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Piano Demon

The globetrotting, gin-soaked, too-short life of Teddy Weatherford, the Chicago jazzman who conquered Asia.

By Brendan I. Koerner

The Atavist Magazine, No. 01


Brendan I. Koerner is an award-winning journalist and the author of Now the Hell Will Start: One Soldier’s Flight From the Greatest Manhunt of World War II (Penguin, 2008), which he is currently adapting for Spike Lee. He is also a contributing editor at Wired whose work regularly appears in The New York Times, Slate, and many other publications. Find him at www.microkhan.com or on Twitter @brendankoerner.

Editor: Evan Ratliff
Designer: Jefferson Rabb
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Special Thanks: Susheel Kurien, who is currently working on a documentary about the Calcutta jazz scene; Naresh Fernandes, author of a forthcoming book about jazz and Bollywood; Jehangir Dalal, who generously shared his Weatherford-related correspondence; Amba Kak, our Calcutta correspondent; Bradley Shope of the University of North Texas; Peter Darke and Ralph Gulliver of Storyville; the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts; the University of Missouri-Kansas City Library; the Chicago Public Library; the William P. Gottlieb Collection at the Library of Congress; and Ta-Nehisi Coates.

Published in January 2011. Design updated in 2021.

1. Calcutta, 1945

The man they called the Seagull was lost in a thunderous solo, his vast hands skipping across the piano keys as his rhythm section strained to keep pace. Sweat pooled around the collar of his white sharkskin suit, but Asia’s greatest jazz star was too juiced on highballs to mind the monsoon broil. He just rocked back and forth on his three-legged stool, attacking the tune.

Beneath the unadorned stage at the Winter Garden, an open-air nightclub at Calcutta’s Grand Hotel, hundreds of young bodies moved to the music. There were American GIs in crisp tan uniforms, British Tommies blotto on gin, and Anglo-Indian girls looking for love, all illuminated by lanterns strung from the columns and arches that ringed the dance floor. Waiters in starched red jackets darted between the whirling patrons, carting off the remnants of chicken dinners and baked Alaskas.

But one American soldier wasn’t joining in the mirth. He stood motionless at the foot of the stage,  snarling. By his side was his unusual pet, recently liberated from the forests of Assam, more than 500 miles to the northeast: a young sloth bear the size of a Siberian husky, with a heavy chain draped around its neck.

The soldier had a problem with the color of the pianist’s skin. And he decided to make his opinion known by turning his pet into a missile.

“Here, Teddy!” he shouted as he chucked the bear toward the stage. “Here’s your brother!”

The bear slammed into Teddy “Seagull” Weatherford and, startled by its sudden flight, sank its claws into the pianist’s coat. Scraps of fabric flew about the stage like confetti as the dancers froze and gawked.

The bear continued tearing its way through Weatherford’s clothes until the thickset pianist finally cast off his ursine assailant. Weatherford was tempted to leap into the crowd and pummel the jerk who’d tossed the poor beast, but he kept his cool. Such loutish behavior would be unbecoming for a man of his status.

And so despite his tattered coat and lacerated flesh, Weatherford sat back down at his piano and resumed playing. Dancers grabbed their partners and trays of drinks made the rounds as if the bear attack had only been a dream. No racist son of a bitch was going to make Weatherford look the fool in Calcutta.

This was his town. Calcutta belonged to Teddy.

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Teddy Weatherford (right) aboard the SS President Hoover with violinist Joe McCutchin.

2. The Count Basie of the Far East

The Lower Circular Road Cemetery in Calcutta, where esteemed British soldiers and diplomats were once laid to rest, is in appalling shape. Cracked tombstones lie hidden beneath clumps of scraggly vines, and piles of pulverized red brick litter the muddy ground. Genealogists who scour the plots for an ancestor’s grave often discover that it has vanished entirely, lost to decades of neglect.

In one of the cemetery’s most forsaken corners, a large crypt shows traces of having been ransacked by thieves. Its granite lid has been pried loose, allowing armies of insects free passage in and out of the vessel. The marble headstone is overgrown with weeds, which must be hacked away in order to read the inscription:

In loving remembrance of TEDDY WEATHERFORD Died 25th April 1945 A WONDERFUL PIANIST AND FRIEND. May his soul rest in peace.

Weatherford usually receives no more than a skeletal paragraph in jazz histories. His Wikipedia entry is thinly sourced and error-ridden; his music is almost entirely absent from the Internet. He is the sort of figure whom scholars typically dismiss with a single, damning noun: footnote.

But in his heyday, Weatherford was a giant of American music, a singular artist who was revered on both sides of the Pacific even before the advent of jet travel. When he died in the waning days of World War II, 40,000 grieving Calcuttans lined the city’s streets to watch his flower-strewn casket pass. Back in the U.S., the nation’s leading black newspaper, the Chicago Defender, mourned the untimely demise of the man they called the Count Basie of the Far East:

Well known throughout the Far East where he had spent the last 20 years, Teddy came to Calcutta from Shanghai, China shortly after the Jap invasion there. Since the outbreak of the Pacific war, resulting in thousands of American troops being stationed here, Weatherford had become a byword among GIs. Nightly both white and colored soldiers accompanied by the Anglo-Indian version of the bobby socks girls crowded the dance floor at the Wintergardens, for Teddy’s band produced the best jitterbug music out here. Tall, dark with a thick head of bushy hair he also presented one of the most colorful spectacles in this city of many races as he and his attractive Anglo-Indian wife moved from place to place.

Weatherford was more than just a romantic troubadour. He was the quintessential embodiment of the American dream: Born into desperate circumstances, Weatherford leveraged an innate talent and an appetite for risk into a kind of success that his forebears could never have imagined. But to find it, he would have to abandon his native land and seek his fortune a world away.

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3. Millionaire Town

In the earliest years of the 20th century, there were few places in America more outwardly prosperous than Pocahontas, Virginia. The town’s streets were lined with elegant homes boasting ornate metal facades custom-manufactured in the foundries of St. Louis. An opera house played host to traveling Broadway productions and the very best in vaudeville entertainment. A few miles away, just across the West Virginia state line, lay the Victorian mansions of Bramwell, an enclave so affluent that it was known nationwide as Millionaire Town.

The money flowed thanks to the abundance of coal, mined in Pocahontas and hauled off to power the textile mills of the Carolinas, the steel plants of Ohio, and the giant excavating machines just beginning to dig through the Isthmus of Panama. The local mine had opened in 1882 and was purchased in 1891 by the Norfolk & Western Railway, of which the Pocahontas Coal and Coke Company was a subsidiary. The company specialized in a strong-arm business tactic: purchasing coal from the region’s other mines at heavily discounted prices. Mines that refused to play along were denied access to the Norfolk & Western’s routes to key markets such as Cincinnati; Durham, North Carolina; and the bustling ports of eastern Virginia. It was a supremely profitable racket for the men atop the railway’s hierarchy.

