Clark Terry: Optimistic Pioneer

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Clark Terry (1920–2015) (Photo: DownBeat Archive)

Clark Terry is a man of many parts. He is a staff musician at NBC in New York; he is one of the city’s most sought-after trumpeters for recording dates of every description, from jazz to jingles; he leads his own quartet and has recently formed a big band. He teaches college and high school band clinics; he tours with Jazz at the Philharmonic; he is president of a new music production company—and he is, of course, one of the most original and personal trumpet stylists in jazz. 

The man behind these varied activities is warm, relaxed and outgoing, never harried in spite of his busy schedule. To say that he is well liked would be an understatement. Even those who are envious of his success can find nothing bad to say about him and have to content themselves with sneering at his commercial activities. 

To Terry, there is no conflict between his commitment to jazz and his more worldly musical involvements.

“I made up my mind when I came into town that I would answer as many calls as I could,” he said recently. “I like to do a variety of playing. I never did feel that an instrumentalist should settle too much in one groove; you should be able to do anything on the horn. Some ultramodernists look down their noses at studio work and say it’s not creative. On the contrary … it keeps you ready.”

It was in late 1959 that Terry, then 39, decided to come off the road and settle in New York. His last job had been with the Quincy Jones Band in the ill fated Free and Easy touring company that traveled in Europe. Before that he had put in eight years with Duke Ellington, three with Count Basie, and shorter time with Charlie Barnet, Lionel Hampton, Eddie Vinson, and various other bands, beginning with George Hudson in Terry’s home town of St. Louis, Missouri. 

Thus, he brings considerable first-class experience to his new avocation of big-band leadership. The Terry band was formed early this year. 

“People had been saying to me, ‘Why don’t you get a big band,’ and it looked like it might be a good idea,” he said. “It seems like big bands are coming back. Thad Jones and Mel Lewis have been pretty successful, and New York should be big enough for two jazz bands.

“With the personnel we have, the main problem is getting everyone together at the same time. They’re all pretty busy people. But we’ve had beautiful results in this short period.”

The busy people in the band include trumpeters Ernie Royal, Marvin Stamm, Jimmy Owens, and Randy Brecker; trombonists Melba Liston, James Cleveland, Tony Studd, and Wayne Andre; reed men Phil Woods, Bobby Donovan, Zoot Sims, Frank Wess, and Danny Bank; pianist Don Friedman; bassist Ron Carter; and drummer Grady Tate. 

Arrangements are by Liston, Woods, Allan Faust and Rick Henderson, a former Ellington colleague of Terry’s and the band’s “utility reed man—we always seem to be short one man.”

“The music is very fresh,” Terry continued. “Phil’s approach to writing is especially exciting.”

At rehearsals, Terry’s lively sense of humor keeps the atmosphere happy and relaxed, and his complete musicianship is fully evident. He has a unique, extremely effective way of counting off: “One, two, you-know-what-to-do.” It’s funny, it works, and one wonders why nobody thought of it before. 

“The enthusiasm in the band is tremendous,” Terry said with pride. “And we have good subs—we’re developing a bench like a baseball team.” 

The band’s first official booking is at the Greenwood Lake, N.Y. Jazz Festival July 20–22, but Terry hopes to have the band ready to perform in public some weeks before then.

“We’ll probably do some Monday nights at the Half Note; they’ve enlarged the bandstand. We had some rehearsals there, but now we start them so late that it isn’t practical. We’ve been approached for some social-club dances in the fall, and we intend to play for dancers. If you hope to bring back big bands, that’s one sure way of getting to the kids.”

Terry described his music company, Etoile Music, Inc., which he operates in partnership with Liston and Woods, as “the backbone of the band.” In its offices in the Times Square area, the writing and copying of the arrangements are done. 

“We’re also set up to record, manage, produce, provide any kind of service in the line of music,” he added. “We’ve even done a couple of rock ’n’ roll things that will hit the market soon. And we booked our first date recently: a thing in Pennsylvania for Phil, with my rhythm section.” 

Currently, Terry is commuting to Jazz at the Philharmonic dates, mostly on weekends. He gets back in time to do the Tonight Show taping on Mondays. 

“It’s a ball to go back on the road,” he said. It gives me a few more hours for sleeping than I’m used to. I get a chance to rest up; with only two concerts a night you can sleep in daytime. Traveling conditions are much better than they used to be—when we got to where we were staying, they used to have to carry the iron lung from door to door!” 

Terry’s chronic lack of sleep arises from his busy schedule when he stays in town. He knows that when a musician is called for a record or jingle date “you can’t say no—if you do, you get scratched off a number of lists. Going out of town, of course, is a good excuse, provided you don’t stay out too long.”

He also does quite a bit of nightclub and concert work with his quartet and, occasionally, with his old partner, trombonist Bob Brookmeyer. (“In fact, we’re going to the London House in Chicago in August for two weeks.”) He was a judge at the Villanova Intercollegiate Jazz Festival in March. He has done a few clinics this year and has a few more coming up in Illinois and Iowa. 

“They’re fun to do,” he said of the clinics. “Most of them include a concert as well. I get on well with the kids, and there is lots of interest in big bands. I get requests from all sorts of places, but to accept them all would be a physical impossibility.”

As an indication of the kind of talent that can come out of the collegiate music scene, Terry cites trumpeters Brecker and Stamm, both in his band, and “both fantastic players.”

