Weldon Leo “Jack” Teagarden was born in Vernon, Texas on August 20, 1905. Jack grew up in a musical household; his mother taught piano and his father played cornet in the town band. His precocious musical aptitude became apparent early on as taught himself to play an old E flat horn (known as a “peckhorn”). Jack got so good so fast that he would correct his father’s mistakes by informing the elder Teagarden what cornet valve to push.
Jack received a trombone as a Christmas present at age eight, and immediately developed an idiosyncratic technique for playing the lowest notes on the scale with the minimal movement of the slide, since his arm would not extend to the lowest positions. Owing to his innate perfect pitch, he played inimitable trombone using the so-called “false positions” throughout his career. The athletic slide manipulations of virtuosos like Miff Mole had no appeal for him. “Man, I don’t like workin’ that hard—I just use my lip.”
Teagarden distinguished himself as a professional musician from his mid-teens, with residencies in bands led by Peck Kelly (a legendary, unrecorded pianist whom Jack compared to Art Tatum), Doc Ross, and most memorably with the hot dance orchestra led by Ben Pollack. The Pollack band featured Jimmy McPartland and Benny Goodman; Pollack’s other sliphorn player, Glenn Miller, felt himself outclassed by Jack’s bluesy brilliance, and in July 1928 he left the group to play with Paul Ash.
Jack had, in addition to his uncanny intonation and his instinctive sense of instrumental and vocal jazz, a preternatural mechanical ability. He delighted in restoring and rebuilding Stanley Steamer automobiles, machining the parts himself. He was less gifted as a businessman and a bandleader. After a 1930s stint with Paul Whiteman, he led two musically excellent but financially disastrous big bands. After the war, and while still paying off debts, he played his beautiful horn and sang with Louis Armstrong and his All Stars.
Jack Teagarden, beloved by fans and fellow musicians, worked steadily in various small groups, but his disinclination to take care of himself took a toll on his health. His great heart gave out in New Orleans on January 15, 1964.