The men who actually liberated the coal from the earth, by contrast, risked life and limb for the slimmest rewards. Central European immigrants and African-Americans worked side by side in the Pocahontas mines, harvesting fuel with pickaxes and sticks of dynamite. They were paid in scrip redeemable only at the overpriced company store and treated to a single communal bath each week. Their homes were wooden hovels located on the town’s rural outskirts, where hungry panthers occasionally preyed on small children.

To transport the coal from the mine’s bowels to the surface, miners piled it onto tramcars that wobbled toward the iron doors separating the pitch-black tunnels from the outside world. Stationed just inside these doors were trapper boys, sometimes just four or five years old. Their job was to open the doors to let the trams pass, as well as bring some much-needed ventilation into the mines. They worked 12-hour shifts in near total darkness for roughly seven cents a day. Among their ranks was an African-American boy named Theodore Weatherford.

Weatherford was born in Pocahontas in 1902 or 1903, in the kitchen of the shack owned by his father, Jack, a veteran miner and the son of slaves. Sent to work as a trapper boy when he was barely old enough to speak in full sentences, Teddy exhibited early affinities for both music and mischief. “He was musically inclined from the start, and he wouldn’t stay at home,” one of his brothers, Sam Weatherford, would recall years later. “We never knew where he was. He worked on the tramway up to the mine, all the boys did, but he got the boys in a band to play music. Then he started playing himself.”

The Pocahontas mines where the Weatherford males toiled were notoriously lethal. In 1884 the town was the site of what remains one of America’s worst mining disasters, an explosion that claimed the lives of all 114 men on duty. Despite the ensuing cry for stricter safety measures, fatal accidents occurred with alarming regularity. In one 1901 incident, at least 13 men were killed and 25 severely injured by fire and poisonous fumes. Eight of the dead were mine officials who rushed into the tunnels to assist with the rescues, only to be overcome by blackdamp gas and then eaten by giant rats. Five years later, another 21 men were incinerated in a massive explosion that caused the earth to tremble miles away.

A similar tragedy, though, may actually have saved Teddy from a life belowground. In 1907, Jack Weatherford was nearly killed in a mine explosion. The accident left him blind and deaf, unable to provide for his family. So young Teddy was sent across the state line to Bluefield, West Virginia, to live with his much older sister, Lovie Poindexter. Fortunately for Teddy, Lovie’s husband was not a miner but a train brakeman for the Norfolk & Western—a relatively lucrative job for African-Americans at the time—which meant that Teddy could be spared further labor in the mines. His new home, located near the Bluefield rail station, contained an upright piano, and Lovie gave him his first formal lessons. It didn’t take long for the pupil to eclipse the teacher; Teddy, as it turned out, was blessed with the ability to play by ear.

Weatherford sharpened his skills by striking up a friendship with an older boy named Maceo Pinkard, with whom he spent countless hours trading piano riffs. (Pinkard would later move to New York and become famous for penning the classic tune “Sweet Georgia Brown.”) In his teens, Weatherford also briefly attended the Bluefield Colored Institute, where he learned the basics of music theory before dropping out and joining a popular Bluefield dance band. Playing gigs above a local pharmacy, the band developed a following among the town’s ragtime lovers, who thrilled to the percussive style of play Weatherford had developed. “Teddy didn’t have to have no band around him,” recalled one of the pianist’s childhood friends. “He could make as much music with just a drummer or a saxophone player as any 12- or 15-piece band.”

Weatherford soon earned a promotion to a traveling band headed by a saxophonist named Ben Harris. The group was a so-called territory band, an outfit whose circuit primarily consisted of minor and midsize towns starved for decent music. Weatherford’s first foray out of Virginia’s coal country took him west, to the banks of the Illinois River, as the band wended its way north through the dance halls of Peoria—and, in 1920 up to the cultural mecca of Chicago.

There, the budding pianist’s fortunes took another unexpected turn. Harris took gravely ill upon hitting town, and his band disintegrated. At 17, Teddy Weatherford suddenly found himself in America’s second largest city, unemployed, friendless, and 500 miles from home.

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A young Teddy Weatherford. “Teddy didn’t need to have no band around him,” a friend recalled.

4. Chicago

Chicagoans who concerned themselves with matters of moral hygiene believed that Prohibition would kill the city’s jazz scene, thereby saving countless young girls from the scourges of psychosis and sexual degeneracy. In 1921 an organization called the Illinois Vigilance Association reported that no fewer than 1,000 Chicago girls had been driven to prostitution through their exposure to jazz music. The group highlighted one particularly sordid tale of an innocent girl gone wrong:

She was born in Chicago of good parents who exhausted every resource on her behalf. Although but 18 years old when brought into court, she had been frequenting jazz dances for over three years. Beginning when less than 15 years of age in the more expensive dance palaces of the north side she gradually drifted down to rougher ones on the west side. The same type of music was played in all the halls. This sex-infuriating music, combined with other conditions, led to her first indiscretion. This was followed by a life of promiscuity, the act often taking place in the halls and corridor of the building in which the dance was held. She finally met a man at a certain hall, ran away with him, and was subsequently deserted. When arrested she was living in a disorderly flat with Negroes.

Other anti-jazz activists characterized the music as Bolshevik in nature, likely to expose Chicago’s youth to the toxic ideals of Communism. But once the clubs were deprived of their ability to profit from the sale of booze, the moralists hoped, the jazz fad would be replaced by more wholesome entertainments. “The brainless messes of jazz which have so frequently been served up to us in the past could only, as we have always felt, appeal to jagged [drunk] patrons,” declared a Chicago Daily Tribune editorial in August 1920. “There is a connection stronger than alliteration between jag and jazz. If the producers have come to a realization of the fact, we can look forward to the theatrical future with a stronger hope than ever before.”

Yet the moral renaissance was not to be, as Mayor William “Big Bill” Thompson ceded the city’s nightlife to the rum-dealing underworld in exchange for bribes. The Republican mayor also enjoyed cozy relations with Chicago’s growing African-American community, which had helped him win election in 1919, after the city had been scarred by a bloody race riot. Thompson had every reason to avoid upsetting his electoral base, so he turned a blind eye to the rapid proliferation of Prohibition-bending jazz clubs around State Street, Washington Park, and other South Side neighborhoods.

As a result, when Teddy Weatherford was cut loose in Chicago, he had no trouble finding piano work in a series of seedy cabarets. Drunken patrons sometimes lunged at each other with butcher knives, but the teenage Weatherford got the chance to earn some money and hone his skills. He quickly gained minor renown not only for his playing, but also for his oversize personality; an inveterate prankster with a love for hooch, Weatherford was a magnet for attention. He soon caught the eye of the trumpeter Jimmy Wade, who was putting together an orchestra to play the recently opened Moulin Rouge Café on South Wabash Avenue, and who had already recruited a star violinist named Eddie South. Located in an old chop-suey joint and owned by a mobbed-up Frenchman, the Moulin Rouge evoked the bordello feel of its Parisian namesake: walls lined with red velvet wallpaper, balconies flecked with gold leaf. Its tuxedoed staff was known for its tolerance of hip flasks and for generously providing covert tipplers with glasses of soda or tonic.

