Jack Teagarden was a trombone player, singer, and band leader whose career spanned from the 1920’s territory and New York jazz scenes to shortly before his death in 1964. Teagarden was not a successful band leader, which may explain why he is not as widely known as some other jazz trombonists, but his unusual singing style influenced several other important jazz singers, and he is widely regarded as the one of the greatest, and possibly the greatest, trombonist in the history of jazz.
Teagarden was born in 1905 in Vernon, Texas. Born Weldon Lee Teagarden or Weldon John Teagarden (more sources say Weldon Lee, but John makes more sense considering his nickname), Jack’s earliest performances were working with his mother Helen, who played ragtime piano, in theaters. His siblings also became professional musicians: his younger sister Norma played piano, his younger brother Charlie, trumpet, and his brother Clois (“Cub”), drums.
Jack Teagarden began playing piano at age five, took up baritone at age seven or eight, and had settled on trombone by age ten. Some sources claim his unusual style of trombone playing stemmed from the fact that he began playing before he was big enough to play in the farther positions. He moved to Chappell, Nebraska, with his family in 1918, but by 1921 was back in Texas playing with Peck Kelley’s Bad Boys. Through the early and mid 1920’s, he played with several other territory bands, including Doc Ross’s Jazz Bandits, and the Orginal Southern Trumpeters. My sources disagree concerning which band brought Teagarden to New York, and with whom he made his earliest recording, but there is agreement that he arrived in New York in 1927 and was playing with Ben Pollack’s orchestra by 1928.
Although Teagarden enjoyed a long career, it was at this point that he had the greatest effect on the history of jazz. The reaction to his unique style of trombone- playing appears to have been both immediate and widespread. Historians and critics widely agree: “No one disputes Jack Teagarden’s place in the trombone pantheon”(Morgenstern, 2004, p.292). Teagarden “is considered by many critics to be the finest of all jazz trombonists....”(Kernfeld, 1988) Teagarden “single-handedly created a whole new way of playing the trombone " a parallel to Earl Hines and the piano comes to mind " and did so as early as the mid-twenties and evidently largely out of his own youthful creative resources."
His unusual approach to trombone playing had both a technical and a stylistic component. His technical approach in particular was quite unorthodox. A short digression into the mechanics of trombone playing will explain why. The trombone slide has seven positions where traditionally notated (chromatic scale) pitches can be played. Each position causes the instrument to be a slightly different length, and the instrument can play a (different) harmonic series at each length.