Jazz Institute of Chicago

A Lesson with Jack Teagarden (almost)

by Jim Beebe

In 1958, I was with Bob Scobey's Frisco Jazz Band and we were in residence at the Cafe Continental in Chicago. I was in my late twenties and this was my second outing with this group.

Scobey's band was a powerful swinging professional group with Scobey's driving trumpet, Clancy Hayes on vocals and banjo, Dave Black on drums, Rich Matteson on helicon tuba and bass trumpet, Art Hodes at the piano, Brian Shanley on clarinet, me on trombone, and Toni Lee Scott on vocals.

This was a very exciting time in my life. The Cafe Continental was the Chicago Mob's top club and Scobey and the group had single-handledly made it a success. It was a place where we could sit for months at a time, playing 5–6 nights a week.

We knew vaguely that this was a gangster place but didn't really care as we did our job and we got paid. Our audience in the main was a mixture of local and visiting jazz fans, business people in Chicago for a convention, and the general night club crowd.

One night an unnamed source was talking with Clancy Hayes and he said, "My God, Clancy, do you know who is in this place?" Clancy looked around and said, "No, who's here?" This source said, "Clancy, if this place was nailed shut right now, within ten minutes 90 percent of all crime and vice in Chicago would come to a screeching halt."

That remark did give us some pause. (The Cafe Continental was later raided by Federal Agents and eventually Jimmy Allegretti and several others went to prison for trafficking in hijacked booze.)

The nightclub business was good and all kinds of jazz was in full swing in Chicago and around the country. One night, out of the blue, Jack Teagarden, came in and sat down right smack in front of the band. I was instantly dumbstruck and paralyzed. I did not want to play another note. My idol and the greatest jazz trombonist on earth was sitting right in front of me.

I grabbed a drink at the end of the set and felt a little easier about it. I was anxious to talk with Jack. Scobey came up and said that he was going to ask Jack if he wanted to sit in. Jack and Clancy Hayes were old friends. He wanted to know if Jack could use my trombone and mouthpiece as he didn't have his along. I didn't think that Jack would sit in as my trombone, a Conn 6H, was a little bigger that the one Jack played and my mouthpiece was undoubtedly different.

To my surprise, Mr. T said "Yes, he would like to play."

I cleaned my mouthpiece off and turned it and the horn over to him. As I remember, Jack didn't even try it except to feel out the slide. We made small talk until Scobey went back.

The next set was a revelation to me. I was enthralled, as was the segment of the audience that was aware of what was going on. Jack played beautifully, effortlessly, and flawlessly. Playing on a different trombone and mouthpiece didn't phase him in the slightest. I realized that Jack Teagarden could play on any trombone. It didn't matter to him what the horn or mouthpiece was although obviously, he would have preferences.

Jack didn't show off, he just played along with whatever Scobey called and soloed on each tune as each band member took his turn. He and Clancy Hayes sang a number together and that was a delight. I've always wished that they could have recorded together. And Scobey featured him on "Stars Fell on Alabama"—that was just superb.

After this mind-blowing set I cornered Jack and asked him how he did certain things on trombone. He was very cordial and willing to talk. Jack had his own magic and could do little runs and things that no one has ever figured out how he did them. He could play trills and triplets easier and cleaner than anyone else and none of his technique was ever used in a unmusical show-off way.

So I asked him how he did those runs that made a slide trombone sound like a valve bone and even faster. Jack said, "Oh, I'll come over to your place tomorrow and show you some things to work on." (We had established earlier that he was staying near my pad which was right next to the original Jazz Ltd. Club.)

Needless to say, I didn't sleep much that night. Morning came, then afternoon...Jack never showed up. I knew why, and I understood. His last wife, Addie wouldn't let him out. I estimate that she added 10 years to his life by keeping him in. Jack was so good-natured that musicians and fans often took advantage of him..."Come on Jack, let's go to a session" or "Come on, jack, let's go get a drink." And he couldn't turn them down.

Jack was playing in Chicago at the London House and I was there on my off nights. He apologized for not showing up but the occasion for a "lesson" never came about again. The secrets to playing his "runs" went to the grave with him as no trombonist that I know of has ever figured them out.

Jack Teagarden was one of the great musical geniuses to come up in Jazz music and the depth of his musicality puts him right up there with Louis Armstrong. Thankfully, they made so many memorable recordings together. Jack Teagarden made many recordings and every solo of his on them is an absolute gem. "Thank you, Mr. T, for your magnificent legacy."

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