Though located in a decidedly white part of town, the Moulin Rouge was eager to hire black musicians, the better to attract a large mixed-race crowd. Weatherford was soon hailed as one of Chicago’s top pianists, alongside Earl Hines and a mysterious virtuoso who went only by the name Toothpick. When the legendary Jelly Roll Morton arrived in town in 1923, he was said to be floored by the young Weatherford’s skill.

The fortunes of Wade’s band were tied to those of the Moulin Rouge, which often made for rough times. The café was temporarily shuttered after a raid by federal liquor agents in 1922. Two years later, its facade was destroyed in a firebombing blamed on a rivalry with competing clubs. So when a bandleader named Erskine Tate came to poach Weatherford in 1925, the pianist was happy to shake free of the troubled joint.

Tate’s orchestra had a steady gig at a 1,300-seat movie palace called the Vendome Theater. It was the city’s foremost black cinema, having been installed in a former German-American cultural center for the exorbitant sum of $250,000. The Vendome anchored a four-block stretch of  State Street known as the Negro Great White Way for its surfeit of popular clubs, the fame of which spread so far that many Southern blacks arriving in the Great Migration were convinced that, as one put it, “State Street would be heaven itself.”

Unlike the raucous clubs where Weatherford had made his name, the Vendome catered to an upscale black clientele—doctors, lawyers, and businessmen who were guided to their private boxes by finely attired usherettes and who puffed on Cuban stogies inside the theater’s oak-lined smoking room. As the Vendome’s house orchestra, Tate’s group was responsible for providing live accompaniment for the theater’s silent movies and for keeping the patrons entertained during intermission. The 10-piece orchestra was considered among Chicago’s best. Weatherford had been chosen right around the same time as an equally lauded up-and-comer, a young New Orleans–born cornetist named Louis Armstrong.

Weatherford and Armstrong played together under Tate’s direction for a year, during which the orchestra cut two sides for an early jazz label called Vocalion Records: “Static Strut” and “Stomp Off, Let’s Go.” The former includes a hard-driving solo by Weatherford that, even at a mere 15 seconds, is enough to reveal his prodigious talent.

Things were moving fast for the pianist, who had yet to celebrate his 23rd birthday. Weatherford even tried his hand at songwriting, usually opting for tunes that revealed his bawdy sense of humor: One of his best-known songs was titled “Oh Gee, Oh Gosh, I’m Married But I’m Loving Some Other Girl.”

Still, Weatherford was getting restless. Armstrong, growing in musical stature, soon left the Tate band for a spot at the Sunset Café, one of Al Capone’s main joints. And Weatherford, for all his success in the competitive world of Chicago jazz, began to feel he wasn’t receiving his proper due. As his bandmate Preston Jackson would later recall, Weatherford had a powerful thirst for recognition, one that could never be sated until he was considered a pianist without peer. He also possessed a curiosity about the world, and he was envious of his friend Earl Hines’s travels out to Los Angeles as part of a barnstorming Dixieland band.

So when Weatherford met a smooth-talking bandleader named Jack Carter in 1926, he was open to suggestions for an alternate career path. And Carter offered up an option that Weatherford had probably never imagined: the Far East.

Since 1924, Carter had been leading a cabaret show in Shanghai—a mixture of song, dance, and comedy, all performed by African-Americans like himself. The Shanghai audiences loved it, and now Carter was preparing to take the show on the road to Southeast Asia. He had come to Chicago in search of fresh talent. Carter assured Weatherford that he would be treated like a king as the band sailed from port to port throughout the South China Sea.

To the chagrin of Chicago jazz fans, the former child coal miner decided to indulge his taste for adventure. “Teddy Weatherford has flown the Vendome nest and his destination is China,” the Chicago Defender’s music columnist announced in September 1926. “Teddy, old boy, you fronted us, but they all come back.”

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Weatherford (at piano) playing with Jimmy Wade’s Syncopators, the house band at Chicago’s Moulin Rouge Café.

5. Piano Demon

Critics and compatriots rarely stinted on superlatives when describing Weatherford’s talent. “A hell of a pianist… I hear Fats Waller and I tell you it’s Weatherford,” raved the New York Amsterdam News. The Chicago Defender dubbed him “the piano demon,” while Louis Armstrong lauded his former bandmate as “awful good.” Others described him with phrases like “Champ of the ivories,” “an immediate sensation,” or “the world’s greatest jazz pianist.”

Any discussion of Weatherford’s much-admired musicianship began with his most valuable asset: his gargantuan hands, which earned him the nickname Seagull owing to their winglike dimensions. Big hands can be a jazzman’s curse. While it is obviously beneficial to be able to stretch across a great many keys, meaty fingers tend to be clumsy fingers. But Weatherford combined reach with precision; even when sprinting across the entire keyboard, he never got sloppy. Each note rang full and true.

Those mammoth hands also enabled Weatherford to develop a uniquely physical style of playing. When he first hit Chicago, stride piano was just beginning to supplant ragtime. Stride relied on the left hand to alternate between a walking bass and chords, leaving the right hand free to dazzle with melodic flourishes copped from multiple genres: the rapid arpeggios of classical, the soulful licks of blues. Weatherford was an early master of stride, and he used his powerful hands to lean into the tunes, pounding the keys with a nimble ferocity normally reserved for drummers. The result was a sound often mistaken for the work of two pianists playing in tandem. Legions of admirers tried to imitate Weatherford’s aggressiveness, with mixed results—it was his particular genius to play with both gusto and grace.

Weatherford was also a showman, having cultivated a flair for drama while playing small-time joints in Bluefield. Those territorial audiences expected to hear standards they knew and loved, so it was up to each band to make popular songs like “Memphis Blues” and “King Porter Stomp” its own without messing up the good-time vibe. Over six feet tall and built like a tank, Weatherford was a commanding presence. He could lay back in the cut and build a little tension before bursting forth with a Paganini-like display of virtuosity. Whether playing alongside scantily clad cabaret dancers or in front of swanky diners eating by candlelight, he always made the crowd feel as if it had gotten its money’s worth. That gift for performance would soon turn Weatherford into an international star.

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Teddy Weatherford at the keys.

6. The Imperial Circuit

When Weatherford finally landed in Shanghai in the autumn of 1926, having sailed across the Pacific Ocean from San Francisco aboard the SS Tango Maru, the Chinese metropolis was on the verge of a bloodbath. Chiang Kai-shek, head of the military forces of China’s ruling Kuomintang (KMT), was attempting to solidify his control of the nation by laying siege to Shanghai, then under the rule of the warlord Sun Chuan-fang. At the behest of Communist Party officials, the city’s trade unionists had decided to support the KMT, which they believed was interested in ridding China of foreign influence and bettering the peasantry’s sad lot. 

Desperate to hang on to the jewel of their small realm, Sun and his generals resorted to a campaign of terror against Shanghai residents suspected of KMT sympathies. “The executions have been terrifyingly informal,” an English journalist wrote. “Pickets and agitators, including ignorant coolies and spectacled students, are quickly beheaded wherever they are found intimidating shopkeepers or scattering Cantonese leaflets. A runner is sent to summon the execution patrol, which comes up with the headsman swinging his bared blade. The culprit is forced to his knees as the soldiers keep the crowd back. A moment later his head is being fastened to a wooden cage, which always is ready, and nailed to a pole for the contemplation of the populace.”

