Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Terry, Clark

Trumpeter Clark Terry's lyrical imagination and virtuosity have brought him worldwide acclaim in a career which spans seven decades, He rose from humble roots in East St. Louis to become a technical innovator on his instrument, and has made memorable recordings with Count Basie, Tito Rodriguez and Duke Ellington, among many others. He is also a composer, flugelhornist, scat singer and jazz educator.

Clark was born in East St. Louis, Missouri on December 14, 1920 into a family of seven children. After his mother’s death when he was six years old, his father had difficulty providing for his large brood. His father was overbearingly strict, but Clark still developed an early taste for music. The family lived near the Mississippi river, where riverboat nightclubs brought a steady flow of talented musicians into the city. Inspired by what he heard, yet too poor to buy an instrument, the boy crafted a makeshift trumpet using a metal funnel mouthpiece and a three-foot length of water hose.

Around the time he entered Vashon High School, he moved in with his oldest sister, Ada, and her husband, Cy MacField, a tuba-playing sideman with Dewy Jackson’s Music Ambassadors, a popular riverboat band. Cy brought young Clark to rehearsals, where he was befriended by trumpeter Louis Lattermore, who literally let Terry toot his horn, and urged him to pursue a career as a trumpeter.

He joined his high school band as a valve trombonist, a position determined by the band’s director because he had run out of trumpets. Terry couldn’t afford formal or private music lessons, but in 1935, at age fifteen, he joined the Tom Powell American Legion Post Band. Playing a bugle, an open-ended horn without valves, led to what he called “doodling,” which he claimed the beginning of his uncommon ability to produce talking sounds on the trumpet. The band won a District Championship that same year.

Inspired by trumpet greats Louis Armstrong and Roy Eldridge, Clark hit the woodshed, often practicing with his friend Ernie Wilkins on saxophone. This would be the beginning of a mutually advantageous friendship which lasted over fifty years. Terry loved to practice his horn the way other kids loved to play ball. In a year, he went from hauling ashes and tin cans to earning his share of household expenses, playing his first professional gig at the Lincoln Inn for 75 cents a night.

After high school, Cy MacField helped Terry to get a job with the Reuben and Cherry carnival band, then under bandleader Willie Austin. The band traveled mostly through the Deep South, where Terry first encountered extreme racism. A year later he joined up with blues singer Ida Cox’s band, the Darktown Scandals, and went on to perform with a number of jazzmen from the Upper and Lower Mississippi Region, including the one-legged pianist Bennie Reed, bandleader Eddie Randall and another St. Louis trumpeter, Miles Davis.

In 1942, Clark Terry volunteered for the U.S. Navy. Stationed at Great Lakes Naval Training Center north of Chicago, he used every spare hour to improve his technique. His favorite practice book was an old clarinet drill manual that ran him through a multitude of fast flowing exercises. He became keenly interested in reed instruments as a result, and studied the recordings of tenorists like Lester Young. The result of this influence was Terry’s mastery of expressive rhythmic phrasing, which stemmed from his solid command of major and minor scales.

                  Clark Terry, artwork by Suzanne Cerny

From 1942 to 1945, the Great Lakes Band became a stew pot for up and coming jazzmen. Alongside Terry were bandleader/saxophonist Willie Smith, trumpeter, composer and future bandleader Gerald Stanley Wilson, trumpeter Jimmy Nottingham, trombonist Big George Matthews, and his longtime friend Ernie Wilkins.

After the Navy, Terry returned to St. Louis and helped from a big band with bandleader and trumpeter George Hudson, and in 1947 he played in bands led by saxophonists Charlie Barnet and Eddie Vinson. From 1948 to 1951 Terry performed with William "Count" Basie during the period when Basie reduced his band from a large ensemble into a seven- or eight-man combo, when bigger bands became economically unfeasible.

As the Basie band's sole trumpeter, Terry was able to display his full range of skills, which included his horn “doodling,” or his ability to scat-talk and make squawk noises to fit Basie’s slow bouncing shuffle in trumpet solos. This winning combination can be heard on A.K. Salim's "Blee Blop Blues" and "Cheek to Cheek" from 1949. Before leaving the combo, Terry introduced his friend Ernie Wilkins to the Count, an event that helped set the stage for Basie’s successful return to the big band spotlight due in part to Wilkins’ hard hitting compositions and arrangements.

Terry joined up with Duke Ellington in 1951, a move he described as graduating from prep school to college. This comparison of his career to an educational path stemmed from his innate ability to teach others. During his nine-year stint with the Ellington Orchestra, Terry recorded on numerous occasions, including "The Harlem Suite" from 1952, "Take the 'A' Train" featuring Ella Fitzgerald in 1957, and "Cotton Tail" on the album Duke With A Difference for Riverside in 1957.

