The Ghosts of Trombonists Past

I promised that I’d follow up my appreciation for Canada with a recap of the Toronto trip and the reason that I went: to look through Joe Showler’s collection of Jack Teagarden materials, living in his old house in the Toronto suburb of Etobicoke, Ontario.  Teagarden, the subject of my MA thesis at Rutgers, is that guy blowing the trombone at the top of the page.

This coincides with my first front-page feature at jazz.com, a collection of the various trombone biographies that I have written for the Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians.  This enterprise has taken up most of my summer, and in a certain sense built up to this visit to Toronto over the weekend.  Since enrolling in the MA in Jazz History and Research at Rutgers, I have delved into the early history of the jazz trombone, which has resulted in a surprising reinvigoration into my interest in jazz across its entire century-plus of history.

As the great trombonist Slide Hampton says, “we trombonists, we’re problem-solvers.”  It’s not an easy instrument to get a handle on, especially in the chromatically-dominated language of bebop.  Before I came out to New Jersey to start my MA, the problems that needed solving seemed endless.  I went to Oakland to make a living in jazz, but after a year and a half I felt like something was missing.

When I moved to New Jersey and started checking out what these early jazz guys were up to, it really changed my perspective about my own playing, and my own purpose.  I found myself spending hours in the practice room in a way that I never had been able to before, half the time reading and half the time playing.  It’s a great balance that I’m still trying to forge on a consistent basis.

This summer, with the offer for the encyclopedia entries and my own renewed interest in the trombone’s jazz history, I spent a lot more time at the Institute of Jazz Studies, which is an amazing place.  I got turned onto the richness of the history that is stored there — it was their archive where I first saw one of Joe Showler’s Teagarden videos.

Since then, I’ve felt a strange sense of peace and communality with these individuals, all long-past, whose innovations shaped the development of the trombone as a jazz instrument.  The visit to Toronto strengthened that feeling even more.

Over the course of his 45-year collecting career, Joe Showler managed to reproduce 99% of Jack Teagardenn’s entire professional itinerary, documenting his whereabouts for just about every single day of his 40-year professional career.  Photographs, newspaper ads and personal correspondece were meticulously organized in a series of black binders that filled up three rooms of his house.  I was struck by the honesty with which Showler approached this task.  He wasn’t out to deify Teagarden; instead, his aim was to document his life, to see into his experience as deeply as possible.  For example, he documented the brand of amphetamines that Teagarden was mixing with whiskey during his darkest moments, and uncerimouniously concludes that in 1964, on his final tour stop in New Orleans, Teagarden must have locked himself in his hotel room for over three days, refusing to see anyone for the final days of his life.

Teagarden’s story is colored with a pervasive sadness, that of a soul deeply battered by the evils of his day.  The road life was not kind to him, and he left this world with four failed marriages and not a penny to his name.  But unlike the millions of other sad alcoholics who left this world beaten down by its darker realities, Teagarden left behind a memory of his groundbreaking and virtuosic work as a trombonist.  This is what I took from my visit to Toronto, and the reality of that experience was strangely affirming.

Not everyone from Teagarden’s generation was beaten down by the Jazz Life, however.  I am always struck by the stories of people like Benny Morton, Kid Ory, Vic Dickenson, Al Grey and others who maintained long and successful careers.  The main thread in these stories, it seems, is a sense of humor and a sense of belonging.  A perfect example is an interview conducted in the 1970s with Vic Dickenson, in which he insists that his slide technique is a result of wrist strength derived from twisting off whiskey bottle tops.  He goes on to lament that soft drinks, with their loose-screw lids, may very well be the downfall of the modern trombonist!

While the contexts for acoustic musical performance, especially for trombonists, continues to decline in today’s digital world, I find my trombone practice to be most rewarding as a conversation with the past, as an emotional conection to another kind of ancestor.  It is a joy to continue to learn more about the creative and innovative lives that these men led, even if that innovation is merely in the methods of vibrating lips against a long, brass tube.

Finally, this experience has led me to better understand and appreciate the work of other great trombonists today.  Before, I don’t think I’d have chosen to sit through a free jazz concert at the Vision Festival, but now I can go hear Steve Swell and be genuinely enthralled.  It’s fascinating to see how others who have been seduced by this strange instrument choose to express themselves through it.  Although I don’t think it’s a prerequisite for understanding jazz, my own participation in it has certainly oriented my interest.  But as I learned in Oakland, sometimes self-interest isn’t enough, and there’s a lot to be learned by appealing to those who have “slid” before us.

About arodjazz

Writer, trombonist, and PhD Candidate in Ethnomusicology exploring the complexity of today's jazz world
This entry was posted in Jazz Journalism, Trombonists and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Ghosts of Trombonists Past

  1. Jason Parker says:

    Beautifully written, Alex!

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