Jack Teagarden was one of the most beloved and admired jazz musicians of all time. His creative and unique trombone style set the standard by which his contemporaries were judged and still provides a foundation for today’s musicians. Heavily influenced by the blues, his warm, relaxed sound and personal style impressed and inspired all who heard it. He was also lauded as a vocalist, his delivery often being compared to the black singers of the day.
Born August 20, 1905, into a musical family, Teagarden began to learn the piano at age five, later switching to the trombone. He started playing professionally while in his teens, working with several local and regional outfits, most notably with Peck Kelly in 1921-22. He also briefly led his own outfit in Kansas City.
In 1927, he arrived in New York as a member of the Doc Ross Band and found work with a Dixieland outfit that was part of the Elizabeth Bryce Show. He recorded with Roger Wolfe Kahn, Red Nichols, Louis Armstrong, and Sam Lanin, making his vocal debut on the 1928 Eddie Condon recording “Making Friends.” That same year, he joined Ben Pollack’s band, where he earned his reputation as a trombonist and vocalist.
He left Pollack in 1933, briefly working with Mal Hallett before joining Paul Whiteman. Teagarden’s trombone magic was lost in Whiteman’s musical style, and his career suffered. Unfortunately, he was locked into a contract that gave him no avenue of escape. When swing broke onto the scene, Teagarden was unable to take advantage of jazz’s new commercial success. When a group of disgruntled Pollack musicians decided to strike out on their own and form a band in 1935, they offered Teagarden the chance to front the group. He was unable to accept and Bob Crosby ended up with the job. Teagarden’s only outlet was with a Whiteman side group, the Three T’s, which also featured his brother, Charlie, and Frank Trumbauer.
In early 1939, he was finally free of Whiteman and able to form his own orchestra. Its initial inception featured such top sidemen as Ernie Caceres, Lee Castle, Charlie Spivak, and Davey Tough. Female vocalists were Meredith Blake, Dolores O’Neill and Kitty Kallen. Though it was successful musically, financially it was a disaster. Teagarden’s easy-going manner didn’t translate well into the business world, and he had also developed a drinking problem. He was forced to reorganize the group in 1940, hiring lesser-paid musicians. Those lesser-paid musicians, however, worked hard and the group managed to maintain its sound, though Teagarden’s trombone was mysteriously less present. The new line-up featured David Allen on vocals. Betty Van, Dottie Reid, and Phyllis Lane also sang. Saxophone player and novelty singer Butch Stone appeared with the band starting in September 1940 but left near the end of the year.
The group stayed afloat until 1946 when it, like so many other orchestras, fell victim to the dropping popularity of dance band music. Teagarden then joined Louis Armstrong’s All-Stars, leaving in 1951 to form his own group, a Dixieland sextet that sometimes featured his brother, Charlie, on trumpet and his sister, Norma, on piano. He also co-lead an all-star group with Earl Hines. Teagarden continued playing up until his death from pneumonia in 1964.
Some sources list August 29, 1905. ↩︎