Jazz Institute of Chicago

Clark Terry, Part 1

Clark Terry

Clark Terry, Part 1
with Steve Voce

For someone who must be amongst the most gregarious of jazz musicians, Clark Terry presents an untypically lone figure. For more than 30 years he has been acknowledged as one of the best craftsmen on his horns and has reached an eminence where the myriad of solo bookings he takes across the world each year are taken for granted, very much in the way that his seemingly infallible inspiration is. Promoters program his name at Nice or Newport without thinking twice. You can stick Clark with anything and it will work, and not only that, whatever it is will reach new levels because of his presence.

Terry is a great teacher with a real interest in the past and present state of the horn, and his was a benign influence on most of the post-bop players. His fluency and tone production are immaculate and something for young musicians to try to emulate. All this mastery comes with an effervescent character and sense of humor that make him one of the musicians most popular with his fellows. Add his strong sense of integrity—what you see is what you get—and it begins to sound as though we have an exceptional man in our sights.

He seems to enjoy himself so much that his appears to be a life without problems, and it is true that today he is probably happier than at any stage of his life. But he has had his ups and downs likely anybody else: He was shattered by the long illness and subsequent early death of his wife. Then on one occasion he was driving home through New York when his car had a puncture.

Clark tried to pull the hub cap off the wheel. The inside edge of the cap was razor sharp and sliced into all his fingertips. Apart from not being able to play for some time, the shock of this probably induced his diabetes—a blow to one who had so manifestly enjoyed a taste; ever since he has been able to drink only a little red wine.

He loves big bands and ran one of his own for years with great artistic success, but he doesn't have the tough nature that band leading requires. He learned a never-to-be-forgotten lesson when he toured Europe at the head of a team of ex-Basie stars and discovered what it is like to be at the wrong end of a prima donna temperament.

This begins to sound like a sad story, but that cannot be in the case of a man who makes people happy just to look at him. A man who, ironically, is known to thousands as a great and humorous vocalist, rather than one of the greatest of all jazz trumpeters.

In my hometown of St. Louis there were so many trumpet players, all the way back to Charlie Creath, the King Of The Cornet, Bruz Woods, Baby James, Levi Madison, Dewey Jackson, Mouse Randolph, Sleepy Tomlin. All were fantastic players, and us younger kids always had a bunch of these guys to look up to. Some we could ask questions of, but some we couldn't because in those days the older players thought that the younger players were trying to get in on their scene.

You remember even Louis Armstrong back in those days used to keep the handkerchief over his fingers so that the cats couldn't steal his tricks. But fortunately that attitude is really the opposite of the situation today. Those of us who are involved in jazz education feel that it's a very important thing to impart knowledge to young people. Many of the things that are involved can't possibly be documented and if we go down with them so go down most of the secrets.

Amongst the first recordings that I learned to solo from were Erskine Hawkins' Tuxedo Junction and No Soap. I was very much surprised to find out that the soloist was not Erskine Hawkins, but a trumpeter by the name of Dud Bascomb. He had a unique approach to chords and resolutions and the harmonic structure he used was very original. He would pick beautiful notes out of the chord that the average person wouldn't even think of settling on. He would play flatted fifths, flatted ninths even back then in the early forties. So I was listening to him, and I was trying to use Lester Young's type of articulation.

I had a different concept of the way the trumpet should sound, and I played with a piece of felt over the horn. Perhaps my fluent technique came partly from the fact that I used to practice on the clarinet book when I was in the navy. The passages in the clarinet books seemed to be more legato and fluid—the trumpet ones tended to be staccato. I just loved to get involved in the velocity part of phrases.

As a result of this I became pretty versatile, so that people hired me to play certain roles. These may not have been roles that I would have chosen for myself, but I tried hard to do everything that was required of me. I suppose that if I had had the security and freedom I would have gotten into a different vein a little quicker.

Once I got out of the big bands I was more relaxed and able to get into what I eventually considered to be my thing. Most of the time in the old days the big band leaders would ask me to play something similar to the same solos each night so that alone would stymie you. That would put a stumbling block in the path of your ability to create.

With regard to the so-called half valve thing, it's not true that I derived my style from Rex Stewart. One of my contemporaries mentioned that I derived the style from Rex Stewart and the half valve, which was untrue. I'd never even heard or seen Rex Stewart at this particular time and I never knew what he was doing.

