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Her Cup of Tea

Courtesy of the Miami Herald

by Sue Reisinger

The Fort Lauderdale daughter of jazz trombonist Jack Teagarden recreates the glory days of jazz in the life story or her legendary father.

BEEN THERE

Fort Lauderdale civic activist Vernajean Atwell, stepdaughter of noted trombonist Jack Teagarden plays with her adopted dogs.  Atwell participated in a documentary of Teagarden's life and plans to create a Web site and write a book about him.

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The film clip is all too brief: Louis Armstrong on trumpet and Jack Teagarden on trombone, in a dueling-banjos-style duet. Only this is no duel. With their eyes, their movements, their notes, each inspires the other to sound new depths, to scale new heights.

The two musical geniuses, whose mutual admiration knew no bounds, play those horns united in soul and sound. The listener knows she is in the presence of something rare and wondrous and magical - two spirits soaring to the beat of one drummer, a drummer no one else can hear.

Such memories are the stuff that Jack Teagarden's daughter dreams of saving. Fort Lauderdale civic activist Vernajean Atwell already took part in making this documentary of her father's life.  Now she wants to create a Web site and write a book about him, before all those who knew him and heard him play are gone.

Teagarden's life story frames the history of the jazz movement in America, rising through the '20s and '30s, struggling through World War II, and nearly drowned out by the screaming birth of rock and roll in the '50s.

His story also epitomizes how music drilled through the racial barriers of the '40s and '50s, setting the tone for America's integration movement.

In what the documentary calls "one of the most important jazz recordings ever made," Teagarden and Armstrong ignored the advice of friends in 1929 and joined together to make Knockin' A Jug. It is believed to be the first recording of a racially mixed band in U.S. history.

SWING SESSION

Trombonist Jack Teagarden, right, records with Louis Armstrong, left, in 1948.jtlao2

In segregated America, their friends feared it would damage the two men's careers. But their music, and their lifelong friendship, rose above the bigotry.

Few people realize that Teagarden, known as "Tea" or simply "T," lived his last years in South Florida. His widow, Addie, a pioneer woman aviator and big band manager, eventually moved from Broward to South Dade, and then back to Fort Lauderdale, where she lived with Atwell until she died penniless in 1997.

Atwell and her younger brother, Joe, have hired an attorney to try to claim the rights to, and royalties from, all the "dozens and dozens of recordings" of their father, plus recorded radio broadcasts and six films he made. Among his most famous recordings are The Sheik of Araby, Stars Fell on Alabama and Basin Street Blues.

While the legal issues are being sorted, the documentary, called Time for T, has been shown only at jazz festivals and has not been released to the public.

T FOR TOP TROMBONIST

He was born Weldon Leo Teagarden in 1905 in the small town of Vernon, Texas. He is generally considered the greatest jazz trombonist ever. The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, for one, calls him "the finest of all jazz trombonists."

According to various biographies, as a boy he spent hours engrossed in the black spirituals sung at a neighborhood church, and his music would he greatly influenced by them.

His mother was a piano teacher, and Teagarden began playing piano by the age of 5, the baritone horn by 7, and the trombone by 10.  His father played trumpet, as did brother Charlie, while brother Clois played drums, and sister Norma played piano.  At various times in teagarden's career, his siblings played in the same band.

By 14, Teagarden was playing professionally.  Drummer Cotton Bailey gave him the nickname "Jack" when he was 15 or 16 because Bailey didn't think "Weldon" was suitable to a musician, and it stuck.  In the early '20s, Teagarden joined the legendary Peck Kelly Band, Peck's Bad Boys, in Texas.

Teagarden, quite a ladies man, married the first of four wives, and wrote to her prophetically from the road:  "I have been drinking a terrible lot but I am going to quit."

Two sons from his marriage, Jack Jr. and Gilbert became musicians.  Both have since died.

Teagarden also had a remarkable voice. He sang like he played, one observer said, in a smooth, sleepy Texas drawl.

By the time Teagarden landed jobs in New York, in the mid '20s, his reputation had preceded him. Ben Pollack invited him to join his orchestra in 1928, and that year Teagarden recorded the first of what would be scores of records, Just Roll Along. Always an innovator, Teagarden made history by removing the body of his horn and, using only his slide and mouthpiece, "played" an empty water glass stuck on the end of the tubing.

In New York, Teagarden became enthralled by Harlem's black nightclubs, where he was often invited to join late-night jam sessions.

In a voice segment spliced into the documentary, Teagarden says black bandleader Fletcher Henderson and musician Fats Waller befriended him in New York, and "took me places I don't think any other white boy had ever been."