When the city’s defenses finally broke in the spring of 1927, Chiang wasted no time betraying the trade unionists. Paramilitaries allied with the KMT massacred thousands of civilians suspected of Communist ties, and strikers were gunned down indiscriminately as they took to the streets. Shanghai became a police state, and political rabble-rousers frequently disappeared.

Yet the tens of thousands of foreigners who called the city home—and for whose entertainment the Jack Carter Orchestra, with Teddy Weatherford on piano, had been imported—caroused right through the violence. Cloistered in sections of the city reserved for non-Chinese and protected by thousands of American and British troops, these American and European expatriates enjoyed lives of supreme comfort, awash not in blood but in money generated by any number of shadowy schemes, notably the burgeoning opium trade.

Shanghai abounded with leisure opportunities for the fortunate denizens of the international precincts. Elegant dinners and dances were a nightly ritual, often followed by bouts of slumming. An American journalist with a racist streak and a taste for vice described some of the entertainments available to the foreign residents, commonly known as Shanghailanders:

You drifted into one of those cabarets, an hour or so before midnight, you chose your table not too far from the floor, and you looked them over: the pretty Chinese girls in their slit silk dresses and with too much rouge on their soft cheeks; the glorious Russians with their décoletté evening gowns—Chanel and Molineux models, if you did not look too closely…. And you bought your ticket and danced with them, and if you invited one of them to your table, you had to pay something extra and the girl had apple cider that turned into champagne on your chit. But if you wanted to go home with her, she would have to ask the management first…. And you might wind up in “Blood Alley,” where you went to get as much local color as possible, among the drunken soldiers and sailors of the armies and navies of the world.

Obsessed with hipness and style, the Shanghailanders fetishized black jazz musicians. The Jack Carter Orchestra thus commanded a handsome price for its show, which provided a slickly packaged taste of African-American culture—or, more accurately, what foreigners expected African-American culture to be. The show’s star attraction was Valaida Snow, a 22-year-old Tennessean trumpeter and singer who was widely considered the female Louis Armstrong. After belting out a version of “Ol’ Man River,” she would be joined onstage by a comedian named Bo Diddly, who would sling jokes before dueting with Snow on a song called “Black Bottom.” Snow would then cap the evening with an early version of crowd surfing: at the end of a manic tap-dancing number, she would leap onto the dance floor, fall to her knees, and wriggle her way through the stunned audience. The routine rarely failed to bring down the house.

Teddy Weatherford was supposed to be a minor player in the revue, but music aficionados couldn’t ignore the tall, powerfully built young man who elicited such full-throated chords from his instrument. Fellow musicians were enraptured by his skill at the ivories, even though he had but a single solo in the Jack Carter show. Word of Weatherford’s prowess quickly spread.

The band’s Shanghai engagement was scheduled to last just ten weeks, but it wound up stretching well into 1927. Then the ensemble set off for Batavia, the capital of the Dutch East Indies, where they’d booked a stand at the Oost Java Restaurant, an open-air club on the city’s main square. It was the first time an African-American group had played Batavia, to the immense delight of the city’s young Dutch jazz fans, who had previously had to make do by playing scratchy ceramic cylinders on beat-up Victrolas. They descended on the Oost Java for the Jack Carter show only to discover that, for the first time ever, the club would be charging a hefty cover fee. To add salt to the wound, the club erected a bamboo fence along its perimeter to prevent nonpaying spectators from catching a glimpse of the Americans.

But some brave fans would not be denied their first exposure to authentic live jazz. They clambered up the square’s trees and watched Weatherford’s piano magic from afar. They swung so hard to the band’s hot sound that several nearly tumbled to their deaths.

After rocking the Dutch youth, the Jack Carter Orchestra sailed north to Singapore, where it headlined at the fortress-like Adelphi Hotel. Wealthy British merchants and the women who loved them went bonkers over the show, leading the local English-language newspaper to ponder the band’s appeal:

What is the secret of these coloured artists’ success? Surely it is that they are entirely un-selfconscious. While white performers may be worrying as to whether they are “getting over,” the originators of jazz just let themselves go. It is said that these artists never offer a dance in just the same way two nights running.

The Jack Carter Orchestra traveled up the Malay Peninsula and finally wrapped up its Southeast Asian barnstorming in 1929. Carter and Snow decided to return to the United States, but Weatherford declined a ticket home. There was still money to be made in China.

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The Canidrome, a large dog track and casino in Shanghai, where Weatherford played to crowds of international revelers.

7. Paris of the Orient

By the time he arrived in Shanghai in the summer of 1933, Langston Hughes was already a seasoned traveler. The esteemed writer had spent much of the previous year trekking across Central Asia after an ill-fated attempt to make a movie in Moscow. He had spent nights in sheepskin yurts on the Eurasian steppe, communed with Jewish poets in the Uzbek city of Bukhara, and gotten tipsy on cognac with oversexed Tajik soldiers. If nothing else, Hughes was certainly a fair bit tougher than the typical man of letters.

But the chaos of Depression-era Shanghai startled Hughes. He was shocked by the degradation and vice on display at every turn—the haggard streetwalkers angling for johns, the beggars mutilating themselves to bolster their earning power, the heavy carts pulled by coolies in lieu of oxen, the constant kidnappings of anyone who looked capable of shelling out a few yuan for ransom. Yet amid all the criminality flourished an artistic culture like no other in the world, one that embraced both ancient opera and the hottest jazz.

Hughes needed a Virgil to guide him through the highs and lows of Shanghai. Teddy Weatherford was more than happy to oblige.

The Seagull’s star had risen considerably in the four years since the Jack Carter Orchestra disbanded. “Stiff-necked Britishers and Old China Hands from Bombay to the Yellow river swore by his music,” the starry-eyed Hughes would later write. “A big, genial, dark man, something of a clown, Teddy could walk into almost any public place in the Orient and folks would break into applause.”

At the time of Hughes’s visit, Weatherford was the main attraction at the Canidrome, a colossal dog track and casino located in the French-controlled quadrant of Shanghai’s International Settlement. The Shanghai police had cracked down on the import and sale of opium in the early 1920s, a move that only pushed the enterprise into the French Concession, where Chinese authorities held little sway. The city’s Mafia, the powerful Green Gang, controlled this narcotics trade through a front business called the Three Prosperities Company. The gang’s head honchos, Pockmarked Huang and Big-Eared Du, split the company’s $50 million annual revenues with the various foreigners who helped smuggle and store their addictive merchandise.

The Canidrome, the main attraction in the French Concession, was owned by the Tung Vong Company, a partnership between the millionaires Mr. Tung (the fat one) and Mr. Vong (the skinny one). The ruling KMT had long maneuvered to shutter the place as an affront to Chinese morals, since so many native-born gamblers blew their meager savings on the Canidrome’s greyhound races and nightly lottery. But the Green Gang made sure that vice remained on offer in their territory, to the joy of jazz fans, who flocked to the Canidrome’s baroque ballroom to hear Weatherford play.

