Jack Teagarden was, I think, the third jazz musician I learned to identify just by his sound on a record. As I recall, the first was Sidney Bechet, and then Bix Beiderbecke.
He died in 1964: the year that I first discovered jazz music.
I’ve always had a soft spot for “Mr Tea” (aka “Big T” and “Jackson”) and have posted here about him before. He was generally acknowledged by fellow-musicians and fans as the greatest jazz trombonist of his time (maybe, any time), but poor judgement, a chaotic personal life and the demon drink, all conspired to ensure he never achieved much in the way of commercial success, and he spent the latter years of his life paying off debts and alimony by working himself (literally) to death playing mundane nightly gigs and living in cheap hotel rooms.
He was also, incidentally, almost certainly the first white man to sing a convincing blues – on a record, anyway.
The late Richard M (“Dick”) Sudhalter described Mr Tea’s last years in his book Lost Chords:
“I found him warm but distant, ” said clarinetist Kenny Davern, who joined the [Teagarden] group in 1954. “There, but not there. Emotionally closed off. Sometimes it seemed that his idea of spending an afternoon was to come into a place where we’d be playing and tune the piano. Or make brass mouthpieces on a lathe he had in his garage. I got the idea sometimes that all that tinkering was a way of putting something between himself and the world, so he wouldn’t have to deal with it.”
In his playing, too, a schism had opened. Richard Hadlock gets right to the point, noting that Teagarden “always performed best when supported sympathetically by his musical equals.” The trombonist himself expressed similar thoughts to Down Beat‘s John Tynan in 1957: “Guess you could call me an inspiration man. Unless I’ve got good guys around me, I’m no good.”
Teagarden’s records with his own groups of the ’50’s are never less than good but seldom rise to real heights of inspiration. Yet on two LPs with Bobby Hackett, in 1955 and 1957, he shines with all the old brilliance; there is even a “St James Infirmary” which comes within hailing distance of the great Town Hall version of 1947.
But shadows were closing in. Connie Jones, who played cornet in the last edition of Teagarden’s travelling sextet, remembered meeting his new boss one Sunday afternoon at a club in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, outside Philadelphia. “He was sitting at the back of the room, at a table all by himself, drinking a cup of coffee,” said Jones. “No mistaking him. But I remember thinking that in that moment he looked to me like the loneliest man I’d ever seen.”
The late trumpeter Don Goldie, who spent four years in Teagarden’s band and had known him since childhood, “always got a feeling that a lot of happiness was locked away inside Jack, really padlocked, and never came out … Just this feeling of sadness. It was always there.”
Jack Teagarden died, alone, in his room at the Prince Conti Hotel in New Orleans on January 15, 1964. He was only fifty eight. “I sometimes think people like Jack were just go-betweens,” Bobby Hackett told a friend. “The Good Lord said, ‘Now you go and show ’em what it is,’ and he did. I think everyone familiar with Jack Teagarden knows that he was something that happens just once. It won’t happen again. Not that way.”
There’s quite a lot of film of Jackson available, including an appearance in Birth Of The Blues (1941) with Bing Crosby and Mary Martin, but little that shows him in a congenial jam-session atmosphere. So I am eternally grateful to my chum Michael Steinman of Jazz Lives, for discovering this wonderful gem from a Budweiser-sponsored US TV show in 1956. Here, Jackson sits in (from the third number onwards) with some old friends: Matty Matlock on clarinet, Abe Lincoln on trombone, Eddie Miller on tenor, Clyde Hurley, trumpet; Stanley Wrightsman, piano; George Van Eps, guitar; Phil Stephens, string bass, and Nick Fatool at the drums. For a short while, at least, Mr Tea found some happiness: