Jimmy Harrison, Jack Teagarden: Trombones in Black & White

Questions of influence in jazz, like the riddle “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” are generally insoluble and an idle way to spend one’s time, but that doesn’t stop people from asking them, or confidently supplying the answers.  One that has been around almost as long as the art form itself is: Did Jack Teagarden get his style from Jimmy Harrison?

Jimmy Harrison

Harrison was born James Henry Harrison in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1900.  He spent most of his youth in Detroit and Toledo, but left the Midwest at an early age to play in a touring minstrel show and ended up on the East coast, settling for a time in Atlantic City.  He then returned to Detroit and played with Hank Duncan’s Kentucky Band and Roland Smith’s Band, then moved back to Toledo, where he played with June Clark and James P. Johnson.  From 1921 to 1923 he was with various touring shows, then moved to New York where he played with Fess Williams, Charlie Smith, and June Clark again.  He bounced around for awhile, including a brief spell with Duke Ellington, then in 1927 he joined Fletcher Henderson’s band, with whom he played until his death in 1931 with only a brief interruption.  Harrison recorded with Clarence Williams, Bessie Smith and Fletcher Henderson, among others, but never as a leader.  He was a jazz maverick, never settling down even when he seemed to have found a secure gig.

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Jack Teagarden

Jack Teagarden was born in 1905 in Vernon, Texas, and in the early years of his career played mainly in the Southwestern United States, beginning as a teenager around the age of 15.  Like Harrison, he was a restless artist, never staying long with any one band until his later years.  He played with Cotton Bailey in San Antonio, Terry Shand in Shreveport, toured Mexico with Marin’s Southern Trumpeters, and played in Kansas City first with a group he led, then with Willard Robison’s Deep River Boys.  He spent a long time with Doc Ross’s Jazz Bandits in intermittent stretches, frequently leaving for other gigs including several with pianist Peck Kelley, and finally made it to New York in 1926 when Ross’s band was stranded in Houston.  The group heard of a job opening up at a club in Larchmont, New York from a former member who had moved East.  With the entire band in one car, the group drove to the gig, then apparently drifted off in separate directions after it was concluded.  Teagarden cut his first records shortly thereafter with the band of pianist Johnny Johnson and one put together by one-armed trumpeter Wingy Manone.

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Wingy Manone

Teagarden outlived Harrison by thirty-three years and played with big names such as Paul Whiteman and Louis Armstrong, as well as both a sextet and a big band of his own.  He is now recognized as perhaps the greatest jazz trombonist ever, as well as one of the great vocalists of the genre, while Harrison–who died young at the age of thirty–is largely forgotten except by serious jazz fans, some of whom subscribe to the notion that Teagarden was a carbon copy in white of Harrison’s black style.

The origin of this theory may have been comments by jazz writers such as Hugues Panassie and Madeleine Gautier, who preferred Harrison to Teagarden and said the latter was “inspired” by the former, and Gunther Schuller, who said Harrison influenced Teagarden.  Others disagree, including Count Basie trombonist Leo “Snub” Mosely, who said “I don’t believe what people say about Teagarden getting his stuff from Jimmy. Teagarden’s biographers Jay Smith and Len Guttridge say Teagarden was “unaware of the affinity his musical style bore to that of the best Negro players” until he heard Harrison with Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra sometime after 1926.  “Whatever they held in common,” say Smith and Guttridge, “was related to feelings and modes of expression innate to each musician long before they met.”

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Leo “Snub” Mosely.

The separate geographical areas the two men traveled in during the years when they were forming their mature styles supports this view, as the opportunities to hear musicians from a distance were more limited in the days before national radio broadcasts of jazz and widespread distribution of jazz records began in the 1920s.  Harrison didn’t record at all until 1925, and his output was spotty until he joined Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra in 1927.

Still, it was true that Teagarden was a great admirer of Harrison’s, especially once the two were finally both living in New York City, beginning around 1927.  “Nobody loved Jimmy Harrison more than Jack Teagarden,” Count Basie said.  “Jimmy was his main man.  Every chance he got, he came uptown to hang out with Jimmy.  He was in Harlem so much that it was like he was actually living up there.”

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Count Basie

The bottom line, if there is one, is that the art form was developing at the same pace across the country, straining against the rhythms and styles of the past.   In New Orleans the trombone had been played in what was known as the “tailgate” style, more as a novelty instrument than a blues voice.  Teagarden said he listened to Bessie Smith and other blues singers, just as Harrison undoubtedly did hundreds of miles away, and the possibility of simultaneous invention of a melismatic approach to the instrument is not unlikely.

To give Harrison his due, he has been called the first modern trombonist by no less an authority than Gunther Schuller, but Teagarden’s play stands on its own.  His affinity for the music of a race to which he wasn’t born was made clear by his oft-reported greeting to Louis Armstrong when the two men first met.  ““You a spade and I’m an ofay (a now-moribund slang term for a white person),” Teagarden said to Armstrong.  “We got the same soul.  Let’s blow.”

From “Kansas City Jazz: A Little Evil Will Do You Good,” forthcoming from Equinox Publishing in 2022.


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