Whenever I watch a movie, I always lose track of time. Weeks, years, lifetimes, even generations can unfold before us in a movie theater in under three hours. I had originally planned to write about how the story of the trombone has been told in Hollywood films, but when I went to the archive to watch them, serendipity distracted me with a pair of VHS tapes about Jack Teagarden, the subject of my MA thesis. They were produced by Joe Showler, the preeminent researcher of everything Teagarden who passed away days after I began classes at Rutgers. Watching these tapes took me to surprising emotional depths. It was like meeting someone for the first time, and totally hitting it off. The striking nature of the experience led me to abandon my other project. Instead, I’m reflecting on the “meeting” to try to better understand the nature of my love of jazz, the telling of history, and the power of the motion picture.
The unassuming video cover of Jack Teagarden Sextet Far East Tour shows a black and white photo of Jack Teagarden sitting on top of an elephant playing his trombone. Below, simple font documents the content of the documentary, footage of his 1958 tour of the far east. It begins with Joe Showler seated awkwardly in front of a large video editing machine. Wearing a large black sweatshirt, he looks like a cross between Don Mattingly and Ron Jeremy, and he stumbles through his introduction while awkwardly handling his microphone. He introduces the band members in the sextet as if their instrument was their last name: Max Kaminsky Trumpet, Don Ewell Piano, and so on. For a moment, I wondered if I was staring into my future as a jazz scholar. Showler was by all accounts the most passionate, thoughtful and knowledgeable Teagarden scholar of all time. Consider this sketch of his collection by fellow Teagarden aficionado Mark Finn:
How can I describe it? Picture a bookcase, seven feet high, three feet wide, and then fill it with two inch black binders. In these black binders, place photographs of Jack Teagarden and the band until it’s full. Then put them in chronological order from 1905 to 1964, label each binder, and there’s five thousand photographs, right there. His book collection was an impressive thing, about 400 books, all out of print, all on Jazz and the early days of the movies. Films? Yeah, five hundred of them. Everything from a commercial print of “The Birth of the Blues” to private home movies of Jack and his family. Color slides. Lobby cards. Playbills. Scrapbooks. Ticket stubs. Ads. Trade notices. Magazines. If it was Teagarden or Teagarden-related, it was all here … what we had seen was pretty much Joe’s life over four decades. How impressive a thing for someone to collect to the point that there’s hardly anything left?
He’s also quite obviously a huge nerd. In the video, Showler’s genuine love for Jack Teagarden came across combined with an awkward resignation to the apparent futility of his life’s work. Here he has self-produced and independently published this documentary video (and many more like it,) an homage to the highlight of Jack Teagarden’s career, and I wonder if fifty people have even seen it in the 20 years since it was released. My reaction to his presentation was marked by the fear that I was getting into something that wasn’t for me. If there’s one thing I fear more than anything, it’s living the rest of my life as my dorky sixth-grade self, desparately hoping to grow into something else. Of course, this doesn’t diminish the immense respect I have for Mr. Showler and his amazing historiographical endeavor. It just made me wonder: could this be me?
Finally, the camera zoomed past Showler and into the darkness of the blank videoscreen to his right, cutting to the first clip of Teagarden playing St. Louis Blues. Watching Teagarden perform his show, confidently belting out his signature style, I was reminded of my grandfather presiding over a 4th of July family reunion. Reaching the end of his life, Teagarden seems to be surveying his surroundings, always aware of the camera, always standing tall and displaying his characteristically relaxed fluidity. If my grandfather had played music, he’d have been a trombonist for sure — I always remember my dad reassuring me after a typically loud but good-natured outburst, “Don’t worry, his bark is worse than his bite.”
I may have seen my grandfather in Teagarden’s Far East tour, but before that I had put on another of Showler’s videos, and I saw someone else staring back at me. The first Showler video that I watched, Jazz Classics Illustrated, was a simple series of photos edited together over the music of classic early jazz recordings. Showler doesn’t appear in this documentary, but a few written notes are occasionally superimposed over the images. In the very first image, the camera showed the iconic shot of young Jack looking coyly over his shoulder. When it zoomed in on his face, his eyes seemed to focus towards me, and I experienced the strange sensation of almost crying. I really felt like he was looking at me, and his eyes told me, “I see you, Alex.”
I’ve seen myself in a photograph of someone else before: in my parents’ wedding photo. When I was in high school, I remember seeing myself in my father’s face for the first time. But what always confused me was that although the similarities were obvious, something about his gaze made me feel alienated from him. For all that Teagarden lacks in physical similarity, the rounder face, the thin lips and eyebrows, the gaze told me something that Dad didn’t: “I see you, Alex.” I may have seen myself in a photo, but I had never been seen by one until that camera zoomed in on Jack.
As I begin my thesis research into Teagarden’s life and music, I have wondered what drew me to him in the first place. When I started playing trombone, like most of my trombonist peers I was a J.J. Johnson fanatic. Trombone Master was my window into the world of jazz. I didn’t even notice Teagarden until my junior year in college, when I lived in Santiago, Chile for five months. Teagarden was at the top of every trombonist’s list there, so I started to check it out. I hadn’t listened much to pre-bop jazz, and some of it sounded a little hokey. But Teagarden’s sound captivated me immediately. Some of his later sextet recording resonate emotionally in a way that even Trombone Master doesn’t. And when I saw this photo, I understood why.
Jazz at its finest resists definition. Teagarden, too, was never fully defined by his fans and critics. Still today, 45 years after his death, Teagarden’s story is as much myth as definition. Even his Grove Music Online entry is fraught with historical fiction. This lubricious quality may also be what drew that nerdy sixth-grader to jazz trombone in the first place.
And film, as I wrote at the outset, distorts time. As I watched the first video in 2009, I was in conversation with a researcher in 1989 about a musician playing in 1959. And that was after I had just watched a series of photos from the late 1920s through the early 1930s superimposed over a recording from 1931, along with photos of the 1931 record probably taken around 1980. The combined effect of these recordings brought “2009 Me” to emotionally-triggered memories from the early 1990s and 2000s, as well as speculation about a future that hasn’t even happened yet!
That jumbled slough of dates, a linear attempt to document the various temporal spaces that coexisted in that experience, is incredibly confusing. It may be impossible to pin down and exactly define what was going on in those moments. But out of that cacophonous mess of time and place came Jack’s eyes, Jack’s soul, and it said something to me. At first, it kind of creeped me out. Alex, you’re talking to ghosts. But in this wash of chaotic temporality, doesn’t he exist just as much as I do? And if so, what does he have to say?
One of my favorite Teagarden tracks, which he recorded many times during his career, is I’ve Got a Right to Sing the Blues. In this moment, I feel like that’s what he was telling me: I’m still here, and I’ve still got that right. And so do you. As I watched these videos, that’s where we met, courtesy of a kind (albeit awkward) introduction by Mr. Showler. I can breathe a sigh of relief, perhaps, as I find a home in the jazz world without living as a nerd. Still, something else has also been revealed to me — about jazz, about movies, about history, about Jack, Joe, myself and my family — and even if it still comes out sideways after 1500 words, well, that’s what it is. To me, that’s precisely what makes jazz swing.