Weatherford drove Hughes around Shanghai in his car to let him see for himself why the city was known as the Paris of the Orient. They cruised up and down the Bund, the bustling district along the Huangpu River where European-style edifices loomed over stately waterfront parks. Hughes would occasionally jump out to explore the grimy alleys that echoed with the sounds of clattering mah-jongg tiles and caged fighting crickets.

But Hughes seemed less impressed with Shanghai than with his chauffeur. “Sitting beside the big, dark, hulking musician in the car, I thought how fascinating it must be to be a band leader like Weatherford, making music all around the world,” he would later recall. “If I were a performer, I thought, and could play or sing or dance my way to Hong Kong and Singapore and Calcutta and Bombay, I would never go home at all.

“But I was not a performer,” Hughes lamented, “only a writer.”

Hughes also caught a glimpse of Weatherford’s sybaritic lifestyle, with its deluge of alcohol and gorgeous groupies of various races. Among Shanghai’s biggest jazz fans were young White Russians who’d fled their homeland a decade earlier after the Bolshevik revolution. Occupying the bottom rung of Shanghai’s expatriate pecking order, these exiles took the jobs no other whites would. The women, in particular, often wound up staffing the city’s numerous houses of ill repute, where 8,000 Russians provided sexual services for paying clients. But a few girls avoided this fate by latching onto the American jazzmen they worshipped. Weatherford collected Russian girlfriends with ease, as did various other musicians who passed through his Canidrome band. Their sexual abandon had predictable consequences: Band members paid frequent visits to one Dr. Borovika, a former German fighter pilot turned physician who was a master of treating venereal diseases.

The musicians and their women, both wives and groupies, formed a bohemian community amid the colonial elegance of 1930s Shanghai. Hughes recounted the typically boisterous scene at the house of one of Weatherford’s sidemen, which he visited just four hours before he was scheduled to depart for Japan:

It was eleven o’clock when we got there. Other musicians with their White Russian girls or Japanese wives were gathered by that time, having highballs and awaiting us. The one Negro woman in the group, wife of one of the bandboys from Harlem, said that fried chicken wouldn’t amount to anything without hot biscuits, so she went into the kitchen to make some.…

I could smell the chicken cooking in the kitchen where the colored wife was busy with the biscuits, and assorted Japanese and White Russian females were all cooking too, drinking and chattering away like mad. Everyone was in high spirits, so it took quite a little time to get anything done. Anyhow, the chicken certainly did smell good! But I looked at the clock and both hands were past high noon.…

“Teddy, man, I’m gonna have to go.”


“Asaki, how about that bird?” Teddy bawled. “Shenshi, Kiki, Tamara, what you-all doing out there? This man is hungry!”

The girls started setting tables—a big table and two or three smaller ones in the front rooms, as there were more than a dozen people. Said Teddy, “If I had me a piano, I would beat out some blues.” But there was no piano, so Teddy and the rest of the folks just kept on mixing highballs and um-ummmm-mm-m-ing at the wonderful smells of chicken frying in the kitchen….

At half past one there on the far edge of Shanghai, Teddy and I were climbing into his car, each of us with a sizzling drumstick and a buttered biscuit, on the way to my hotel, miles off near the Bund.… With greasy hands I rushed up the stairs of the hotel and started throwing things into my bags. Teddy gathered up my typewriter, books and such items and took them down to the car, then came rocking jovially back to see if he could be of further help. It was then about two-thirty P.M. I still had to pay my bill! When I stumbled panting into the car with a string of ties and two pairs of shoes in my hands, and we headed at top speed for the pier, I just barely caught the last lighter going out to the ship anchored offshore in the Huangpoo, flags flying and steam up for sailing. I left Teddy waving on the docks with the whole backdrop of Shanghai behind him.

A few months after Hughes departed, Mr. Tung and Mr. Vong sent Weatherford on a recruiting mission to America. Like Jack Carter before him, Weatherford was charged with finding more black musicians willing to satiate the Shanghailanders’ appetite for African-American culture.

Weatherford arrived in Los Angeles on January 6, 1934, where he met a trumpeter named Buck Clayton, leader of a crackerjack band that was desperate for work. (They had recently concluded a disastrous gig at Club Ebony, during which their crooked manager had gambled away all of their wages.) Sweetening the pot was Clayton’s girlfriend, Derby, a beautiful dancer who’d appeared in such Hollywood musicals as Roman Scandals and Murder at the Vanities. She was eager to come to China and join the show.

Weatherford signed up Buck Clayton and His Harlem Gentlemen for the Canidrome and booked passage back to China on the SS President Hoover. Days before the ship set sail, Buck and Derby married at a ceremony hosted by Duke Ellington and held on the Paramount Studios lot.

Clayton’s band was an instant hit in Shanghai, attracting Madame Chiang Kai-shek and her entourage of silk-clad beauties on opening night. (Madame Chiang’s sister later insisted on taking tap-dance lessons from the group’s trombonist.) The show began as patrons wrapped up a 17-course meal, and it included Derby’s interpretation of a traditional Russian peasant dance.

Weatherford, meanwhile, took clever advantage of his new situation. “Teddy was playing four different nightclubs each night, so he could only play with us on one number before he would have to leave for another club to be in time for his show there,” Clayton would later recall. “He would play one half hour in each club, running from one club to the next, but at the end of the week he had four salaries coming to him.”

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Weatherford depicted in his trademark white suit.

8. Harlem Gentlemen

One night in November 1934, as Clayton milled about the Canidrome between sets, a Russian girl approached him for an autograph. As he leaned down to sign her piece of paper, she grabbed the monogrammed handkerchief from his coat pocket and ran off. Clayton thought nothing of the matter until the following evening, when he spied the girl at one of the ballroom’s tables. She was accompanied by a large, rough-looking American who refused to sit down as the show began. As he led his band through its first number, Clayton couldn’t help but glance at the standing man.

“Turn your eyes the other way, you black son of a bitch!” the American yelled over the swelling music.

Clayton descended from the stage to confront the man. Moments later, the bandleader was on the floor, having been sucker-punched in the face. A melee ensued as the rest of the band converged on the American instigator, a Marine- turned- gangster named Jack Riley. The plumpest of the Harlem Gentlemen sat on Riley’s chest while the rest of the band rained down blows. All the while, the band’s pianist remained onstage and kept playing, making some in the audience think that the brawl was part of the show.

The Harlem Gentlemen’s beat-down of Riley turned out to be a Pyrrhic victory: The next morning, Mr. Tung and Mr. Vong received a telegram from a contingent of American expats threatening to attack the Canidrome with machine guns if Buck Clayton and His Harlem Gentlemen were allowed to return. Neither they nor their patron Weatherford would ever play the ballroom again.

