Obituary: Norma Teagarden
Tuesday 11 June 1996
"Jack needed someone to take care of him," Norma remembered. "One time I visited him in Chicago when he was playing at the World's Fair - I think it was 1933 or 1934 - and there were 27 tuxedo shirts in his apartment. He just wore each one once and never sent them to the laundry. He just bought a new one every day. He was like that."
Norma and her mother Helen played in a band with the rest of the family, Jack, Charlie and Cub, at the 1963 Monterey Jazz Festival. It was Helen, who gave piano lessons in their home-town of Vernon, Texas, who started all the children into music. She also played trumpet, trombone and guitar and supplied piano accompaniment to the silent films in the local cinema.
When Norma was born in 1911 Jack was six and already played baritone horn and piano. He took up the trombone as a child when his arms were too short to manipulate the slide and he developed alternative positions then which stayed with him and puzzled many other trombonists in his later life.
Their father, Charles, who died in the 1918 flu epidemic, played the cornet. When he died Helen took the family first to Oklahoma, then to Nebraska. Jack went on the road as a professional musician when he was 15 and by the mid-Twenties Norma, who was still a teenager, was playing professionally in Oklahoma City.
She was already a remarkable pianist and when she was 18 left home to play with "territory" bands - bands which toured through New Mexico and Texas. The brother Charlie was one of the most fiery and technically able jazz trumpeters and, although he and Norma never broke free of Jack's shadow, the comparatively little work he put on record is much to be savoured. "Until he died Charlie had no idea how good he was," Norma told me in a broadcast interview.
Jack, kind, gentle and a hopeless businessman, had risen to stardom working for Benny Goodman, Red Nichols and Paul Whiteman. He left Whiteman to start the first of many financially disastrous big bands in 1939 and his brothers and sister joined the group. When it turned out that his brother Cub was inadequate as a drummer, Jack couldn't bring himself to tell him, and eventually hired a replacement without Cub's knowledge, with the result that both turned up for the same job.
"When we were in New York Jack wore one overcoat until it was threadbare," said Norma. "I begged him to buy another and eventually he did. A couple of days later he came home wearing the old one. I asked him where the new one was and he said he'd met a guy who needed a coat. I asked why he hadn't given him the old one. `I like this one best,' he said."
When Jack disbanded in 1946 Norma settled first in Long Beach, where she worked as a soloist and led her own band and worked briefly with Ada Leonard's All Girl Orchestra. She moved to San Francisco when a job as interval pianist came up at the Hangover Club there. Often she had to play opposite Earl Hines, a virtuoso who had done for jazz piano what Jack had done for the trombone. "I hated to follow him because he had such big hands and when he came on what he played always sounded much fuller and bigger. If I played `Tea For Two' at intermission he'd come on and play it twice as well." It never occurred to Norma, who thought well of everyone, that it was a typically malevolent ploy of Hines's to upstage her with the same number she had played.
In 1952 after five years on the road with them Jack left Louis Armstrong's All Stars owing to poor health. He formed a sextet on the West Coast and brought back Charlie and Norma. "We were very close," she said, "because we all spoke the same musical language. We had more in common than we would have had if one of us had been in another business. Charles and Jack both admired the other's playing, but one would try to outdo the other. At one recording date with the sextet we did `Body and Soul'. Jack took the first chorus and then Charles played so gorgeously, then Jack came back and did the same thing. I remember the engineer said `That's one record I'm buying.' "
When the sextet visited Milwaukee on tour in 1955 Norma met the businessman John Friedlander and they were married six weeks later.
"I didn't play for quite a while after that. John wasn't a musician, so I thought when we married I would get out of the business. I had a couple of pupils for music lessons, but, as John was home a lot during the day, he got tired of the kids practising so I quit. After a year or so we left Milwaukee and settled in San Francisco, where we've been ever since."
In San Francisco Norma returned to jazz. She played with the bands of Turk Murphy, Pete Daily and others. In 1975 she became a solo pianist at the Washington Square Bar and Grill, where she played until ill-health forced her retirement last year. "It happens to be the place in San Francisco. Very crowded, very noisy, but everyone goes there including all the politicians. The Mayor comes in with people, writers, sports people and others come just to see who's there."
She was in demand for jazz festivals and visited Britain in 1986, but played in obscure halls and didn't receive the acclaim that she should have done. Her radiant personality made her quite unforgettable and her programmed mixture of stride piano and homespun ballads was most appealing. We corresponded from that time on and I interviewed her live from her home several times for BBC Radio Merseyside.
The final interview was last autumn and, in a remarkable display of stoicism in face of her illness, she laughed about the fact that she had just been elected to the Hall of Fame of San Francisco Lounge Pianists.
Norma Louise Teagarden, pianist: born Vernon, Texas 28 April 1911; married 1955 John Friedlander; died San Francisco 6 June 1996.
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