[Written for Allegro, the newspaper of Local 802 AFM]


CLARK TERRY

    "If it wasn't for the pain in my back and the problem with my eyes, I'd feel like I was twenty-nine again," said 81 year old Clark Terry.  My wife and I were visiting him at the house that he and his wife Gwen recently bought in Haworth, New Jersey, the first chance we had to spend some time with him since his recovery from an ileostomy.  We waited in his living room while his masseuse finished giving him a rubdown.  Then we heard him coming down the hall, singing, to the tune of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," "Som'p'n's gonna jump out the woods and graaaab you!" As he turned the corner into the living room, dressed in a white terry bathrobe and leaning on his cane, I joined him in the song.  It was one we used to do for laughs at the old Half Note when I was a member of the quintet he co-led with Bob Brookmeyer. 

    After hellos, we sat down on the long, curving white leather divan that filled most of the room. "That's Mona's corner where your'e sitting, Aileen," said Clark. "She liked that corner when we first bought this couch in Texas. When she comes over, she goes right to that spot." Mona Hinton, Milt's widow, is an old and dear friend.

    I asked Clark how he was feeling after his operation. "That's all healed," he said, "but right now I have a pinched nerve in my back, and the pain comes and goes. When it comes, it's unbelievable. I'm taking a course of thirty-six chiropractic adjustments for it...I've had about nineteen already."  "Are they doing any good?" I asked. "Well, at least I can sit here without crying, like I used to do. Sometimes I'd have to scream, it hurt so bad."  "But your lip still works?" Clarks eyes lit up, and he announced proudly, "'Yeah, the chops work!" To demonstrate, he played a series of amazingly agile phrases, just buzzing his lips. "That's the only way I can keep in shape, man. This is the sort of warmups we prescribe for the students." 

    I told him about the tuba mouthpiece I keep in my car for warmups, and he laughed and said, "We used to do that, driving in to the studios. I'd be in my car, buzzing my mouthpiece, and I'd look over, and there'd be Bernie Glow with his mouthpiece, and over on the other side, Snooky  (Young) with his. I think Bernie had his connected so you could hear it outside the car...To-doot, to-doot, to-diddley doot! When you walked into the studio and they put that drop on you, you'd better hit that note, 'cause nine thousand other dudes would be peeking over your shoulder, waiting for you to miss."

    The eye problem that Clark referred to is a retinal condition brought on by diabetes. Clark doesn't see as well as he used to, but once he gets onstage and makes himself comfortable on a tall stool, he still plays with all the control, dexterity and musical imagination that he is famous for. I said, "You had a good week at the Vanguard recently. You seem to be right back in harness again." Clark nodded. "I'm going up to the University of New Hampshire at the end of March to do the thing I do there every year." Clark has a long relationship with that school as an adjunct professor, and does residencies there once or twice a year.

    This year the UNH Alumni Association gave him their highest honor, the Charles Holmes Pettee Medal "....in recognition of outstanding accomplishment and distinguished service to the state, nation, and world."

     Clark has been an enthusiastic educator for many years, sharing his knowledge and expertise with young musicians all over the world.  In recognition of his unique abilities, the University of New Hampshire, Berklee College of Music and Teikyo Westmar University have each bestowed honorary doctorates on him.  The U.S. State Department has sponsored him and his band on tours of the Middle East and Africa as American Ambassador of Good Will.  In 1991 he was inducted into the National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Hall of Fame.  In 1996 he was given his own star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame.  And in 2000 France honored Clark by inducting him into its Order of Arts and Letters.

    I first met Clark Terry in November, 1960, when he and I joined Gerry Mulligan's Concert Jazz Band at the Village Vanguard.  Conte Candoli and Buddy Clark had gone home to California after the band's European tour that summer, and Clark and I were their New York replacements.  Clark was perfectly suited to that band.  He blended well in the brass section, and was our best soloist.  Eventually, Gerry could only book the band at Birdland once or twice a year, but Clark and I stayed with it until there finally were no more bookings.  Mulligan went back to the quartet format that had served him so well, with Bob Brookmeyer on trombone, Dave Bailey on drums, and me on bass. 

    Whenever a hole appeared in Mulligan's schedule, Brookmeyer would call Clark and they would put their quintet together for a week or two at the Half Note on Hudson Street.  They used Dave Bailey and me, and a parade of fine pianists, (Hank Jones, Tommy Flanagan, Barry Harris, Herbie Hancock) until they finally settled on Roger Kellaway, who stayed with us until the group broke up with Bob's departure for California in 1968. 

    Clark joined the musical staff at NBC in 1960, the first black musician on their payroll, and became a regular member of Johnny Carson's Tonight Show orchestra at NBC, when Skitch Henderson was the conductor.  (Since they taped the show in the afternoon, Clark was free to play at jazz clubs at night.)  When Henderson left the show, everyone thought that Clark would be the natural replacement to lead the Tonight Show band, since Clark had become world famous with Count Basie and Duke Ellington, and was a personality on the Tonight Show with featured numbers including singing his famous 'Mumbles' routine.  But Clark's friend and section mate Doc Severinsen, another strong performer, was given the job instead.  Clark heard later from an inside source that the top brass at NBC, worried about its Southern market, had vetoed having a black conductor.  The world had to wait a few more years for the television industry to move into the twentieth century.

    One of the highlights of Clark's tenure on the Tonight Show was his induction into the Kansas City Jazz Hall of Fame.  The ceremony was performed on the air, and Johnny Carson presented the award.  When Carson moved the show to California in 1972, Clark chose to remain in New York.

    He had formed his 'Big BAD Band' in 1970.  He also toured several times with the late Norman Granz's 'Jazz at the Philharmonic,' playing with Oscar Peterson and Ella Fitzgerald.  Remembering Granz, Clark said he had always treated his musicians well, paying good wages and providing first class accommodations.  Once he cancelled a sold-out concert in a huge auditorium in Europe because the promoter had failed to provide Ella Fitzgerald with a private dressing room.  The promoter threatened to sue, and Granz said, "'I hope you do. And when you come to court, be sure to bring that section of the contract near your thumb there, where it says that Miss Fitzgerald must have her own dressing room."  As the promoter began refunding thousands of tickets, Granz took his touring musicians to dinner, never complaining about what the cancellation had cost him. 

    On another tour, Granz had asked Clark 'not bring that funny horn,' meaning Clark's flugelhorn.  Clark obliged, playing only trumpet on those concerts.  At the end of the tour, when Clark went into Granz's office to get what he described as a generous paycheck, Granz said, "...and thanks for not bringing that funny horn," and slipped an extra banknote into Clark's hand.  As Granz walked away, Clark peeped at the denomination and was surprised to see it was a thousand dollar bill.  Just then Norman returned and said, "What did I give you?"  Clark said, "I knew you'd made a mistake. This is a thousand!"  Granz nodded. "'I did make a mistake.  I meant to give you two."  And he handed Clark another one. 

    Clark continues to tour as a featured artist, appearing with his own small band or as a guest soloist with other groups. He is a great favorite on cruises and at festivals, and is constantly being showered with awards and honors. His latest project is assembling musicians who toured with Jazz at the Philharmonic for a memorial concert for Granz, who died in 2001.

copyright 2002


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