The Canidrome brouhaha occurred just as Shanghai’s freewheeling Jazz Age began drawing to a close. The Japanese had bombed the city in 1932, allegedly in response to anti-Japanese rioting. Tens of thousands of Chinese had been killed, and the ensuing cease-fire, brokered by the League of Nations, allowed several Japanese army units to be stationed in the city. Those units had since kept busy harassing Shanghai’s Chinese residents, and everyone knew that the Japanese were angling for a casus belli. The Japanese in the city frequently complained about minor slights to their national honor, such as stones tossed at Japanese schoolchildren. It was only a matter of time before they hit upon an excuse to invade.

How a Japanese conquest might affect the city’s nightlife was anyone’s guess, so American musicians were faced with a tough choice: Stay and risk imprisonment or worse once hostilities commenced, or abandon the city they’d come to love.

Harlem-bred trombonist Ernest “Slick” Clark, a frequent Weatherford sideman, elected to stick it out. He went on to become a bandleader at the Paramount Club, a job he held onto even after the Japanese assumed control of the city in 1937. But after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Japanese decided to send Shanghai’s American residents to internment camps. Clark spent the next two years subsisting on cracked wheat and enduring regular beatings, until he was allowed to sail home aboard a Swedish passenger ship.

The Seagull, however, glimpsed the clouds on Shanghai’s horizon. Soon after the Canidrome fight, he packed up and left China for good.

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Weatherford in Paris, where he dazzled attendees at the 1937 International Exposition.

9. Springtime in Paris

Weatherford may have lost his cushy Shanghai gig and his White Russian groupies, but as an artist and a showman, he was just approaching his peak. He’d had a taste of celebrity in China, and now he was looking for a new place that would appreciate his sizeable talents. His first stop was Singapore, where he crossed paths with a saxophonist named Roy “the Reverend” Butler.

A teetotaling Chicagoan who had also been globetrotting for years—first through Brazil and Argentina, then to Paris—Butler had eventually settled in Bombay, where he played in a band called Crickett Smith’s Symphonians. The band was touring through Singapore in the summer of 1935 when its pianist suddenly quit. Desperate for a replacement, Butler followed up on a bit of local gossip regarding a spectacular pianist who was wowing crowds at the palatial Raffles Hotel. When Butler went to check out the show, he was elated to discover that Weatherford, an old friend from Chicago, was the buzzed-about musician.  Butler asked his acquaintance to join the Symphonians on their forthcoming trip to the Dutch East Indies. Lured by the promise of higher wages, Weatherford readily agreed. The reconfigured Symphonians did a brief stint in Java and then returned to Bombay with Weatherford in tow to begin a fresh season at the jewel of the city’s nightlife: the Taj Mahal Hotel, located by the temple-like Gateway of India arch on the waterfront.

The Taj had two venues where patrons could hear live music: the upstairs ballroom, where tuxedoed orchestras entertained diners who consumed dishes like Filet de Beckti Cecil Rhodes, and the downstairs Harbour Bar, which attracted a rougher clientele hungry for hot jazz. Always keen to earn multiple paychecks, the inexhaustible Weatherford shuttled between the two, playing with the Symphonians in the early evening and closing out the bar at night. Before long, he was packing the house wherever he played.

Weatherford honed his showmanship in the Harbour Bar, entertaining British soldiers and sailors who craved good times before they set off for distant malarial outposts. To impress these men, Weatherford would sip a drink with one hand while playing with the other, never skipping a beat or losing a decibel’s worth of volume. Such were the benefits of having been blessed with hands the size of gull wings.

Weatherford also adopted a uniform that would become his trademark: a white sharkskin suit, usually accompanied by a broad-brimmed hat. It was a dandy look, one that might seem ill-advised for a man of Weatherford’s considerable girth, but it turned out to have an odd charm.

Weatherford was once again a star attraction, and word of his talent crossed continents. In early 1937, he was invited to perform at the International Exposition, to be held in Paris that spring and summer. He set sail for Marseilles in April, taking with him one of his most prized possessions: a piano accordion that had set him back a reported $1,000.

Parisians had fallen madly in love with jazz in the ’20s, and numerous African-American musicians had since settled in the bohemian Montmartre neighborhood. The expo brought over scores more jazzmen, enough to fill the city’s clubs with joyous sound for weeks on end. “I have just spent a week in Harlem—but it only took me a few hours to get there and back,” the British jazz critic Leonard Feather wrote that summer in the jazz fanzine Melody Maker. “Lenox Avenue was called the Rue Pigalle and the bands worked for francs instead of dollars.”

When Weatherford arrived in town, he was whisked from party to party, playing his accordion for the likes of the fabulously wealthy Rothschild clan. He met a cartoonishly rotund jazz lover named Hugues Panassié who owned a small record label called Swing. A longtime champion of Weatherford’s old bandmate Louis Armstrong, Panassié was instantly smitten with the pianist’s skill and begged him to record some sides for Swing. Weatherford, momentarily abandoning his entrepreneurial instincts, agreed to do so for free and spent two summer days in the studio with Panassié, playing solo.

The resulting cuts, a selection of standards like “My Blue Heaven” and “Tea for Two,” reveal an artist in top form. Weatherford plays with his typically heavy touch, yanking out a torrent of sound from his piano—it occasionally seems as if Panassié had added a second piano track. But there is also something undeniably mournful about those Swing recordings, as if Weatherford had developed a pensive streak after so many years as a highly paid vagabond.

Not content to simply commit Weatherford’s genius to wax, Panassié also used his clout as founder of a jazz appreciation society, the Hot Club de France, to secure his hero a solo concert at the prestigious École Normale de Musique de Paris:

Smiling in his characteristically modest manner Weatherford seated himself before the keyboard and my what a delightful treat the capacity crowd of 800 music lovers were in for. Weatherford’s ease and grace, skill, technique and versatility is extraordinary. His superb executions of classics, of the old masters, and modern jazz music was simply divine. His attentive and appreciative audience was spellbound while he played and prolonged applause rocked the auditorium at the termination of each composition.

When Weatherford returned to Bombay, his international stardom was too great to be wasted on a mere sideman. And so Crickett Smith’s Symphonians was transformed into Teddy Weatherford and His Band, featuring exactly the same personnel.

10. The Wizard We All Know

Weatherford was accorded the royal treatment in Bombay. He was given lavish quarters at the Taj Mahal, with all meals included, and the considerable money he earned performing could be spent on whatever luxuries struck his fancy. Maids and butlers could be hired for a pittance, and expert tailors created exquisite garments for next to nothing. Roy Butler referred to the band’s life in Bombay as “a millionaire’s vacation with pay and passage.”

Weatherford was prepared to live it up for as long as he could. But a saintly Indian hero was about to ruin his fun: Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.

In 1935, in response to the strengthening Indian independence movement, the British Parliament passed the Government of India Act. The act gave India’s individual provinces much greater political autonomy than ever before. Unfortunately for Bombay’s tipplers, the provincial government that ran the city was deeply sympathetic to Gandhi’s dim view of liquor: “Those who take to drinking ruin themselves and ruin their people,” the Mahatma had written. By 1939, prohibition had descended upon Bombay, to the great detriment of the Taj Mahal’s coffers.

