Octojazzarian profile: clark terry

For the first time in jazz’s brief century, many leading artists are staying active beyond their 8th decade. OctoJAZZarians is an on-going series celebrating these living legends, pioneers of the art from who were first hand participants in the evolution of America's greatest art form.

Our subject this month is trumpeter Clark Terry.

by arnold jay smith

Like his idol, Louis Armstrong, trumpeter, flugelhornist, vocalist, bandleader Clark Terry wants only to be an entertainer. “Louis said it should be fun,” Terry said. “As long as (Louis) was making people feel good he was happy.”

                         Clark Terry, artwork by Suzanne Cerny

Indeed, Louis repeated that credo to anyone who would listen: close friends & acquaintances, informal gatherings & large audiences, even on recordings & at private parties. That was some of Clark’s reasoning when he began “mumbling,” his patented –well, it should be-- method of vocalizing, part scat, part vocalese, nonsensical patter which sounds like scatter logical dialects. But it’s always tasteful, if whimsical, fun.

It began in the bars of his native St. Louis, Mo. He calls them “stein bars.” “The piano player didn’t get paid, normally,” he told me. “Just keep putting steins of beer on the piano.” He always played in F#.” (Not your normal vocalist’s key.) “He took requests and invited singers to sit in. It didn’t matter what they sang so long as it was in F#. The rest was unintelligible, anyhow. You know, those steins.”

His legacy, of course, is his horn playing; the kind of playing that has recognized signatory power after only a note or so. He’s actually talking through the horn. “Anyone who plays can sing,” he said. “Even if we don’t have voices.” He was thinking of Louis. “Ella (Fitzgerald) couldn’t play, but she wanted to sound like an instrument. Anyone she sang with treated her as another instrument in the band. His stylized mumbling came from a Dick Tracy comic strip character whose over-his-head balloons carried hieroglyphics instead of language. Clark used it on the Johnny Carson show when the band was asked by the audience to play some obscure campfire song as part of the “stump the band” segment. Again, fun prevailing.

“When we lived in Corona, Queens near Dizzy Gillespie Diz and I would walk over to Pops’ (Louis Armstrong) house and ring the bell. Lucille, Louis’ wife, would peek through the hole and turn to Pops and say to her husband, ‘It looks like Diz and Clark are here to get their batteries charged.’” And that’s what it was. “We would sit around and listen to Pops spin stories.” Clark remembered sitting under a picture of Louis sitting on the potty, pants around his ankles looking out at you with the caption, ”Leave it all behind you.” It was an advertisement for a fierce laxative called Swiss Kris, which Louis endorsed, a box of which remains in the medicine cabinet of the spot marked Louis Armstrong House in Corona.

It was at one of those informal get-to’s when Pops said to Clark, ”You should sing more.” An indirect result was the first formal mumbles recording, The Oscar Peterson Trio + One.

Peterson had just passed away at the time of our informal telephone chat. “It was essential to know and play with Oscar Peterson,” Clark said. “We had this gag when we didn’t like the piano player. I would move to the piano and bump whoever it was off the bench saying, ‘Get lost’ and proceed to play. One time at the Blue Note (NYC) I did that when OP was at the piano [if you can imagine anyone doing such as thing]. He laughed so hard he nearly fell off the bandstand.” (The piano was close to the edge.)

Clark related that Peterson, riddled by painful arthritis, would play as treatment. So instead of curtailing his performing schedule he increased it. Only a stroke would finally limit him, and only his left hand at that.

While mumbles was a lark which became a CeeTee trademark, other experiments involved his horns. An album called Top ‘n’ Bottom Brass featured Clark’s trumpet and flugelhorn and Don Butterfield’s tuba. (Hence the title.) On it Clark played a tune called “Blues for Etta.” “Etta was the mother of a sax player I knew some time ago,” he remembered. “I played it on only the mouthpiece, no horn. It was a way you used to practice to strengthen your chops. It was also something different like playing two horns at once, or playing upside down.” Which he does to make his sets more fun.

Personally, whenever I saw the Clark Terry name on any LP it was in my figurative shopping cart, whether it was with Count Basie –he was a member of that transitional small group-- Duke Ellington –the spectacular ‘50s-‘60s band-- or just some studio backup group. If CT was in it you knew the arranger, producer, or booker was astute enough to record more than just musical wallpaper.