Terry is, naturally, pleased that his services are in demand.

“To see this acceptance by the public is heartening. It’s very gratifying, and it makes me work harder and try harder.”

A contributing factor to Terry’s popularity has been his singing, particularly the humor-filled wordless blues patter he calls “mumbles.” He’d never expected this joking to take hold. 

He explained how the original recording came about: “I was doing the Oscar Peterson Trio Plus One date, and it went down so smoothly—we finished all the numbers in one take—that we were just sitting around gassing, with plenty of time on our hands. I wanted to make a party tape; just put it on and see people’s reactions, and Oscar was for it. So we worked out a routine, and when we did it, Oscar fell on the floor. ‘This has got to go on the album,’ he said. So we worked out two numbers… 

“It was really my version of a put-on of old blues singers. St. Louis had lots of what you might call blues festivals, get-togethers where one singer after the other would come up and do his blues. Feeling mattered more than what was being sung about. Some guy would start singing about a chick in the audience, and it didn’t matter what the words were, as long as the groove kept going. 

“I’ve always loved to listen to blues singers, from way back, but even on my records at home, there’d always be one or two lines you couldn’t make out. The feeling is what counts. From just fooling around like that, I decided to do some straight-life singing, on tunes that don’t require a balladeer’s voice, like ‘Gee, Baby’ or ‘I Want A Little Girl,’ and I found that there was a market for that, too. We have some arrangements in the big band for that.”

Terry’s singing, like that of other fine jazz instrumentalists, is a happy and engaging reflection of his personality, and ‘Mumbles,’ when done in person, comes out just a little differently each time. At benefits or festivals, after lengthy sets of “serious” jazz, the singing is a delightful change of pace. 

In addition to playing trumpet and singing, Terry doubles on flugelhorn. He has used it since his Ellington days and even does a specialty, wherein he alternates phrases on trumpet and flugelhorn. But he does a lot of serious playing on the large-bored horn, too. 

“I found it to have a more intimate feeling and sound,” he explained. “You don’t have to use the same vicious attack as on the trumpet. I use it for a change of pace, like a pitcher with a fastball and a curve. It’s really an extension for one’s expression.”

The big horn is becoming increasingly popular, Terry noted with pleasure.

“They allow it on staff as a double now; before, it wasn’t quite recognized as a legitimate instrument. Many of the new sounds in jingle music are geared to the flugelhorn sound. It can be used in many combinations: with winds, with trombones. There are many ways to use it effectively.”  

The use of flugelhorns is not the only positive factor Terry finds in today’s commercial jingles. “They seem to be writing better music for jingles now than you hear on a lot of the jazz programs,” he said. “You can turn on your radio and hear some good jazz on the commercials. Jazz seems to be a good medium for selling—it doesn’t have to be corny.”

Terry explained that he enjoys the challenges involved in the careful timing required for this kind of functional music: “It has to be worked out to the precise second. You may have to make a 5/4 bar out of a 4/4 bar, cut bars, put in irregularities. And when you get the chance, it’s good to get that little bit of your own in … .”

As a network staff musician, Terry is a member of the still far too small minority of Negro musicians in such jobs—roughly a dozen among the 195 men employed by the three major networks in New York. To Terry, the job means more than mere security. 

“I like to think,” he explained, “that I’m supposed to prove to nonbelievers that they can believe—that we can do what’s required, and that proving this has made things just a little more comfortable.”

“I have to think of more than just my gig. I’m representing all the people who’d like to do the kind of work I’m doing. I have to think ahead—I feel that I’m not doing it just for myself, but that I’m representing the Negro in [the music profession].”

Asked his opinion of the current state of jazz, Terry replied that he finds it difficult to evaluate. “It seems great for some, bad for others,” he said. “I guess it’s always been that way. But in some cities, there are no places now to hear jazz. It’s terrible if a town can’t support at least one or two places, even just for the local musicians.”

But on the whole, Terry is optimistic: “I don’t think that jazz will ever die. There’ll always be somebody playing some kind of jazz somewhere, and somebody will come and listen to it. The kids have been smothered with rock ’n’ roll, but it looks as if they’re getting tired of that and want to hear good melodies with a good swinging feeling. It may be ‘old hat’ to us, but it’s new to them.

“Jazz goes through a lot of phases, but it always comes back to foot-patting music. I like to hear some of the new things that are being tried. I don’t mind a cat going way out, as long as he comes back. Some of it is successful, some not.

“I like to stay abreast of everything that’s going on. A lot of times I have to subsidize my own yen for jazz. I do benefits and small-paying gigs. I’ll take a sideman’s fee for the sake of someone who needs it more. I think of those things primarily because nobody was thinking of them on my behalf when I was coming up.”

Terry is aware of the danger of becoming stale and stagnant: “Being satisfied and just grooving is an unwise thing to do. As the old saying goes, the only difference between a groove and a grave is the dimensions. You can’t let the world go by.

“I learned many things from the older guys, like Duke and Coleman Hawkins. They surrounded themselves with youth, and they always managed to keep their minds open—not necessarily in the sense of accepting everything that comes along, but in being open to it. You shouldn’t close your mind and your ears to everything that’s going on; you should at least hear it out. Bean or Maestro wouldn’t be as fresh and interesting in their ideas as they are if they had closed their minds to youth.”

It is clear that success has not spoiled Clark Terry. DB


On Sale Now
December 2017
Wynton Marsalis
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