Unlike the Moulin Rouge during Prohibition, Bombay’s most venerable hot spots abided by the liquor ban. With the Harbour Bar dry and the ballroom’s meals stripped of their accompanying claret and scotch, Weatherford decided to take his act on the road. The band headed down to Colombo, the capital of the island of  Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), to play a long engagement at the Galle Face Hotel.

Ceylon’s leisure class had a deeply chauvinistic vision of African-American culture, which visiting black musicians were expected to live up to. Weatherford was already accustomed to tingeing his band’s show with racial stereotypes: At the Taj, the musicians’ stage patter was patterned after the exaggerated slang of Stepin Fetchit. But the Colombo audiences wanted Weatherford to provide even more minstrelsy. And so the opening-night party at the Galle Face Hotel, held on July 29, 1939, was called Plantation Night; the invitation featured Sambo-style caricatures wearing overalls and picking banjos. To flesh out the show’s racist theme, Weatherford led a number in which he and three bandmates dressed like those caricatures and sang spirituals as the Plantation Quartet. It was an undignified venture for a man whose music had recently enthralled the cream of Parisian society, but Weatherford didn’t seem to care as long as the hotel paid him on time. The love of money had always been his major weakness as an artist; he usually chose pleasing crowds over taking risks.

Weatherford returned to Bombay and the Taj Mahal Hotel in January 1940, to tremendous acclaim. The evening’s program for his comeback concert lauded him as “The Wizard we all know,” and the kitchen honored the man by adding Poires Glace Weatherford to the menu. The Taj Mahal’s owners seemed to hope that Weatherford would see the wisdom in sticking close to Bombay, which appeared to be safe from Japanese attack.

But the band decamped for Colombo once again, though this time its stay was brief. While performing at the Galle Face Hotel, Weatherford received a telegram containing an irresistible job offer: a slot as musical director of Calcutta’s Grand Hotel.

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Weatherford and the “Deep South Boys,” a routine he felt compelled to develop in Ceylon. 

11. The Winter Garden

Passengers arriving at Calcutta’s main train station in 1943 often witnessed a disturbing sight: hordes of emaciated men, women, and children stooped over at the waist, carefully inspecting the ground alongside the tracks. Every now and then, one of these gleaners would reach down to pluck a few errant grains of rice from the mud. With great luck, a person could find just enough food to sustain himself for another day. But such luck was hard to come by in the midst of the Bengal famine of 1943, which would eventually claim 3 million lives.

Like so many famines throughout history, the catastrophe in Bengal was largely man-made. Prior to the start of World War II, the vast majority of the Indian province’s food came from Burma, one of the breadbaskets of the British Raj. But when the Japanese conquered Burma in 1942, eliminating Bengal’s grain supply, the British had no emergency plan in place.

The inhabitants of rural villages perished in droves, and the survivors were often too weak to bury the dead. Those with the strength to flee headed for Calcutta in the hope of finding relief. But anyone expecting salvation in the big city was quickly disappointed. There were few government handouts to be had, and the rice available on the black market had been marked up 500 percent. All the newcomers could do was forage, beg, or steal. Otherwise they died on the Calcutta sidewalks, their rotting bodies an ever-present obstacle for pedestrians throughout 1943.

Yet for the city’s elite, for whom life revolved around whiskey and cricket, the famine had little impact. The American journalist Eric Sevareid, who passed through Calcutta as a war correspondent, was disgusted by the great disparity between the city’s haves and have-nots:

In the Calcutta stock exchange, enormously fat brokers dozed in their deep leather chairs, surfeited with their heavy lunches; they sprawled out with their feet apart, their snoring mouths wide open. You went down the stairs and sidestepped to avoid a totally naked Hindu who was foraging with his head in the garbage pail. You stepped over the frail, white-swathed bodies of women who lay on the sidewalk in front of your hotel, dying quietly with their babies clutched to their breasts.

From his penthouse suite at the Grand Hotel, Teddy Weatherford was one of those comfortably isolated from the horrors of Calcuttan street life. He regularly held court in his lavish quarters, where he kept a piano to entertain guests who were served highball after highball by a coterie of hangers-on.

The years were starting to catch up with Weatherford, however: He was nearing 40 when he first arrived in Calcutta. He had spent most of his adult life chasing pretty young things and romancing the various female singers who passed through his band. Soon after he came to Calcutta, though, he finally met a woman he wanted to settle down with: an olive-skinned Anglo-Indian beauty named Pansy Hill.

She might have been a patron at the Grand Hotel’s Winter Garden club one night and found herself smitten by the large black man in the white sharkskin suit. Or maybe they met at one of the elegant teas or cocktail parties that dotted the city’s social calendar—Hill’s father was a prominent university professor, and so his offspring would have been expected to make the rounds from parlor to parlor. Whatever the story behind the crossing of Weatherford’s and Hill’s paths, however, their courtship was brief. On April 9, 1942, the two were wed at the Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus on Dharmatala Street. Weatherford had only been in the city for about six months.

Back in the U.S., such a marriage would likely have been a legal impossibility, given the prevalence of anti-miscegenation laws. But interracial couplings were the norm in Calcutta, where Englishmen often took up with Bengali women. Beyond that, the city’s music scene was dominated by artists with biracial ancestries—Anglo-Indians, of course, but also Goans, who typically carry large dollops of Portuguese blood. In such an environment, no one batted an eye at Weatherford’s blackness—he was simply an American. When asked whether his Calcuttan hosts ever exhibited racial prejudice, Weatherford replied with a quip: “They treat us white folks fine.”

Weatherford returned the favor by employing a multiracial band. The war had curtailed the supply of African-American musicians, so Weatherford started hiring from the city’s pool of Asian talent. His best sideman at the Grand Hotel was a Burmese guitarist named Cedric West, who had escaped from Rangoon just before the Japanese took the city in March 1942. He hired a Nepalese trumpeter named Pushkar Bahadur Buddhaprithi; to spare audiences the embarrassment of trying to pronounce that name, Weatherford had the young man play under the pseudonym George Banks.

Weatherford also tapped passing American servicemen to sit in with the band. Roughly 15,000 African-American GIs had been sent to South Asia to build the Ledo Road, a 465-mile military highway that stretched from Assam to the China-Burma border town of Wanting. When these soldiers wanted to go on leave, their only option was to head for Calcutta: Though there were 11 American R&R camps throughout India, the Calcutta complex was the single one set aside for blacks. It was located in Howrah, just across the Hooghly River from Calcutta proper, and it was an absolute dump—a collection of canvas tents perched atop mud, within spitting distance of the bloated corpses that regularly floated down the river during the famine. Black soldiers did everything they could to avoid spending time there, and that meant passing their vacation hours at the Winter Garden.

Those who could sing or play were welcome to come onstage with Weatherford, and occasionally the Seagull would unearth a future star. The great blues singer Jimmy Witherspoon got his start in this manner, filling the open-air club with his melancholy baritone. And the saxophonist Paul Gonsalves, who would later become a mainstay of Duke Ellington’s band, recorded several numbers with Weatherford while serving in the Army.