One such person was the late Bob Thiele who produced more than a few jazz recordings with and for his wife, the late Teresa Brewer. “The trick you need to remember is to stay out of the singer’s way,” Clark said. “We were with Teresa in Europe recording some of Louis tunes. There was a whole bunch of trumpet players each featured [on a different Armstrong favorite]. One of the players was [a young] Nicholas Payton who came on like gangbusters.” Clark intimated that Payton was in danger of losing the gig. “[After a couple of unsuccessful takes] I called him over to the side and told him to lay back; don’t overpower her. She’s the star,” advice which Clark learned from decades of accompaniment from as long ago as the riverboats.

“In racist St. Louis a form of communication was the Mississippi River and its entertainment boats,” Clark explained. “While I was too young to play on them, they came to town and stayed for a week. One booking agent was trumpeter Dewey Johnson and his Musical Ambassadors. The deal was ‘cheap booze, living and ladies,’ accent on the ‘cheap.’”

In one of those riverboat bands led by the legendary Fate Marable “if you arrived late for a gig you ’got the ax,’ literally, Clark remembered. “When you arrived at the bandstand there was the boat’s fire ax on your seat and you knew you were fired. That’s how that expression originated.”

Across the Mississippi from St. Louis, MO. is East St. Louis, IL, birthplace of Miles Dewey Davis. Dewey, as he was called, was not named after Dewey Johnson as Clark initially thought, but after his father. Clark remembers the young Dewey very well.

“Miles’ teacher [at Lincoln High School], Elwood Buchanan, pulled my coat to him,” Clark said. “We were then all fans of Harry James, who was very popular. Miles loved James’ vibrato and would play everything like that. Buchy would wrap paper around a ruler and hit him [to get him out of the vibrato habit].” And now we know how Miles got his vibrato-less style. Lest we forget that the award-winning Milesian dress code was a result of his admiration for Clark’s sartorial splendor.

“Miles played Heim mouthpieces which were a favorite of symphony player and teacher Joe Gustav,” Clark continued. Dizzy Gillespie heard of Gustav’s teaching prowess so he went to him for some lessons. Clark: “Diz played some fast runs as only he could to Gustav’s amazement considering those puffed cheeks. Gustav asked how long he had been playing like that. Diz hesitated then replied, ‘All my life.’ [The great] Gustav turned away and said, ‘Just keep doing it and get the hell out of here.’”

Clark and the as yet pre-bop Miles’ paths crossed many times thereafter each time eliciting a tangential tale from Clark. “We were working Carbondale, IL with one-legged band leader Benny Reid. Miles was there with Buchy’s [Lincoln High] band to play for a bunch of girls dancing around a Maypole. Miles liked that, all those girls. Our band was staying in a rooming house. Reid would get up an hour earlier than us and eat all our food. So one morning we got up two hours earlier and hid his peg leg, and ate all his food. You could hear him stomping around upstairs looking for his leg.”

Another encounter with Miles was at a downtown St. Louis club called the Elks, a steep climb to a loft area. Miles was there with Eddie Randall’s band. “I heard something I had never heard before coming from upstairs. I raced up all those stairs and found out it was Miles.”

The term “downtown” has special meaning for St. Louis residents. The West End was considered high class,” Clark explained. “’Downtown‘ meant something else; West Enders kind of looked down on us. I went to Vashon High, a Downtown school; my friends Ernie and Jimmy Wilkins went to Sumner, a West End school.” That didn’t stop the Terry/Wilkins team from writing and playing some of jazz’s great charts for Terry’s Big B-a-d Band over many decades. “Ernie’s first chart for his own band was ‘Forrest Fire,’ written for [another St. Louis native] Jimmy Forrest, Clark noted. “The piano player was Charlie Fox, who we called ‘Sluggo,’ comic strip Nancy’s boy friend. He was built like a fire plug: short and strong. The bass player was Wendell Marshall, who later replaced his cousin Jimmy Blanton in the Ellington band.”

When I asked this truly legendary man about regrets he readily replied, “The piano. I never had access to one so I never learned how to play. I could have done more writing and arranging.”

Perhaps that left more time for other delights. During my salad days I would travel throughout Europe often passing Clark in railroad stations and airports. We’d wave and he would yell the name of some restaurant in some city he had just visited. I frequently followed his gustatory advice.

As to now, “I am unprepared to cope with road any longer. Just trying to get through the day with personal stuff, you know the private function things. There is one thing though: I love kids. I don’t want to do to them what was done to me. One time I went to a trumpet player to learn how to develop my lower register. He told me to go home and practice sitting straight up in front of a mirror, grit my teeth and wiggle my left ear. I think I heard him say as I left, ‘That ought to hold him for a while.’ I don’t ever want to be that way. My home is like a school: whoever drops in gets a lesson.”

