Allegro Interviews Sue Terry

Women's History Month

Volume CI, No. 3March, 2001

Joy Portugal

Saxophone player Sue Terry has been playing with some of the greatest jazz artists since very early in her career. Her ability to work with this community of players has helped her win recognition in a field that has often been inhospitable to women. Today, she has built a life in which playing music, writing music and teaching music intersect with other important commitments: contributing to the union’s work in the jazz community, and her nine-year practice of t’ai chi. Last month, she was interviewed by Local 802 Jazz Rep Natasha Jackson and Allegro Editor Joy Portugal.

Sue started playing the accordion at the age of five, the clarinet when she was nine, and the saxophone a few years later. Other instruments found their way into her life as well: flute, piano, trumpet, and drums most notably. With a strong instrumental music program offered by the Wilton, Conn., public schools, and enormous community support for the arts, she can’t recall a time when she wasn’t working on some project. “We had so much going on at school – a Gilbert & Sullivan show and a senior musical every year, a talent show, jazz ensemble and concert band. Outside of school there were things like orchestras for church events and community theater musicals, and summer stock.”

She took up the saxophone after hearing jazz broadcasts on WRVR and being totally captivated by the music. “Even though my parents played jazz records at home, it was hearing jazz on the radio that made me stop and say – hey, this is my music! And I wanted to play it.” She taught herself to play after being given an old King alto saxophone, then took lessons, and played along with records and radio broadcasts. “I had a Charlie Parker record and a Lester Young record. I played them so often they wore out.”

After graduating from high school she enrolled at the Hartt School in Hartford, Conn. The Jazz Department included some extraordinary musicians and educators, such as saxophone player and department chair Jackie McLean (the department was recently renamed the Jackie McLean Institute of Jazz), Paul Jeffrey, Jaki Byard and Walter Bishop, Jr., all of whom she worked with after leaving school. She was among a group of students that convinced the administration to establish a degree program in jazz, and was the first graduate of that program. In fact, Sue will be honored next month with Hartt’s Alumna of the Year award.

An important part of her musical education, however, took place off campus. She recalls that “Hartford has a lot of great local players, and many players from New York would come through there. I was always playing in the clubs, and I sat in with people like Junior Cook and Frank Foster and Clifford Jordan. Later, after I moved to New York, I sat in with them more and sometimes ended up playing jobs with them. So these were very important beginnings for me. I was able to interact with a community of players and really learn to play music.”


She had always wanted to live in New York, and moved to the city in 1982, right after graduation. “I started going up to the old Jazz Forum, and there I heard Charli Persip (No Dummies Allowed, Soul Note) – and I thought his band was great. Eventually Vernel Fournier introduced me to him. I said, ‘I really love your band and I’d like to sub in it sometime.’ Persip smiled kindly at me and said, ‘Well, my music’s very difficult.’ So I said, ‘That’s okay, I can read anything you have.’ And he said, ‘Well, in that case, you’d better come to rehearsal on Thursday.’ So I did. I started subbing different saxophone chairs in the band and seemed to settle in on the 2nd alto chair. After a while, it seemed like I was there most all the time. So I asked Sip one day, ‘Am I in the band?’ He said, ‘Of course you’re in the band!’ So that was my first jazz gig in New York.” She stayed for 12 years, ending up as lead alto and writing charts as well.

At about that time she also began playing with a Haitian compas band, “a great group called Mini All Stars (Change Le Beat, Mini Records). I did a lot of recording and touring with them, and I also wrote arrangements, many of which were recorded. I got a little spoiled because they always recorded at Power Station (now Avatar) with the best engineers. It wasn’t until later that I experienced trying to record in some guy’s basement, standing in a stairwell that doubled as the isolation booth. I’d be like, don’t you have a Neumann mic? I was a little na├»ve.”

She also played with many of the musicians she had met in Connecticut – such as Barry Harris, Clifford Jordan and Junior Cook, who dubbed her “Sweet Sue.” Her early days in New York saw her sitting in with people like Art Blakey, Carmen McRae and Clark Terry. Soon she was playing jobs with Walter Bishop, Joe Lee Wilson, Jaki Byard and the Apollo Stompers (Phantasies II, Soul Note), Clifford Jordan (Down Through The Years, Milestone) and also doing club date bands, r&b bands, recording, and theater. During this period Sue also led a quartet featuring Benny Green, Lonnie Plaxico, and Clifford Barbaro. Other recordings she is proud of include DIVA’s Something’s Coming (Perfect Sound); Joe McMahon’s Secondhand Heart For Sale (Sharla Records); and Terra Mars The Troubadours (Consolidated Artists), co-led with John di Martino.


“When I look back at the people who really were behind me and helped me, I think of Jackie and Dollie McLean, of course. Also when I lived in Hartford, Paul Brown, the bassist and concert promoter, was the first person to really give me confidence in my abilities. We had a quartet with Saul Rubin on guitar and Gary Seligson on drums (both now in New York) and we played all the clubs and restaurants in the area, as well as concert venues. Paul was the one who introduced me to Junior Cook, Bill Hardman, and Barry Harris, all of whom he was working with at the time.

“Junior Cook was very much a mentor to me. I used to wonder how he could play so fast, till one day I noticed that on fast tempos he would tap his foot only on the first beat of the bar. I copied that and it helped me relate to the time much better.

“Clifford Jordan was a strong influence, because of his lyrical approach to soloing, and Barry Harris, whose class at the Jazz Cultural Theater was the high point of my week. Melba Liston was another mentor and role model. I used to walk over to her place in Harlem, which was only about 10 blocks from where I lived in Washington Heights in the 1980s. She told me stories about being the only woman in Dizzy’s band, and shared some ideas about writing music. She always had a big pot of stew on the stove. I loved the way she’d answer the phone: she’d say ‘hello!’ in this really urgent, harried tone of voice, so she could blow off whoever was calling if she wanted. Really she’d just be sitting there reading the paper!