But the scene at the Winter Garden wasn’t always pleasant. Unlike in Bombay, cheap liquor was everywhere in Calcutta, and soldiers had few compunctions about getting blind drunk while on leave. Bloody dance-floor fights were commonplace, as the Goan saxophonist Ruben Solomon recalled:

Americans had more money to spend on the girls, so all the girls would be with the American soldiers and none with the British tommies. As soon as a set of Americans would come in the British would watch them, then suddenly, for no apparent reason, there would be a free-for-all, bottles, chairs, the lot. We would be ducking and Teddy would stand and shout, “Okay boys, fighting music!” And we would go into something very two-beat—tarah, tarah, crash, bang—as long as we could. Suddenly you would hear the MP’s’ whistles and everyone would converge on the dance floor. A few bodies would be taken out.

The Grand Hotel band played constantly, and not just at the Winter Garden. It was also featured on regular broadcasts hosted by the Armed Forces Radio Service, which transmitted Weatherford’s music to listeners throughout India. In towns and villages hundreds of miles west of Calcutta, many residents heard their first strains of jazz thanks to Weatherford’s radio work. Many who fell in love with the genre would always credit the Seagull.

Yet as he basked in the limelight, Weatherford’s music took a turn for the worse. Happily married, handsomely paid, and frequently inebriated, he found his creative energy flagging. The crowds of soldiers and party girls who packed the Winter Garden each night demanded feel-good hits, and Weatherford obliged by having his band deliver faithful renditions of mainstream fare: Frank Sinatra, Glenn Miller. At the same time, Weatherford and his band produced dozens of records for an Indian label that had a manufacturing plant just outside Calcutta. To critics, these songs sounded lazy and uninspired—nothing more than quick cash-ins on Weatherford’s fame. Jazz connoisseurs who were familiar with Weatherford’s earlier recordings passed harsh judgment on these lackluster sides: Where the Seagull had once sounded like a man ahead of his time, they remarked, he now sounded years behind.

Perhaps the drop in creativity could be attributed to mere fatigue: Weatherford was now more than a decade older than the new generation of jazz trailblazers back in the U.S. Sensing that he couldn’t keep playing forever, he had started making plans to fade away gracefully. Despite having been a star in Asia for nearly two decades, Weatherford intended to return home one day. He told one of his trumpeters that he planned on saving some money to open up a snack bar. At the rate he was raking it in at the Grand Hotel, it wouldn’t take long.

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Calcutta’s Grand Hotel

12. Home

Weatherford had certainly done plenty to earn an early retirement. More than just a musical talent, he was a brilliant entrepreneur, an artist who cleverly capitalized on the world’s first crush on African-American culture. Time and again, he had uprooted his life for a chance at better pay and greater renown. In that way, Weatherford was a forerunner not just of the global march of Americana, but also of the millions of highly skilled knowledge workers of today who bounce between capitals as if borders scarcely exist. Back in the States, his old pals Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines had shaped the future of American music, paving the way for budding jazz giants like Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and Thelonious Monk. But Weatherford had opted for a life of adventure abroad rather than one of influence at home.

Though he was born into abject poverty, the Seagull traveled the world inside a cocoon of utmost privilege. He entertained a colonial elite that retreated into decadence as Asia disintegrated around them. Holed up in ballrooms packed with gin-soaked Brits in ascots or white satin gloves, Weatherford was largely shielded from the suffering of the continent’s masses—people with whom he’d once had much in common. He provided the soundtrack for the last gasp of empire.

Now that the colonial era was finally coming to its inevitable end, it was time for Weatherford to reinvent himself again—as a family man and restaurateur back in his native land. But carelessness would doom those idyllic plans.

Though the Grand Hotel was a high-class establishment, guidebooks warned visitors not to consume the tap water in the hotel’s rooms. Weatherford was apt to ignore those instructions when drunk, however. And he was drunk quite often.

On April 20, 1945, Weatherford complained of feeling ill with abdominal pains and diarrhea. He was immediately rushed to Presidency General Hospital, where his symptoms worsened over the ensuing days. As he fought for his life, news emerged that Calcutta was in the early stages of a cholera epidemic, rumored to have been caused by the disposal of diseased cats in the Hooghly River. Antibiotics had entered the medical arsenal a few years earlier, but Presidency apparently had none on hand. Without them, Weatherford stood little chance: He passed away on the morning of April 25, 1945.

The funeral procession for Asia’s most beloved jazzman took place the next day. Tens of thousands of Calcuttans of all races turned out to watch Weatherford’s funeral cortege as the Seagull’s body was transported from the hospital to Lower Circular Road Cemetery. His death pushed the war news off the front pages of Indian newspapers.

Yet, for all the adulation Weatherford received in death, it didn’t take long for his legacy to fade. The piano from his Grand Hotel suite was allegedly passed between Calcuttan musicians, who considered the instrument a sacred reminder of the man who had spread the gospel of jazz. But it eventually disappeared, and it may well have ended up as kindling.

Shanghai’s jazz scene, meanwhile, was virtually extinguished during the Japanese occupation, and the Red Army’s 1949 triumph guaranteed that it would never be revived. And as the European colonial empires crumbled, so too did the decadent expatriate culture that had embraced Weatherford and his music. Jazz survived in Colombo, Calcutta, and Bombay, but American musicians essentially disappeared from those cities’ club scenes. They were succeeded by the Goans and Anglo-Indians who’d learned their craft from Weatherford and his cohorts. Many of these artists would eventually ply their trade in Bollywood, infusing the Indian film industry’s soundtracks with the subtle strains of American jazz.

As for Pansy Weatherford, there were rumors that Teddy had left her some property in Bluefield, West Virginia, and that she moved there after the war, along with her sister and brother-in-law, a former American soldier. But no one could say for sure what had become of her.

In 1970, an Indian jazz lover named Jehangir Dalal set about trying to piece together part of Weatherford’s fading legacy. He placed a classified ad in the Calcutta Statesman:

Teddy Weatherford—Would friends of Teddy’s and musicians associated with him please urgently contact Jehangir Dalal, c/o M.N. Dastur, 12/3 Ballygunge Park Road, Calcutta-19.

Dalal received numerous letters from acquaintances of Weatherford’s, though few were able to provide meaningful details about the Seagull’s career in India. Many wrote just to express the love and admiration they had felt for “good ol’ Teddy.”

A month after placing the ad, however, Dalal received a brief letter from the northwest London neighborhood of Harlesden. “Dear sir,” it read:

I have just received a letter from a friend of mine enclosing a cutting of yours from the Statesman regarding my late husband Teddy Weatherford.

Will you please let me know what you want to know about my late husband.… I would be very much obliged if you would reply to me as I am anxious to know what you want to know.

Yours faithfully,

Mrs. Pansy Weatherford

Dalal wrote back immediately, explaining that he was a historian keen to ensure that Teddy’s story would not be forgotten by future generations of jazz fans. He simply wished to know more about Weatherford’s travels throughout Asia, about the various musicians, both minor and famous, who had passed through the Seagull’s bands. Would she be so kind as to share her recollections of the great man—and perhaps shed some light on how she had spent the past quarter century?

Pansy Weatherford never replied.