The world of jazz, like any part of show business, suffers as much from public fickleness as does, say, the bumbling lyrics of a Presley or Fabian (although one approaches art, the other embraces the soul of rock’n roll). The fact that jazz personalities share with Broadway, Hollywood, etc., a dependence upon the momentary enchantment of mass-minded America is an irony in itself, although perhaps one of the lesser ironies. It is too often for the jazz musician a case of a quick fling before the footlights, then oblivion.
There is a select inner circle whose musicianship has defied the censorship of shifting fashions, and through a special sort of genius created for themselves a vast, impressive symbol synonymous with their name and art.
Such a man is Jack Teagarden, in the New Orleans vanguard when Dixieland was in its heyday, and after thirty years still its most enthusiastic and gifted exponent.
The fact that the 56-year-old singer-musician has survived the chameleon-like disposition of the public is largely due to the tremendous impact of his personality—strong-jawed, smiling, and graciously charming. Yet much as people like the easy-going “Big T,” they like even more the music that, hour after hour, pours languid, unaffected, strangely absorbed, and—sometimes—lonesome and full of plain earthy sadness, into a thousand city nights.. . tunes that jubilant or oppressive come straight out of the hot, sullen blues country and have their source in the earliest days of Teagarden’s youth.
Although gifted with an amazing technical virtuosity, the curiously mixed scale of feeling Teagarden draws from his horn has its origin in this childhood heritage. Born in Texas, raised in Oklahoma, Teagarden grew up in a world richly colored with Negro folk songs and hymns. Later, searching for style and a kind of watering spa for his ideas, he drew from the blues a source of depth that makes his brand of Dixieland distinctive...and clearly divided from any other.
He had been playing baritone and trombone for nine years in his school band when at age 16 he walked into the club where Peck Kelley, the pianist, was rehearsing his band. The musicians thought he was some kind of gag. Tall, gangling, his horn wrapped in newspaper, Teagarden asked for an audition. What he did that day with a trombone became part of the living legend of Teagarden, a feat that replaced the amused smiles with a deep respect that has been felt since by nearly every jazz buff who ever heard Teagarden jamming his special kind of music.
Yet, despite his technical facility and a near phenomenal originality that marks his improvisations, Jack Teagarden’s life was, up until 1947 when he joined Louis Armstrong, a great deal short of ideal. Like many jazzmen of the last era, his ups and downs were of the extreme kind, and success, both financial and popular, was all too often the unwilling bedfellow of failure. After Kelley, with whom he played from 1921 to 1922, others followed, among them Red Nichols, Paul Whiteman, and finally in mid-’47 Louis Armstrong when together the two traded choruses and vocals for four years across the mikes of countless American nightclubs from Frisco to The Big Apple.
Many critics believe that Teagarden’s best years were over when he left Armstrong in 1951 to form his own group.
The siege of troubled years—the mid-thirties through the late forties—Teagarden spent as an itinerant jazzman, reckless, unsettled, always on the lookout for a place to blow his horn. Then in ‘47 when he joined Armstrong, Teagarden stepped up as top-ranking sideman, second only to the fabled Satchmo…and more important able for the first time in his haphazard career to play the music that has made his name legendary in jazz annals. When in 1951 he left Armstrong and with his wife Addie, who became business manager, formed the sextet, he had settled into the life of a responsible jazz musician and family man with Addie and Joe Teagarden, his newborn son.
One of the surest signs of this newfound responsibility (or perhaps only a reinstated dignity) was Teagarden’s tour of the Orient, under the auspices of the U. S. State Department. With his sextet, he covered a circuit extending from Hong Kong to Okinawa with concerts in Bombay, Colombo (Ceylon), Tokyo, and Karachi (Pakistan). As one columnist put it, his visit “was worth ten diplomats.” From a down-on-his-luck jazzman to senior statesman and musician extraordinary, Teagarden has come up the hard way to stand as one of the truly permanent figures in American jazz.