WINDFALL FROM MUSIC

From there his career soared. While America struggled through the depression, Teagarden gained financial success by joining the Paul Whiteman band in 1933. The band featured Teagarden on trombone, brother Charlie on trumpet and Frank Trumbauer on sax as "The Three T's."

Teagarden divorced and married his second wife, and this marriage lasted three years before he divorced and married his third, a hotel phone operator.

In 1938 he left Whiteman's band to form his own. He led one of the longest-lasting big bands, from 1939 to 1946, but his generosity, poor business judgment and the war combined to close it down.

In 1941, while at the St. Louis airport, he met and fell in love with a pioneer woman pilot. He and Adeline or "Addie," became engaged before he was divorced, and she would eventually become his forth and final wife.

Though Vernajean Atwell was a toddler at the time and Teagarden is actually her stepfather, "my earliest memories are of him taking care of me. He is the only father I ever knew, I adored him."

Her favorite times were early morning coffees when only she and her dad were up. Though he was extremely shy, he talked freely with her. Musician Barney Bigard once told her, "You were the only  person he could ever talk to."

Bigard, from his book on Teagarden: "He drank a lot, practically all the time in fact, but he always could play and never showed that liquor ... He was a quite man.   A real wonderful guy to be around, but when he played his horn, he really played it."

Traveling with Teagarden's band, with her mother as band manager, Atwell remembers 21 straight days of one-night stands, playing in three states in one week, driving as much as 300 miles to play the next night's engagement.

After Teagarden's band failed, Bing Crosby brought him back to New York, and he eventually joined Louis Armstrong's All-Stars in 1946-47 as a featured soloist. In 1949, the All-Stars traveled to Europe, where they did 65 concerts in 35 days.

Teagarden became the first white musician to travel on the road with an all-black band. Trains, hotels and restaurants often refused them service unless they split up.

Atwell was only a child then, traveling with the band when she could. "It was the first time I became aware of segregation," she says. "Louis Armstrong and his band were my second family. And they had a rule: if one side couldn't eat, then the other side didn't eat."

She remembers one incident "It must have been around 1949 or '50 and the band was playing in Las Vegas. Mom and I sat down at a table, and when the hand was finished with their set, Dad came down and sat with us. But my friends in the band didn't come over and say hello. They walked offstage and into the kitchen.

"Well, I was hurt. And Mom had to explain to me that they weren't allowed in the room because they were black.  I was outraged. I went to the kitchen to say hello. I wanted to know how all those people could come to see this wonderful talent and then not want to sit in the same room with them."

Atwell wishes she had paid closer attention to those around her. "All these guys were just my father's friends," she says now. "All these guys" include legendary musicians like Bigard, Earl Hines, Bing and Bob Crosby, the Dorsey brothers, and even Walt Disney, who shared Teagarden's lifelong love of steam engines and model railroads.

CONTINUING SAGA

During the '50s, Teagarden tried to stop drinking, and he left Armstrong's band to save his health and his marriage. He and Addie settled in California, and he formed a small band again.

In 1961 he and Addie bought a house on the Intracoastal Waterway in Pompano Beach, where they lived with son, Joe.  Atwell, divorced and mother of four children, moved from California to join them.

She became a fighter for integration in Broward in the '60s, and active in civic affairs. She also worked with disadvantaged youth.

More recently, she founded the Progressive International Civic Association, which lowered the crime rate in her inner-city neighborhood by 40 percent in two years. The secret, she says, was "a lot of yelling and marching" and to get the neighborhood's youth involved.  "Sometimes there would be more teens at the meetings than older people."

An insurance agent and former Doberman breeder for 30 years, Atwell now trains abused dogs.

Her latest rescue efforts are Troy, a Rottweiler, and Laroux, a red Dobie.verdog1

Recalling the '60s, she says her father eventually began drinking again. His health grew worse and he suffered recurring bouts of flu and pneumonia. He tried to avoid long road trips, mostly playing clubs in Miami Beach and Fort Lauderdale.

In 1964, while playing the Dream Room in New Orleans, he succumbed to pneumonia, brought on by a lifetime of too much booze, too many cigarettes and too many one-night stands.  He died in a motel room only hours after playing his last set from a chair because he was too weak to stand.

Atwell says she learned of her father's death over her car radio; her mother heard it from a reporter.  Atwell has never forgiven the media for that.

Louis Armstrong, himself in poor health, was so grief-stricken at Teagarden's death, Atwell says, that his doctors forced him to bed and wouldn't allow him to attend the funeral.

Teagarden was buried in California.  Four trombones wailed their lament at the funeral.

His tombstone reads simply,  "Where there is hatred, let me sow love"

Courtesy of the Miami Herald, e-mail: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
Photo by Emily Michot / Herald Staff

 

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