After I got into the Ellington band some of the guys in the band played this record where he was talking through the horn with Ivy Anderson singing, and I learned to do that little bit from the record, but it is completely wrong to suggest that I developed a style built around Rex's. Leonard Feather said that I played the half valve style. The only time my valves are half-valved when playing is when they don't come up, when they stick or something. I'm too busy trying to make as clear a note, as full a note or as beautiful a note, as meaningful a note or as colorful a note as I possibly can. I found that there were many other specific ways to create that sort of effect other than to half suppress a valve.

I spent much of the early days in St. Louis with friends like Ernie Wilkins, although even then I used to travel a lot to out-of-town jobs. There was a pianist from East St. Louis, which is where Miles was raised up. I don't know his last name. Don't think any of us did, but we used to call him Duke. He was a fantastic player who was later killed while he was travelling to New York to start working there.

One time I got a phone call in the middle of the night. "Hiya, Clark." I'd just been hanging out and I was kind of half-wasted and half sleepy and very annoyed because someone's calling me up between four and five o'clock in the morning. "This is Duke." "Duke? What you doing calling me up at this time? Call me up later in the day," I growled. "What time?" he asked. "Any time after two or three o'clock." He said "Yeah, OK," and hung up.

I'm angry and mumbling, "This jive turkey calling me up at this time of the morning, gobble, gobble, gobble." I'm doing my mumbles bit, you know. So I slept until about one or two o'clock and finally the phone rings. "Hello,this is Duke. You told me to call you," and the voice sounds a little different this time so I said, "Duke who?" and he said "Duke Ellington. I called you earlier this morning and you told me to call you back this evening after you've had some rest."

I said, "Oooh yes, that's right!" I felt like crawling under the bed, even though he wasn't mad. I couldn't believe that I had talked like this to Duke Ellington and that he actually called me back! This was of course before I went in the band permanently and he was calling to ask me to come into the band temporarily. To replace Frances Williams, I think it was.

The other Duke I mentioned used to work with Miles Davis and Miles will probably recall his last name. Miles' teacher, Elwood Buchanan, was an old buddy of mine. We used to drink beer together in a couple of our favorite watering holes, and he used always to he telling me. "Man, you've got to come over to school and hear this little cat, Dewey Davis, man, he's fantastic."

Elwood taught over in East St. Louis. So I went over one day and sure enough here was this little skinny cat about two inches wide all the way down and very, very shy and timid. When he played you could tell then that he was a very talented person. At this time he wanted to use vibrato and every time he would shake a note, Buchanan would slap his wrist and I'm sure that this was one of the determining factors in the puritanical straight sound which Miles developed.

On one particular occasion I was playing down at Carbondale, Southern Illinois, with a pianist by the name of Benny Reid, who had one leg. We called him Dot And A Dash. We were playing this May Day celebration and Miles came down with his high school band from East St. Louis. He came up while I was playing with Benny and asked me to show him some things he wanted to do on the trumpet. "Man," I told him, "I don't want to talk about no trumpet!" I was looking at the little girls sashaying around, so Miles, very crestfallen, said "OK," and walked away.

About six months later I went to our favorite jazz spot called the Elks Club, where Roy would come and hang out. There were about 90 stairs up to the place and when I was about half way up I heard this fantastic trumpet, very fast. "Wow!" I said, "That's a new horn, I never heard that one before." I ran up the rest of the stairs. Eddie Randall's band was playing and I ran up to the bandstand. This timid little skinny cat was playing and I said "Hey, man! Aren't you the guy . . .?" and he said "Yeah, I'm the cat you fluffed off at Carbondale." We laugh about that quite often now.

It was through me that Count Basie acquired Ernie Wilkins. We were on Broadway at the Strand with the film Key Largo. I was talking to Basie one day while he was in the steam room. "Hey," he said, "I need an alto player and a trombone player." "O. K," I said, "I'll get 'em for you," because up to that point I'd brought many people into the band and he'd never questioned my choice of any of them. Right away I'm thinking, "...Alto player? I wonder if Ernie can play alto?" He was strictly a tenor player then but I figured he had a big enough sound, he read well and he's a good enough musician. So I called Ernie in St. Louis.

