Throughout Jazz’s history, great musicians figures left us at an all too early age: sometimes through their own destructive habits and sometimes due to the luck of their draw. One wonders if Bix Beiderbecke had overcome his alcoholism, what further triumphs he would have accomplished, or if Charlie Parker hadn’t let his addictions get the better of him, what spectacular music he would have created. While Bix and Bird are two of the best known, if not the best known, there are many others whose untimely demise cut short a career leaving posterity with tantalizing what ifs.
Frank Teschemacher, 1906-1932, was an astonishingly original and creative clarinetist, and sometimes saxophonist. “Tesch” was one of the once famed Austin High (School) Gang of Chicago, youngsters who fell in love with Jazz at first listen. Also called “The Chicagoans” they all felt that the short-lived Teschemacher was the genius in the bunch. Tesch’s Austin High colleagues included Jimmy McPartland (the recently deceased Marian’s husband) and though his facility was not close to that of Benny Goodman (also a Chicagoan but BG did not attend Austin High School) his spirited, no-holds-barred approach to playing had a profound impact on the far better known Goodman. Early morning on March 1st 1932, Teschemacher was riding in the passenger side of an open-toped car driven by cornetist Wild Bill Davison, when they were hit broadside by a cab, without its lights on, slammed into a tree, and Teschemacher was thrown from the car; his head smashing into the curb. It had been very cold, and he’d had his hands shoved in his coat pockets. He died, just short of his 26th birthday. Some 34 recordings with Teschemacher survive, giving an aural glimpse of this short-lived genius.
During the Swing Era several greats were lost, at the high of their fame really. Two who come to mind right away would be Jimmie Blanton and Bunny Berigan.
The brilliant bass of Blanton, 1918-1942, shined for merely two short years with Duke Ellington’s orchestra, (so important in fact, that period in the band’s bares Blanton’s name along side of Billy Strayhorn and Ben Webster. Jimmie Blanton’s genius and contributions can be summed up in his phrasing, note usage, runs, and (above all) chromaticism. Blanton took the bass from just a member of the rhythm section, to that of an un-arguable soloist, an essential rhythmic and harmonic element in any band … including The Maestros’. In 1941 Blanton was diagnosed with tuberculosis, and had to leave the Ellington band that autumn. He spent the remainder of his brief, though highly influential, life in California, (believing it would help his condition), before succumbing on July 30, 1942. He was only 23 years old.
The remarkable trumpeter Bunny Berigan died the same year as Blanton though due to different circumstances. Rowland “Bunny” Berigan, 1908-1942, began playing professionally in his teens, and got his first major gig with the Hal Kemp with whom he toured England in 1930. Stints with Paul Whiteman, Fred Rich, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, and others followed until forming his own band in 1937. From ’37 through the spring of 1942 he led his own orchestra(s) though he briefly returned to Tommy Dorsey’s unit in 1940. Doctors had been informing Berigan for several years that his excessive drinking would kill him. In April 1942, Berigan was laid low by pneumonia. His caregivers surmised that he had probably already ruined his liver. He was urged to immediately quit drinking, and performing, but Bunny did neither. He returned to performing, only shortly though, for in late May he suffered a massive hemorrhage, and everything having taken its toll, died two days later on June 2, 1942. His masterful abilities, and range on trumpet were well and plentifully recorded, with his masterpiece being “I Can’t Get Started.”
Post-war drugs, became far more prominent in the Jazz world, taking many lives, including that of trumpeter Fats Navarro. Navarro, 1923-1950, originally started on tenor, before switching to trumpet. He played with various Florida based territory bands, (Navarro was born in Key West), before landing his first major gig with Andy Kirk’s band in 1943. In 1945 he joined the pioneering BeBop Orchestra lead by Billy Eckstine. From 1946 to his death in 1950 he played in a number of small groups, notably Tadd Dameron’s group at the Royal Roost and was associated with Charlie Parker, Illinois Jacquet, Kenny Clarke, Bud Powell, and others. Benny Goodman hired Fats Navarro away from Dameron in early September 1948, but BG immediately spotted Fats as a drug user and fired him quickly. Navarro’s narcotics addiction led to tuberculosis and his death at 26 on July 6, 1950. A stunning improviser, his precise execution, tone, long improvised lines and lyricism plus a consummate mastery of the language of BeBop, makes his young death a greater loss.
Tracing the early deaths of these various Jazzmen allows us to not only examine individual circumstances, but wider trends; the prevalence of alcoholism during the Swing Era, the rise and the proliferation of hard drugs following WWII. Fortunately these, and many others, have left behind recordings preserving their genius. But one does wonder: What if Bix, or Bunny Berigan had quit drinking, Blanton hadn’t contracted TB, or Navarro had kicked his drug addiction…?
[by Rob Vrabel, edited by Phil Schaap]