Allegro Interviews Clark Terry

Volume CII, No. 6June, 2002

Bill Crow

“If it wasn’t for the pain in my back and the problem with my eyes, I’d feel like I was 29 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. It was the first chance we had to spend some time with him since his recovery from recent surgery. Gwen was in Texas, helping a grandchild celebrate a birthday.

We had been waiting in Clark’s living room while his masseuse finished giving him his morning rubdown. When he was ready, he came 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 exchanging laughs and hugs, we all sat down on the long, curving white leather divan that filled most of the room.

“That’s Mona’s corner where you’re sitting, Aileen,” said Clark. “She liked that corner when we first bought this couch in Texas. When she comes over, she always goes right to that spot.” Mona Hinton, Milt’s widow, is an old and dear friend. Texas was where Clark met Gwen, and where they were married.

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 36 chiropractic adjustments for it…I’ve had about 19 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?”

Clark’s 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 warm-ups we prescribe for the students.”

I told him about the tuba mouthpiece that I keep in my car for warm-ups, 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’d be peeking over your shoulder, waiting for you to miss.”

The eye problem that Clark mentioned is a retinal condition. He 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, and you did that gig out in Denver. You seem to be right back in harness again.”

Clark nodded. “I still need some help traveling around. You know what happened on this last trip? We got back to Kennedy airport and they were putting all the bags and things into the car, and when we got home, I asked, ‘where are the horns?’ No horns! So we called the airport, and I guess since September eleventh, people are a little wary of picking up strange bags, because the horns were still there, sitting on the curb!”

I asked about his future plans. “I’m going up to the University of New Hampshire to do the thing I do up there a few times a year.”

Clark has a long relationship with that school as an adjunct professor, and does residencies there, working with individual students, small groups and the big band. While he was there this March 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 expertise with young musicians all over the world. He is the author of “Let’s Talk Trumpet: From Legit to Jazz,” “Interpretation of the Jazz Language,” and “Clark Terry’s System of Circular Breathing.” In recognition of his unique abilities and good works, 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 him in November 1960, when we both 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 beautifully in the brass section, and was our hottest 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 valve trombone, Dave Bailey on drums and me on bass.

Whenever a hole appeared in Mulligan’s schedule, Brookmeyer would call Clark and put their quintet together for a week or two at the Half Note on Hudson Street. They used Dave Bailey and me, and went through a parade of fine pianists until they settled on Roger Kellaway, who stayed with us for several years 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 while Skitch Henderson was the conductor. (Since the show was taped in the afternoon, Clark was free to play in jazz clubs at night.) When Henderson left the show, everyone thought that Clark would be the natural replacement as leader of the Tonight Show band, since he had become world famous with Count Basie and Duke Ellington and was a personality on the Tonight Show with featured numbers, playing amazing trumpet solos and singing his famous “Mumbles” routine. But Clark’s friend and section mate Doc Severinsen was given the conductor’s 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 20th century.

“These things take time,” Clark said. “I remember when I was invited to Joe Diskint’s daughter’s wedding. My first wife, Pauline, and I drove up to the place and I got out, and a lady came over to me and said, ‘Boy, would you please park my car?’ I said to her, ‘Lady, do you see that Cadillac parked right next to yours? That’s my car. And do you see that lady in the mink coat? That’s my wife. We’re going to the same affair you’re going to.’ She looked pretty sheepish.”

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 was touring with the late Norman Granz’s “Jazz at the Philharmonic,” playing with Oscar Peterson and Ella Fitzgerald, and working in what was left of the New York recording field.

Clark is still touring 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 involved assembling musicians who had toured with Jazz at the Philharmonic for a May concert at the Bern Jazz Festival in memory of Norman Granz. He lined up Hank Jones, Louis Bellson, Bob Cranshaw, Ray Brown, Mickey Roker, Red Holloway, Frank Wess, James Moody, Jon Faddis, Vanessa Rubin and several others.

“This hotel where we’re staying in Bern has named its suites after jazz musicians, and my name is on Suite Number One,” said Clark. “It’s furnished with some of my personal memorabilia. The one I like best is a framed copy of a letter I got from Pops (Louis Armstrong), with some nice compliments in it.”

Clark said he was glad to be doing the memorial concert for Granz, who had always treated his musicians well, paying good wages, providing first class accommodations, and insisting they be treated as major artists. He said Granz once 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, and Clark said he never mentioned what the cancellation had cost him.

While preparing for another tour, Granz asked Clark, “Please don’t 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 to Granz’s office to get what he described as a very 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 asked, “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 has been working on an autobiography with his wife Gwen. “I put the whole story on tape, all the way from St. Louis to here,” he said. “Gwen has been writing it. She won three writing awards for the first chapter about when I was a kid in St. Louis. But she’s been so busy lately, she’s had to put the book on the back burner for a while.”

“I can’t wait to read it,” I told him. “You sure have some good stories to tell, especially about your years with Basie and Ellington.”

“Yeah, I put them all on the tape,” he said. “But they’ll probably leave out some of the worst ones. You know, you can catch more flies with honey…”