The Spirit of Chicago Jazz – Frank Teschemacher

Witten by Missy Kyzer

Missy Kyzer is a 20year old college student from Southern California attending the University of California, pursuing her Bachelor of Arts in Music and Culture. She aspires to be a professional vocalist and a music historian or musicologist.

Few jazzmen who had considerable influence in jazz are as shrouded in mystery, obscurity, and controversy as Chicago reedman, Frank Teschemacher.

Jazz aficionados, historians, and critics have conflicting views of him. Some say he was a genius and a long- lost jazz giant, some say he was unmemorable or even unremarkable. But he did have an impact – and an important one at that. Listen to a number of hot jazz records from the 1920s and early 1930s and you’ll hear that his influence is clear and present.

Part of the obscurity that surrounds Teschemacher is due to his untimely death – he was just short of his 26th birthday when he died in a car accident on March 1, 1932. He had little time to develop his craft, but with the little time he did have, he developed a highly unique sound and proved himself to be a daring improviser.

Teschemacher was the musical leader and an original member of the infamous “Austin High Gang,” a group of young like-minded classmates from Austin High School in the Chicago suburbs. They fell in love with the jazz they heard on records at the local ice cream parlor and in the inner city’s South Side clubs. Enthusiastically, they decided to get together a band of their own and learn to play this new music style, and in doing so they became, as author Richard Hadlock calls them in his book Jazz Masters of the 1920s, “the first self-conscious students of jazz.” The eager young Chicagoans began developing their own brand of jazz known as the “Chicago-style” which had an energetic and almost frantic sound that was full of tension and drive.

The clarinet playing of Frank Teschemacher was the very spirit of Chicago during the Roaring Twenties – wild, uninhibited, driven, frantic, excitable almost to the point of nervousness. He introduced a hard, astringent, and brassy quality to jazz clarinet playing that was far from the usual fluid sound of the New Orleans players before him and his fiery playing style became a defining characteristic in Chicago-style jazz.

There are only 34 existing recordings that Teschemacher is known to be playing on and compared to the recording output of most of his peers, Teschemacher’s known body of work is rather small. Because of this, many argue that there is not enough material to fully determine his true talent. Teschemacher’s peers have also said that he was, at times, nervous about recording and sounded better live. Still, he left a number of solid recordings that made an impact within Chicago’s jazz scene during his lifetime and helped solidify his place in jazz history.

Possibly the most important and influential recordings that he made were his very first recordings with the rest of the Austin High Gang boys, under the name McKenzie and Condon’s Chicagoans. The group’s two session dates for OKeh Records on December 8 and 16 in 1927 featured a line-up of Jimmy McPartland on cornet, Frank Teschemacher on clarinet, Bud Freeman on tenor saxophone, Joe Sullivan on piano, Eddie Condon on banjo, Jim Lanigan on string bass, and Gene Krupa on drums. The records from these sessions utilized two musical devices – the explosive sound and the shuffle rhythm – which established that the boys were drifting away from New Orleans style elements and were already creating their own Chicago style. Even in his first recordings, Teschemacher’s originality is impossible to ignore, and after the release of these records many clarinetists began trying to imitate him. These records even garnered high praise from Teschemacher’s idol, the legendary cornetist Bix Beiderbecke.

Teschemacher made the bulk of his recordings in 1928. He made his first recordings as a bandleader for Brunswick Records on April 28, 1928 with a group eventually billed as Frank Teschemacher’s Chicagoans.

The line-up for this date featured Frank Teschemacher on clarinet and alto saxophone, Rod Cless on alto saxophone, Mezz Mezzrow on tenor saxophone, Joe Sullivan on piano, Eddie Condon on banjo, Jim Lanigan on bass, and Gene Krupa on drums. For the session, they played “Jazz Me Blues” and “Singin’ the Blues” but only a test pressing of “Jazz Me Blues” survived. “Jazz Me Blues” is a significant recording, not only because Teschemacher takes the role of leader here but also because he wrote the arrangement of the tune, takes most of the solos, and plays on both clarinet and alto saxophone. Interestingly enough, this record was supposed to have been rejected like “Singin’ The Blues” but when a test pressing of it was found it was issued in 1939 (seven years after Teschemacher’s death) by the United Hot Clubs of America.

Teschemacher traveled to New York City in mid-June 1928. It was in the Big Apple that he and his Chicagoan friends had another significant recording date with New York musicians Red Nichols and Miff Mole on July 6, 1928 for OKeh Records. The group, billed as Miff Mole and His Little Molers, included Nichols on cornet, Mole on trombone, Teschemacher on clarinet, Joe Sullivan on piano, Eddie Condon on banjo, and Gene Krupa on drums. Nichols, a top jazzman in New York, had been drawn to the Chicagoans’ fresh sound and so this recording session was a sort-of musical test for them. The Chicagoans rose up to the challenge and added enough of their unique spark to impress the New York jazzmen, establishing themselves as a force to be reckoned with. Unfortunately, the recordings of “Windy City Stomp (One Step to Heaven)” and “Shim-Me-Sha-Wabble” recorded during this session were also not issued until 1940, when record producer George Avakian discovered them.