In Ellington's band, Terry learned from greats like trumpeter Charles "Cootie" Williams and saxophonists Harry Carney and Johnny Hodges. He also mentored younger musicians like drummer Sam Woodyard, who attributed his successful entry into the orchestra to Terry’s guidance.

Highlight from this period include is the 1954 Riverside album Jam Session, which offers a rare opportunity to measure Terry's talents against those of two younger, and quite different, trumpet stars, Clifford Brown and Maynard Ferguson, on cuts such as "What is This Thing Called Love." Terry can also be heard with singer Dinah Washington in 1955 on the track "You Don't Know What Love Is" and with tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins in 1958 on "Grand Street."

In 1959, he resigned from the Duke Ellington Orchestra to broaden his career horizon gigging in New York City with saxophonist Gerry Mulligan’s Concert Jazz Band, where Terry played alongside trombonist Bob Brookmeyer, who would co-lead a quintet with Terry in 1962. With this group, Terry recorded Gerry Mulligan and the Concert Jazz Band at the Village Vanguard (LIVE), a memorable combination of bluesy ballads and up-tempo pieces released in 1961 on Verve.

Terry went on to join the Quincy Jones Orchestra, traveling to Europe to perform Jones’ re-orchestration of composer/arranger Harold Arlen’s blues opera, Free and Easy. The production flopped, which was a lucky break for Terry, because it freed him to oin NBC’s Tonight Show Orchestra in 1960, as its first African-American musician.

In those years, the Tonight Show audience would participate in a televised game, called “Stump the Band,” where the band was asked to play a tune by name. Terry would often fake the named tune by performing his scat-singing “Mumbles” routine. Playing with the band for twelve years not only rocketed his fame, but also helped to launch Terry as a jazz educator. Bandleader Doc Severinson, a great advocate of jazz education, sent his musicians to lead clinics and to perform with school bands around the New York area.

One fine example of Terry's playing with Severinsen in this period is the 1961 jazz version of the Frank Loesser Broadway hit, How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Terry was also one of the few North American trumpeters capable of keeping up with demanding bandleaders like Tito Rodriguez and Charles Mingus.

Before leaving the Tonight Show Band in 1972, Terry had recorded with greats like pianist Oscar Peterson and trombonist J.J. Johnson, vocalists Ray Charles, Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald. After 1972, he teamed up with Verve records founder and jazz venue impresario, Norman Granz, whose Traveling All-Stars performed worldwide in the renowned Jazz at the Philharmonic concert series. Terry also fronted numerous bands and combos, recording over forty albums over the next thirty years, many as leader.

Terry’s commitment to jazz education came to the fore during this period. Along with bassist Milt Hinton, Terry used money out of his own pocket to help saxophonist Bill Saxton fund the JazzMobile and Harlem Youth Band. He later took his concept of “circular breathing” to hundreds of classrooms, clinics and jazz camps, an effort that culminated in 2007, when he re-launched the Clark Terry Jazz Festivals, a weeklong jazz symposium, high school and collegiate band contest.

Terry’s circular breathing method is often credited for his ability to take more air into his lungs, sustaining long flowing phrases. The method also enabled him to produce the breath support to play the larger-bore flugelhorn. Yet on any type of horn, he is recognized for his flowing lyrical style, for which he lands every note, crisp, clean and full.

Clark Terry has written over 200 jazz compositions. He has headlined at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, and in Europe, Africa and Asia, recording with everyone from the London Symphony to school ensembles of all shapes and sizes.

A recipient of France's Order of Arts and Letters and a knighthood in Germany, in 1991 he was named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts, the United States' highest honor for a jazz musician. He remains active as a performer and recording artist, releasing an album with drummer Louie Bellson in 2007, and, plans to record album with Quincy Jones and rapper Snoop Dogg, two more East St. Louis natives, in 2008.

Select Discography

Duke with a Difference (with Johnny Hodges), Riverside, 1957

In Orbit (with Thelonious Monk), Riverside, 1958

Gerry Mulligan and the Concert Jazz Band at the Village Vanguard (LIVE), Verve, 1961

Mellow Moods, Prestige, 1961-62

Oscar Peterson Trio Plus One, Mercury, 1964

The Happy Horns of Clark Terry, Impulse, 1964

Gingerbread Men (with Bob Brookmeyer), Mainstream, 1966

Oscar Peterson and Clark Terry, Pablo, 1975

Portraits, Chesky, 1988

The Clark Terry Spacemen, Chiaroscuro, 1989

Contributor: Dave Krikorian

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