armstrong wouldn’t hear of it: “Who am I to tell a white man he can’t go down south?”
Because his solos said a lot in tight spaces, Teagarden was one of the most-recorded musicians of the ‘20s and ‘30s. An especially memorable year was 1933, when “Big T” played on the final recording of his hero Bessie Smith, whom he first saw in Galveston in 1923, as well as the studio debut of Billie Holiday. Teagarden was part of that torch-passing in the short interim between his time with the Pollack Orchestra and the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, which was very popular yet not “hot.” Teagarden signed a contract with Whiteman for five financially-secure, yet musically unfulfilling, years during the Great Depression.
But he was always himself regardless of the musical setting. “Teagarden’s lazy time, the casual triplets percolating unexpectedly from his warming Texas blues riffs, the technical aplomb, the richly powerful but pliable timbre, and the forthrightness of his solos all served to illuminate his moods,” offered historian/ critic Gary Giddins, so prominent in the Ken Burns Jazz docu-series. “The performance level was astonishing; no matter how wretched the material or arrangements.”
Big T loved to tinker with machinery and modify his mouthpieces, and he sometimes replaced his trombone’s bell with an empty water glass to get a blurry effect. But his most practical invention came after he started leading his own orchestra, from 1939-1946, featuring younger siblings Norma on piano, Charles (“Little T”) on trumpet and Cub on drums, at various times. Teagarden fashioned a large trunk, which held his clothes and such, to unfold into his podium onstage. It was a great set-up, but touring during WWII was otherwise a drag, with gas rationing and a musician-depleting draft. Teagarden went deep in debt and had to borrow money from his friend Bing Crosby, who also hired Jack and his orchestra for the hit 1941 film Birth of the Blues.
Teagarden was to the trombone what Armstrong was to the trumpet, so it was fitting the great friends would tour the world from 1947- 1951 in the Louis Armstrong All-Stars. Like Satchmo, Teagarden was a great jazz singer, with his signature tune “I’ve Got the Right to Sing the Blues” saying it all. He was also known for “Basin Street Blues,” “St. James Infirmary,” “Stars Fell on Alabama” and “Beale Street Blues.” His relaxed demeanor was a perfect foil to Armstrong’s electric energy.
“What set Teagarden apart, in both his playing and singing, was a feel for melody,” said Austin trombonist Jon Blondell. “He brought vocalization to the trombone, and sang it like he played it.” This set him apart from two other great ‘bone players in NYC in the ’20s: Miff Mole and Jimmy Harrison.
Since he started playing trombone at age eight, with arms too short to reach all slide positions, Teagarden did not use the swooping, thrusting style of many of his colleagues. His arms rarely moved more than a foot or two, as he used his lips, like a trumpet player, to reach many notes.
In a 1958 interview, Teagarden credited spirituals he heard from a Black Pentecostal revival tent in a vacant lot next door to his house in Vernon with profoundly influencing him as a seven-year-old. “The singing which would build up to this climax (speaking in tongues) was really terrific,” he said. “I’d sit on the picket fence we had and listen to it. That music seemed as natural to me as anything.” He said it was the first time he heard his heart.
Born in 1905, Teagarden was just 13 when his father Charles, a gin mill operator/mechanic and amateur cornetist, died from the Spanish Flu in 1918. Mother Helen and their four kids had to relocate to Nebraska and then to Oklahoma, where they had relatives. Helen made money playing piano during silent films, often with Jack playing trombone. He also learned to operate the projector, a skill that brought him back to Texas, but not before he had another revelatory musical experience.
In Oklahoma City, a 14-year-old Teagarden happened upon an authentic Native American pow-wow on the edge of town. “When they would sing those Indian chants, you know, that came naturally to me, too. I could embellish on that and play an Indian thing- just pick up my horn and play it to where you couldn’t tell the difference.” Teagarden’s biggest influences seemed to come up from the ground.
Because of his appearance and Oklahoma connection, the tall, dark trombonist with the slick black hair was often thought to have Indian blood, but both his parents were German. Mother Helen (Giengar), just 16 when she started having kids, was an accomplished piano player, who taught her children to read music at an early age. Sometimes the family didn’t have a stove or running water, but they always had a piano.
In September 1963, the Teagarden family- 74-year-old Helen and her kids- played together at the Monterrey Jazz Festival in California. Just like the old days. Jack also sat in that night with Pee Wee Russell, his fellow Peck Kelley graduate, class of ’22. It was a glorious night that took Jack full circle.
But less than four months later, the kid from Vernon passed away in his beloved New Orleans after playing a shortened set at the Dream Room. His doctor had advised an ailing Teagarden to get off the road and rest, but he just wanted to play, even from a chair. The last person to see the jazz icon alive was the room service attendant at the Prince Conti Motel who brought him beer. Cause of death was bronchial pneumonia, with alcoholism a contributing factor. He was only 58, yes, but he’d been a man since 13. And he’d long ago left his mark.
Esteemed critic/historian Leonard Feather summed up the Teagarden legacy: “Always years ahead of his time, the possessor of a wholly individual sound both as instrumentalist and vocalist, Teagarden ranks with Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, Coleman Hawkins, and a handful of others as one of the unquestioned titans in the history of jazz.”