Teschemacher’s last two recording dates took place in 1929 and 1930, respectively. The first of the two sessions was with Elmer Schoebel and his Friar’s Society Orchestra for Brunswick Records on October 18, 1929. In addition to Teschemacher on clarinet, the line-up included Schoebel on piano, Floyd Town on tenor saxophone, George Wettling on drums, Dick Feige on cornet, Jack Reid on trombone, Charles Barger on guitar, and John Kuhn on brass bass. During this session, the band recorded “Copenhagen” and “Prince of Wails” and what is notable about these records is how much Teschemacher had matured. Teschemacher sounds more at ease, confident, and assured in his style, and in these records he plays some of the most brilliant solos he’d ever done. He cleaned up his tone and improved his intonation without sacrificing any of the vigor and fire that made him Frank Teschemacher.

He exhibits the same perfect blend of inspiration and maturity on his last known recording date with a group called The Cellar Boys. Recording multiple takes of “Wailing Blues” and “Barrel House Stomp” for Brunswick Records on January 24, 1930, the line-up here included Wingy Manone on cornet, Frank Teschemacher on clarinet, Bud Freeman on tenor sax, Frank Melrose on piano, and George Wettling on drums. It was believed that the accordion player was the brother of Frank Melrose, but the actual identity of the person is now under much speculation. At any rate, if Tesch’s sound on these records were a precursor of what could have been had he lived longer, then he could have very well become a more respected and well-known jazzman in the years ahead.

Though the common knowledge is that there is only 34 known Teschemacher recordings, there are rumors and speculations that he may be on certain other recordings in which the musicians are unknown.

In the Frank Teschemacher boxset of Time-Life Records’ Giants of Jazz LP series, 6 possible Teschemacher recordings, voted upon by jazz experts and friends of Teschemacher’s, are included. Of the 6, the two records that are the most likely to include Teschemacher are “Limehouse Blues” and “Dear Old Southland” by a group called The Original Wolverines. Contrary to the name, this was not, in fact, the original Wolverines band of 1923-1924 that featured Bix Beiderbecke. Rather, these new “Originals” were directed by pianist Dick Voynow, a member of the first Wolverines band. The line-up for these tunes, recorded in Chicago on May 24, 1928 for Brunswick Records, is largely unknown, other than Voynow. A substantial number of the consultants, including Teschemacher’s close friend Jess Stacy and fellow Austin High Gang musician Bud Freeman, believed that Teschemacher was the clarinetist and was also possibly playing alto saxophone. The clarinetist on the records definitely does have the same piercing tone and angular placement of notes characteristic of Teschemacher’s playing.

It’s also been suggested that Teschemacher could have been present on a few Sam Lanin/Ipana Troubadours recordings from 1928, considering he was playing with the band in September and some fellow sidemen remember him being on a couple Lanin record dates. A second recording of “Out of the Dawn” by the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra recorded in New York on November 24, 1928, was recently discovered, and might also have Teschemacher in the list of sidemen.

There’s always the possibility that recordings that were never issued or were previously considered lost are still waiting to be discovered.

Though the recording of “Singin’ the Blues” recorded for the April 28, 1928 session lead by Teschemacher was definitely rejected and more than likely has perished, a published discography of Brunswick Records’ Chicago and regional sessions up to 1931 states that there was a session by the same band recording the same tunes (“Jazz Me Blues” and “Singin’ the Blues”) held a month prior on March 17, 1928. Could there be a possibility that the “Singin’ the Blues” recorded here survived and is sitting unissued in a vault? Or was the account of this session simply an error?

One of the most intriguing rumored recordings is the possibility that the musicians from the Floyd Town’s Midway Gardens Orchestra, which included Teschemacher, made records in early 1928. In the discography appendix of Jess Stacy: The Quiet Man of Jazz by Derek Coller, it states that drummer George Wettling said the musicians of the Floyd Town band cut records that were never released. Coller also mentions that “if such a session took place it might have been for Paramount, many of whose matrix numbers have not been traced,” which keeps the hope alive that these records might still exist somewhere. If they do, they feature an impressive line-up that features Muggsy Spanier on cornet, Frank Teschemacher on clarinet, Jess Stacy on piano, George Wettling on drums, and leader Floyd Town on tenor saxophone. Each of these jazzmen were very talented and all of them were great friends, so it’s safe to assume that they were a musical powerhouse when playing together. Recordings of this group would be a treasure to find, not only because it would provide us with a glimpse of one of Chicago’s most revered hot jazz bands, but also because it would provide another look at Teschemacher’s playing when he worked with tremendously skilled musicians whom he trusted and admired.

Teschemacher has attracted controversy from critics because he tended to favor passionate improvisation over correct technique. Accurate intonation was also sometimes sacrificed, though more often than not the “wrong” notes he played were deliberate. In many ways, he was ahead of his time and sought to push the boundaries of the musical conventions of his era, which is why his critics tend to label his playing as awkward and unconventional.

Regardless, Frank Teschemacher’s devotion to jazz and its innovative tradition is clear. His music painted a portrait of his era, but also hinted to what was ahead. What is incredible is that in his short 25 years, 10 of which he spent playing jazz, he proved to be one of the most exciting soloists in the music’s history. It is remarkable how someone with so few recordings could leave such an indelible impression on the Chicago style and on jazz clarinet playing as a whole. This quiet young man’s unique musical voice always had something to say – usually something bold and daring. What he may have lacked in technique, he made up for in passion and spirit. He left us with, what Marty Grosz writes in the liner notes of the Giants of Jazz LP booklet, “an instrumental voice instantly recognizable and, once heard, impossible to forget.”

1 Comment

Leave a Reply