"Hey Ernie! You wanna come and join Basie's band?" He said, "Aw man, stop kidding me!" I said, "Seriously. Can you get here in the next couple of days?" After some time I managed to convince him that I was serious. "And bring Jimmy," I told him. "Jimmy too!" (His brother Jimmy is a fine trombone player). So Ernie and Jimmy came to New York and the next morning I took them into the theatre and I said, "Basie, these are your new alto and trombone players. Ernie Wilkins and his brother Jimmy. And in case Jimmy Mundy and the other arrangers get tied up, Ernie can write very well he can help them out."

So Ernie came in with what we called a gray ghost, an old zinc plated alto saxophone that he had borrowed from somebody who had played saxophone in the church choir! It was held together by rubber bands. Anyway, just as I figured, he went to work right away and he had a good enough sound to sit there beside Marshall. The band was at its lowest ebb because it had just started, so Basie said to me, "You say this cat can write?" I said, "Yeah!" so he said "OK, we'll let him do something for this new singer we got." A kid named Joe Williams! So he let Ernie loose and the first thing he wrote was Every Day I Have the Blues and that particular tune with Joe Williams is what catapulted the band back into prominence.

You know I shudder sometimes when I think about how all of this happened as a result of that big lie that I told Basie when I called up Ernie Wilkins who was working in a little place over in East St. Louis, Missouri, for 75 cents a night!

Whenever he was ill, Count used to call for me to lead the band. And if they would try someone else in front of it he would say, "Hey, that's the man you get. Get my man Clark up there!" and that used to make me feel so good. But it never really materialized to anything on a permanent basis after Count had gone because of his adopted son. He and I never saw eye to eye.

But I'm happy to see that they got a good man now in Frank Foster. Thad was great too, but they never did too many things with Thad because I think he really wanted to put his own type of band into the Basie band and I don't think that would have worked too well. He asked the guys to bring in sopranos and so forth. You couldn't blame Thad for that, but Frank has decided that he's going to write strictly in the Basie idiom and keep the band swinging and still play himself. I envy him, because I really miss my own big band.

I ought to tell you how I came to join Duke Ellington. I was with Basie, and Duke had been scouting me and he sent a few people over to hear the band at the Brass Rail and the Capitol Lounge where we were playing in Chicago. He said, "I can't just take a man out of my friend's band, so I'm going to put you on salary. Then you suddenly get ill and just go home, OK?" So I told Basie and I went home. Meanwhile I'm getting my salary from Duke and on November 11, 1951, Armistice Day, Duke's band came through, and I just happened to join the band. We were playing a big show that day with Sarah Vaughan, Nat Cole, Stumpy Patterson and Peg Leg Bates.

When I left Basie's band he had just given me a raise. I was making $125 a week and Basie had given me a $15 raise. I'm making $140 and when I put my notice he took back the raise! I didn't tell Basie this story about going to Duke for years but when I did he said, "I knew it, I knew it all the time!"

There were so many guys in the Ellington band who were fantastic soloists and here I come, a little young upstart who nobody had heard of—I was lucky to get a piece to play on like Perdido. I'm just one of the few people who soloed in the band that Duke only wrote one piece for. I think Juniflip for the flugel was the only thing he wrote for me from start to finish.

When I first joined Ellington, the band was not really too cordial to any newcomer. Many times Duke wouldn't call a tune. He would suggest what he had in mind through an introduction which all the guys who had been there for some time would know. Here I am sitting in the section, which at this time consisted of Harold Baker, Cat Anderson, and Ray Nance. They were nice guys, I can't say that they wanted to freeze you out, but it was just customary for the band members to be that way in the band to new people. So I'd look over to see what they're playing.

Then all of a sudden I found I had a friend up in the next row, Butter. So I would look up to Quentin Jackson. "Hey Butter," I'd say through the side of my mouth, "what are they playing?" "Oh, 156," he'd say. Then I'd flip, flip, flip through the book to where 156 was supposed to be. There's 155 and 157 but no 156 so I'd growl to Butter, "It's not here!" "Fake it, baby!" he said.'


Editor's note: This interview with Clark Terry was done in 1985.

Copyright ©2003. All rights reserved.

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