“Recently, another mentor who’s come into my life and been very supportive is Dr. Billy Taylor, who invited me to perform with his trio in his Metropolitan Museum of Art series, as well as in the National Symphony Jazz Festival at the Kennedy Center last year. I had the opportunity to solo with the symphony on the wonderful piece “This Ain’t Blues” by Hale Smith, along with Dick Hyman, Jon Faddis and Frank Wess. Another champion is producer Ann Ruckert – she’s hired me for record dates, had me on her radio show, and is always willing to share her experience based on her many years in the business.”


Sue was the only woman jazz student at Hartt, and one of a handful playing jazz in New York. Today more women are entering the field, many of them highly accomplished musicians. Just a few days before this interview was conducted, she attended the IAJE convention and was very impressed by the Sisters Collegiate Jazz Ensemble, a college-level group selected by audition from a wide field of candidates. “They were excellent players, very professional,” she said. “In many ways I think they are more accomplished than I was at their age. And I know there are a lot of others that I haven’t heard.”

Have doors opened for women in jazz, since she was starting out? “There are two doors that we’re talking about here,” she points out. “One is the door that young women enter to go into the field of jazz. The other is the door a woman needs to pass through when she wants to extend her music beyond the sphere of her colleagues and bring it to the attention of the public, and to the important people in the industry. I find the public very enthusiastic and responsive to a woman who can play jazz – but I don’t see that reflected in the jazz industry. Even after all this time, it remains very closed to women, especially outside of the realms of pianist and vocalist.”


Sue joined Local 802 at the recommendation of Charli Persip. She recalls his pointing out that musicians who were functioning on a high level in New York belonged to the union, “and that if I wanted to be like those people, then I should join the union too. I took his advice, and I joined. And in my 18 years of being an 802 member I have learned a lot about the value of belonging to a union.” At a recent MEMO seminar presented at Local 802, for example, “the point was made that improved working conditions throughout the USA have almost always been as a result of the efforts of unions and the labor movement.

“Musicians think of themselves as creative artists – not as laborers, or workers. So the idea of a musicians’ union often rubs them the wrong way. But I don’t think that the two concepts are mutually exclusive. Because, yes, we’re artists – and we work. As long as we are working, we are members of the work force and we need to protect our interests in this realm. In that respect, we are no different from someone who works in a car factory, teaches school, or works in a medical laboratory.”

She joined the Jazz Advisory Committee two years ago, at Benny Powell’s invitation. “I was very impressed with the goals of the committee, and what they had already achieved. I felt that I could be a part of it, and try to get more musicians involved in the union – because the union is us.” Sustained efforts by committee members to reach out to their constituencies, backed by the strong support of the administration of Local 802 “have enabled us to make a lot of things happen,” Sue says. “Becoming involved with the union and serving on the Jazz Advisory Committee, and seeing how hard people at Local 802 work to improve the lives of musicians, has been fascinating and gratifying. That’s why I keep urging more of my colleagues to get on board.”


These days, she is playing with her own quartet (with Tim Regusis, Andy Eulau, and Vince Ector); also working with composer/pianist Derwyn Holder and bassist Ron Naspo in an ensemble of original music (Time Being, Neen Records); and in Michael Jefry Stevens’ “Songbook Project”. The group Jazzberry Jam (Bertha Hope, Carline Ray, Paula Hampton) often brings Sue in as a fourth member.

Sue is the Musical Director of an all-woman dance company, BeauteeZ’n The Beat, founded by tap dancer Roxane Butterfly. “I write all the music for the show and we have a live band consisting of myself, Bernice Brooks on drums and Nicki Parrott on bass. Roxane choreographs to my music and I compose to her choreography, so we have a nice collaboration.” Sue also works in a Music Outreach trio with Mike Coon and Brian Grice, presenting classroom music programs to NYC public school children.

Sue’s music has taken her to Asia, Europe, the Caribbean, and the far reaches of the United States. She has performed with Al Jarreau, Chaka Khan, George Duke, Dr. John, and a host of others. Increasingly, asked to perform as a soloist, she has appeared with the National Symphony, Brooklyn Philharmonic and Skitch Henderson and the New York Pops. Last year Sue was featured in performances with Mike Longo’s State of the Art Jazz Ensemble, and she appeared as a guest with Diane Moser’s Composers Big Band several times. Her big band arrangements were featured by the Jazz Arts Group in Fargo, N. Dakota last fall, in an acclaimed program of her original music, which she sang as well as played. Next month Sue will be performing once again with Dr. Billy Taylor, in Jazz at the Kennedy Center, to be broadcast later this year on National Public Radio.

Recording and composing have become increasingly important parts of her work. Teaching is another priority. Sue has been teaching since she was in high school. As a Yamaha artist, she often conducts clinics for high school and college level students, and teaches privately as well. “It’s a very special area, because you have to be able to communicate to students the passion you have for your work, in a way that will both motivate them and increase their awareness of playing musically, not mechanically.”

Another passion of hers is thinking about the role that musicians, particularly jazz artists, play in our society. “Even though I would like to think our function is quite vital to the health of our country’s culture, this generally doesn’t translate into any kind of financial security for the individual musician. So it’s up to us to subsidize ourselves – as many have done before us – by playing commercial jobs, teaching, or even working outside the field of music. In this way we can continue to express ourselves in music, so we don’t ever forget why we wanted to play music in the first place.”