By Danny R. Johnson
NEW YORK, NY – Dr. Calvin O. Butts III, pastor of New York City’s Abyssinian Baptist Church, eulogized Clark Terry, one of the giants of jazz, on a cold February 28 Saturday morning as one of the “most generous and unselfish human being and musician I have ever known.” While it was cold outside, well over 700 hearts were warmed by the sweet sounds of Clark Terry’s music inside, emotional reflections from the who’s who of celebrity jazz artists, politicians, music moguls, and well-wishers from Europe, the Middle East, Asia, Africa, and South America who all came to bid their jazz brother, mentor, teacher and champion a boisterous home going.
Terry, a St. Louis native who died on February 21, 2015 at the age of 94, made his 70 years in music making look so easy. But he would be the first to tell you that it was a lot of hard work, dedication, focus and help from friends and the good Lord above that saw him through. How right he was for how can you explain being one of the most recorded musicians in the history of jazz, with more than 900 recordings. Clark’s discography reads like a “Who’s Who In Jazz,” with personnel that includes greats such as Quincy Jones, Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson, Dizzy Gillespie, Dinah Washington, Ben Webster, Aretha Franklin, Charlie Barnet, Doc Severinsen, Ray Charles, Billy Strayhorn, Dexter Gordon, Thelonious Monk, Billie Holiday, Gerry Mulligan, Sarah Vaughan, Coleman Hawkins, Zoot Sims, Milt Jackson, Bob Brookmeyer, Dianne Reeves, and the list goes on.
Among his numerous recordings, he has been featured with the Duke Ellington Orchestra, Count Basie Orchestra, Dutch Metropole Orchestra, Chicago Jazz Orchestra, Woody Herman Orchestra, Herbie Mann Orchestra, Donald Byrd Orchestra, and many other large ensembles – high school and college ensembles, his own duos, trios, quartets, quintets, sextets, octets, and two big bands – Clark Terry’s Big Bad Band and Clark Terry’s Young Titans of Jazz.
Clark Terry had the happiest sound in jazz. His flugelhorn solos were full of the joy he felt at playing music, and Terry is instantly recognizable within two or three notes. It was impossible not to love his playing and his personality.
Terry was an important link in the St. Louis trumpet tradition between Dewey Jackson (an uncle played tuba in Jackson’s Musical Ambassadors) and Miles Davis (a lifelong friend who was inspired by Terry’s playing). Clark Terry worked in St. Louis in the early 1940s (including with George Hudson), served in the U.S. Navy, where he played with a dance band, and was featured with the orchestra of Lionel Hampton (1945), George Hudson, Charles Barnet a fairly modern outfit during 1947-48, and Count Basie (1948-49), Terry remained with Basie at first even when the pianist was forced to cut his group back to a septet. However, Duke Ellington noticed Terry’s playing, and in 1951 he hired the trumpeter.
During his eight years with Ellington, Terry developed from a Dizzy Gillespie influenced bebopper into an uncategorizable soloist with his own distinctive style and sound. He was one of Duke’s many soloists, getting feature spots, particularly on Peridido, and also leading sessions along the way for Emarcy, Riverside, and Argo, including a date in which Thelonious Monk was his pianist in a quartet.
Terry began his double on flugelhorn around 1957, and by the early 1960s that was his main instrument. He left Ellington in 1959 to tour Europe with the Quincy Jones Orchestra (1959-60) as part of Harold Arlen’s show The Free Easy. Shortly after the show closed, Terry returned to the United States to become one of the first full-time Black studio players, joining the staff of Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show at NBC.
Unlike many other studio musicians, Clark Terry always played jazz in clubs. He was a member of the Gerry Mulligan Concert Jazz Band (their recording of Blueport has a very humorous tradeoff between Terry and baritonist Mulligan), co-lead a quintet with valve trombonist Bob Brookmeyer, and made a classic recording with the Oscar Peterson Trio. On this last, he spontaneously sang Mumbles, a purposely incoherent vocal that poked fun at the more primitive blues singers. That number became so popular that Terry included nonsensical scatting as a regular part of his performances.
Terry, who was part of the Tonight Show Band when it was based in New York, worked steadily up to his death at countless clubs and jazz festivals. He also unselfishly gave of his time and talents hundreds and possible thousands of clinics to young students and spread the joy of jazz around the world, simply by being himself. Among his projects over his illustrious career were a big band in the 1970s, recordings for the Pablo label in an all-star settings, duets with bassist Red Mitchell, and reunions with fellows Ellington alumni. In addition to the labels already mentioned, he has recorded as a leader for quite a few other companies, including Candid, Moodsville, Verve, Cameo, Impulse, Mainstream, Polydor, MPS (including his personal favorite album, Clark After Dark), Vanguard, Enja, Chiaroscuro, and Chesky.
On December 14, 2010, he celebrated his 90th birthday, and his students past and present, flew in from Australia, Israel, Austria, Canada, the United States, and many other locations to Clark’s home for jazz lessons. Clark said, “Teaching jazz allows me to play a part in making dreams come true for aspiring musicians.” Clark Terry, who began to show his age in his playing only in the late 1990s, when he was nearing 80 and having some health problems, remained quite youthful, enthusiastic, and swinging up to the day he transitioned to glory on February 21.
To celebrate his contributions to jazz education, he has been honored with 15 honorary doctorates and three adjunct professorships. He has also received numerous awards from high schools, junior high schools and elementary schools where he has shared his knowledge of jazz. Among his many awards, he has received honors from his hometown in St. Louis, Missouri which include a Hall of Fame Award from Vashon High School; a Walk of Fame Award and Star on Blueberry Hill in St. Louis, and a life-sized wax figure and memorabilia display at the Griot Museum.
His GRAMMY® and NARAS Awards include: The 2010 GRAMMY® Lifetime Achievement Award, NARAS President’s Merit Award, three GRAMMY® nominations, and two GRAMMY® Certificates.
Clark has received dozens of other Hall and Wall of Fame Awards, NEA Jazz Master Award, keys to cities, lifetime achievement awards (four were presented to him in 2010), trophies, plaques and other prestigious awards. The French and Austrian Governments presented him with their esteemed Arts and Letters Awards, and he was knighted in Germany. His long-awaited book – Clark: The Autobiography of Clark Terry – is available now, published by University of California Press.
Back in 1998 in La Jolla, California, I sat through 90 minutes of pure heavenly jazz at the feet of the late great flugelhorn player, Art Farmer, who was 70 at the time and was still going strong. After the concert I had a chance to talk with him and asked him one simple question: “Who is the greatest flugelhorn player living or past who is equal to you or better? Without any hesitation he replied, “Clary Terry of course. The cat is the best there is.”
DANNY R. JOHNSON IS SAN DIEGO COUNTY NEWS’ JAZZ AND POP MUSIC CRITIC