Just like Louis.

Clark Terry’s web site is www.clarkterry.com and is part of the JazzCorner community of hundreds of official jazz web sites and more.


January 11, 2008 · 14 comments

  • 1 Al Hirschhorn // Jan 11, 2008 at 09:35 PM
    Ted - Extraordinary tale. Beautimous! Enlightens us as to the origin of commonplace expression (e.g. getting axed). Clark is an absolute wonder! Branford Marsalis, on a Live From Lincoln Center NPR broadcast in celebration of Clark's 80th (I think) birthday, demonstrated Clark's mastery (tempos meant nothing to the GIANT) his 'mumbles' solo occurred on a lightning-speed tune. Ted, I wish you the best of luck in these informative (and witty) pieces. I love the artwork, too, by my high school classmate. She's just great! Happy New Year, Ted! ADH
  • 2 Larry Brill // Jan 14, 2008 at 08:06 PM
    Q: i've always loved "Tis' Autum" a vocal that i believe was 'Munbles'. Anyone know for sure?
  • 3 arnold jay smith // Jan 18, 2008 at 07:36 AM
    Larry: If you are referring to the "La-dee-dah-dee-dah-dee-dah" line in the song it was written as part of the lyric and not as an ad lib; certainly not a "mumbles" derivitive by any stretch. Some singers like to do some scat when they sing the refrain the 2nd time around. The late Jackie Paris did it to perfection. The song became his sig.
  • 4 cari // Jan 24, 2008 at 09:42 PM
    How glad I am that I've had the opportunity to see Mr. Terry a couple of times! Great article :) Thanks
  • 5 Dylan // Feb 16, 2008 at 03:16 AM
    This website is very usefal.
  • 6 Johnny Bello // Feb 25, 2008 at 05:32 AM
    Hi Clark: I hope you remember me.We recorded many jingles with Bill and Ann Philips in N.Y. I had an oppertunity to join your band in Baltimore(I'm still kicking myself for not accepting).I was playing the "Miss Universe Contest" and was not able to accept. Be well and God Bless. JB
  • 7 bacha victor // Mar 04, 2008 at 08:50 PM
    infact i am impress about clarkterry performance and will like to here a word from him. iam a lover of jazz music expecially the trumpet.
  • 8 Don Petersen // Mar 08, 2008 at 11:35 PM
    Clark Terry is a musical genius (I don't know if he is also other kinds of genius too...). The other night we four brass players were sitting around listening to Clark and Gerry (I'm listening right now to Clark and Bob B.) and we all agreed Clark's as much a genius as Einstein, only Clark gives us music and joy and the good, high, wonderful sense to keep on looking for the silver lining.
  • 9 David Stevens // Mar 17, 2008 at 11:06 PM
    Hi Clark I'm still one of your greatest fans, and well remember the happy times we spent with you in London (when you were there with the Ellington band) and New York). One of my favourite Ellington performances is "Up and Down" from the Shakespeare Suite - yor partrayal of Puck was so full of fun, as well as your marvellous playing.
  • 10 peter uppman // Mar 18, 2008 at 06:31 AM
    Clark's my trumpet idol of sorts. My own playing and performing is directly inspired by him and his great attitude of making Jazz and music fun, is something I also hold dear. Thank you Clark!!!!!!!
  • 11 Jai Florada // Mar 18, 2008 at 05:02 PM
    Dear Mr. Terry, Thank you for all the wonderful performances and recordings you've made, from Ellington to Mumbles & Brookmyer to Vax. You've put a smile on my face and joy in my heart. I'll never forget your Mumbles debut on the Tonight Show. I laughed like hell and went out and bought the LP as soon as I could. I listened to it again just the other day. It's as wonderful as it was then, forty years later. You sir, are a treasure. You are loved "madly".
  • 12 Saul Ross // Mar 19, 2008 at 05:07 PM
    Hello Jai, You mentioned "rushing out" to buy Clark Terry's album from the Tonight Show. Please can you give me the name of that album. Cheers Saul <sollyross>
  • 13 Saul Ross // Mar 19, 2008 at 05:11 PM
    Sorry Jai, My mail is <sollyross> Cheers Saul Ross
  • 14 arnold jay smith // Mar 22, 2008 at 03:41 PM
    There are at least 2 recorded "mumbles." the 1st was "The Oscar Peterson Trio +1" ; the other is "Clark Terry's Big B-a-ad Band Live." I think the former is available on CD but the latter may be out of print. There are some interesting similar innovations on "Top 'n' Bottom Brass," also sadly out of print.