Jack Teagarden was born on 20 August 1905, not 29 August, an error perpetuated from some of the “Who’s Who In Jazz” books published some years ago. His mother, who was born on 31 January 1890, in Electra, Texas, excelled in music and gave all her children their musical education. Jack’s sister Norma was born in 1911 and brothers Charlie and Clois were born in 1913 and 1915 respectively. The Teagarden family was exceptional in jazz history, as all four children become professional musicians. On 4 November 1918, Charles Teagarden, Sr., died as a result of the influenza epidemic which had gripped much of the world. The family, now with little means of support, moved to Chappell, Nebraska to stay with relatives. Although Jack and his mother had played piano and trombone duets in their hometown of Vernon, it was in Chappell they found themselves in greater demand for performances at social events and accompaniment for silent films at the local movie theatre.
By 1919 Teagarden was an accomplished musician with an urge to travel, and so to relieve financial pressure on his family he moved to San Angelo, Texas to stay with his Uncle Joe Teagarden. His uncle, also a musician, took Jack into his band, and both became members of the San Angelo municipal band. Eventually Teagarden realized that the nightlife in nearby San Antonio held a lot more excitement than that of the small town band in San Angelo, and it wasn’t long before he took up residence in San Antonio.
Jack Teagarden led a quartet in a roadhouse on the outskirts of San Antonio known as the Horn Palace Inn. The Horn Palace took its name from the large collection of big game animal horns displayed throughout the establishment. It was during this time that Teagarden would meet an older musician who would influence the future of his musical career. Peck Kelley, a piano player from Houston found Jack and their musical interests brought them together immediately. After Joining Peck Kelley the band worked the summer of 1922 at the Garden of Tokio Ballroom in Galveston, Texas. Teagarden worked on and off with Kelley from 1921 to 1925 and the admiration, respect and friendship they felt for each other lasted for the rest of Teagarden’s life.
In 1924 Jack met Doc Ross, an orchestra leader filling an engagement in Wichita Falls, Texas. The Doc Ross orchestra was very popular in the southwest and this gave Teagarden an opportunity to join a larger and more professional dance band. His stay with the Ross band would be brief, but after unsuccessful attempts at leading small bands of his own, Jack returned to the Doc Ross orchestra in 1926 and stayed until November 1927.
In November 1927 Teagarden had an opportunity to drive a fellow member of the Ross band to New York City. This would be a major turning point in his career. Upon his arrival in the city, and experiencing the nightlife, he was convinced this was where he wanted to stay. It wasn’t long before his presence in town reached the inner circle of established New York musicians. He had been in town for only five months when the Ben Pollack orchestra came into New York from Chicago and opened at a nightclub known as The Little Club.
The Pollack orchestra was an instant success in New York although their engagement at The Little Club was brief. But news of Jack’s talent reached Pollack, and by June of 1928 Teagarden was asked to join the band. The Pollack orchestra took up residence in the Park Central Hotel on 28 September 1928, and stayed until August of 1929. Shortly after their departure Jack’s brother Charlie arrived in New York and was also made a member of the Pollack orchestra. During this time the Teagarden brothers made records on a freelance basis with Red Nichols and his Five Pennies and they were both firmly established among the elite of the New York musicians. Charlie would later leave Pollack to join Nichols in the pit for the Broadway show Girl Crazy. Jack stayed on with the Pollack band until May 1933.
Again, Jack’s reputation gave him an opportunity to become a member of the largest and most successful orchestras of the period. Paul Whiteman offered Teagarden a position in his band and Jack became an official member in December of 1933. His brother Charlie was also available at the time and the brothers were once again together in the same band.
The decision to join Whiteman offered considerable security during a period of uncertain economic times, but the ability to play jazz and swing music was severely restricted because of Whiteman’s obligation to please radio and concert audiences with an extremely broad range of music.
The Whiteman orchestra spent most of 1934 in New York in residency at the Biltmore Hotel and also played the weekly Kraft Radio program. In 1935 road trips had to be limited to five days a week as the band was required to be in New York each Thursday for the Kraft broadcast. In 1936 the band broadcast weekly for the Woodbury radio program and two long engagements kept the band in Fort Worth during the Summers of 1936 and1937. The Whiteman band secured a weekly radio show in 1938 for Chesterfield cigarettes but as the year wore on Jack Teagarden was becoming more and more restless in the band and was anxious to complete his contract term in order to start a band of his own. The Jack Teagarden orchestra was in rehearsal for most of January 1939 and an opportunity to make a one-reel short motion picture in February gave the band some wellneeded publicity. But the band was not a success even though it stayed together for eight years. Teagarden’s lack of leadership and unconcern with the business end of leading a band were among the causes of his failure. The Second World War imposed further problems with the running of the band. Restrictions and rationing made life for a travelling band on the road extremely difficult. Additionally, many musicians were eligible for duty, and the draft kept the band personnel in constant change. One of the musicians who spent a short length of time in the band before being drafted was Jack’s younger brother Charlie, demonstrating once again the closeness of the two brothers.
By the end of the war many of the big bands were starting to break up. An era had passed and smaller groups were starting to flourish. In November 1946 Teagarden, who was on the West Coast, gave up his own band. After working around Los Angeles for a few months he decided a fresh start was in order and New York was the place to try it. Louis Armstrong had also given up his big band and with Armstrong and Teagarden both freelancing in New York they eventually got together in what would become the Louis Armstrong All Stars.
After some initial concerts in New York the band opened in August 1947 at Billy Berg’s Supper Club in Hollywood. Teagarden stayed in the Armstrong band until September 1951 at which time he felt he would like to try and settle down in one place and get off the road.
From 1952 to 1956 Jack Teagarden did accomplish his goal of staying close to home in Los Angeles and spent much of that time at the Royal Room in Hollywood. Once again his brother Charlie rejoined him, and Jack’s sister Norma Teagarden was also a part of the band. But by 1957 Teagarden’s financial situation demanded a return to the road. This involved many one and two-week nightclub dates in the United States and Canada and led to an eight-week tour of England and Europe and eventually to a four-month tour of the Far East.
After Teagarden’s return from the Far East in January 1959 he spent the next five years on the nightclub circuit, once again covering the United States and Canada coast to coast. But personal appearance bookings had become a problem. The new music, Rock and Roll, had captured the musical interest around the world and the appeal for legendary jazz musicians had begun to wane. This, in addition to his age and health and return to a heavy consumption of alcohol began to show their effect on Teagarden. He opened at the Dream Room, a nightclub in New Orleans on Christmas Eve 1963, but overweight, ill health and bronchial pneumonia finally took him. Jack Teagarden died in New Orleans, the city he loved, on 15 January 1964.