One of the things I’ve benefited from in preparing for talks with people for NewMusicBox over the past decade has been learning about totally unrelated ancillary stuff. Most recent example: in the weeks leading up to my talk with Gunther Schuller which appears as this month’s Cover, I reread chapters from his massive second volume of jazz history, The Swing Era. Alas, in the brief time we had to chat I wasn’t able to get into any great detail about that book other than to banter off-camera about a recording I felt he had unduly derided—”Hell’s Bells,” a fascinating novelty number by the Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra. Since then, however, what stuck most in my mind from poring over Schuller’s extraordinarily detailed narrative was a passing comment he made about a now obscure 1920s Chicago-based clarinetist named Frank Teschemacher (1906-1932), whose tone and revolutionary approach to music he compared to that of Ornette Coleman. Obviously I had to hear this guy.
Turns out that Teschemacher (pronounced “tesh maker”) recordings are one of the holy grails of jazz collectors. Only a handful were released under his own name and in total there are only thirty-four different surviving 78rpm sides that feature confirmable solo contributions from him, several of which had not been released until after he was killed in a car accident less than two weeks before his 26th birthday. Good luck finding anything in the digital format of your choice; I’ve drawn a complete blank. But after rummaging through record bins in six different cities and also coming up empty, I finally tracked down a long out-of-print Teschemacher boxed set on eBay for a mere eight dollars. And it finally arrived at my home last night.
Miraculously, in 1982, all 34 of Teschemacher recordings were collected by Time/Life for what was perhaps the most unusual volume in their Giants of Jazz series, which basically consisted of excellently annotated “best-of”s by universally acknowledged jazz icons, e.g. Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, etc. With Teschemacher’s complete discography consisting of only 34 entries, a three-LP set would have to contain everything and then some. So to fill up Side 6 of the set, Time/Life included six additional tracks which might have featured Teschemacher. The tracks were culled from three 78s, each featuring Teschemacher-esque clarinet solos but containing virtually no personnel information. According to the booklet notes, these were chosen from 25 possible might-be Teschemacher recordings by an assembled team of jazz experts and were independently tested by an expert in spectrography. (A spectrograph is a machine that converts people’s recorded speech patterns into graphic images. According to the theory, an unidentified recording with contours that match those of known recordings of someone’s speech has a good likelihood of being by the same person because these contours are unique in the same way that fingerprints are. This was the first time this machine had ever been used on someone playing a musical instrument.)
By now I’m sure you’re wondering what all this music sounded like. It was actually quite wonderful, bursting with excitement and frequently so teeming with energy as to be at the edge of human ability—Teschemacher loved flashy runs and high notes that sounded beyond his technical abilities on the instrument, but they were also beyond anyone else’s abilities and his attempts to make such sounds, while not pristine, are nevertheless remarkable. Plus the people he played with also contributed some remarkable elements—there’s some completely complimentary counterpoint in the cornet solos by Muggsy Spanier, and on a couple of tracks a young Gene Krupa gets some of the most violent sonorities I’ve ever heard in his drumming; at one point it sounded like he was smacking a basketball against concrete.
As far as the authentic versus debatable Teschemacher performances go, I have no idea. I’ve only heard the set once so far and I hardly consider myself an expert on such matters. But the high clarinet notes on “Business in F,” one of the dubious six, are sheer bliss nevertheless. Which leads me to why I decided to write about Teschemacher today.
According to Marty Grosz’s extremely insightful annotations for the Time/Life set, the reason Teschemacher became a legendary figure among the jazz cognoscenti is because he was hailed two years after his death as “the greatest jazz clarintetist ever” by Hugues Panassié in his 1934 book Le Jazz Hot. Ironically, Panassié recanted his praise less than a decade later in his subsequent book, The Real Jazz (1942), claiming that Teschemacher did not belong in the pantheon of jazz greats because there were “too many choppy, rough places in his music.” The tastemaker giveth and the tastemaker taketh away. Of