Jazz Literature: Riding On A Blue Note – Gary Giddins
”Jack Teagarden, the best trombone player in the world, just blew into town from Oklahoma City.”– Pee Wee Russell in a 3A.M. call to Bud Freeman
I never saw Jack Teagarden except in films. He’s always seemed unreal to me: a sheet-white face chiseled as abruptly as a cigar\u00ad store Indian’s-some thought he was Indian, though he was actually of German descent-and a towering but modestly carried frame. He had black slicked-back hair, and when he smiled his eyes and mouth formed two parallel slits. You can see him per\u00ad form “Basin Street Blues,” which he played and sang nightly for twenty-five years, in a Mickey Rooney film called The Strip He appears as a member of Louis Armstrong’s 1951 All-Stars, with Earl Hines and Barney Bigard. Something about his presence matches the restraint in his music. He seems shy and distant, professional but tired, pleasant but mechanical.
When Teagarden died in 1964 at the age of fifty-eight, his place in jazz seemed assured. Leonard Feather wrote in The Encyclopedia of jazz in the ’60s) “Always years ahead of his time, the possessor of a wholly individual sound both as instrumentalist and vocalist, he ranks with Armstrong, Beiderbecke, Coleman Hawkins, and a handful of others as one of the unquestioned titans in the history of jazz.” Martin Williams, in his Saturday Review obituary, placed him similarly in the “advanced guard” of the ’20s. Indeed, the prose temperature he inspired was consistently warm, patient, and frankly prejudiced. He was the subject of possibly the only noncritical cover ode ever published in Jazz Review as well as two fan bio\u00addiscographies; in a lyrical 1962 review, the New Yorker’s Whitney Balliett concluded, “Bless Teagarden, and may he prosper, too.” His admirers apparently identified pretty strongly with him.
I started listening to Teagarden shortly after his death and became an instant enthusiast, marveling at his technique and sound, his cool, finding in it a complete personality at the service of material, time, and place. He was nothing if not emotionally honest, and part of the reward of listening to him, especially his later work, was his detached yet vulnerable strength. The performance level was astonishing; no matter how wretched the material or arrangements, Teagarden’s trombone was implacable. But at the same time there was something private and wounded- that oblique sensibility, perhaps, that white jazz fans respond to in some white jazzmen, sensing a bond of recognition and safety in a black and exotic music.
A Condonesque ensemble might be brimming with Dixieland cheer, but when Teagarden’s trombone attains the spotlight it evokes another world. 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. He was the perfect foil for Louis Armstrong, an incisively muted counterpoint to Louis’s thousand wattage.