The Amazing Clark Terry

An exclusive interview with the jazz master on his 93rd birthday

Volume 114, No. 1January, 2014

Peter Zimmerman


Clark Terry in New York City, in 1976.

Clark Terry in New York City, in 1976. Photo by Tom Marcello.

Clark Terry, the legend of jazz, just turned 93 on Dec. 14, so happy birthday, Clark! He was born in 1920 – the same year as Charlie Parker – and was raised in St. Louis, Missouri. Salvaging materials from an empty lot, Clark built his first “trumpet,” out of a length of water hose and a funnel, and “when I blew on the edge of that funnel, I got a sound something like blowing into a jug.” Realizing his determination to play, his neighbors, who were hardly well-to-do, chipped in and bought him his first real instrument. Evidently they had great expectations for him.

For a book called “The Jazz Masters: Setting the Record Straight,” to be published later this year, jazz writer Peter Zimmerman recently spoke with Clark and his wife Gwen by phone from their home in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. The interview that follows is an exclusive story for Allegro. To find out what’s new in Clark’s life, you can follow his weekly blog at Clark Terry has been a member of Local 802 since 1954.

If there’s one thing that Clark Terry enjoys as much as playing his trumpet, it’s teaching young musicians, thereby giving back to jazz all the beautiful things that jazz has given him over a career spanning some eight decades. Due to a series of serious health setbacks over the past five years, he is no longer able to travel to concerts and recording studios or teach in schools and universities, but a veritable revolving door of students from all over the country and indeed the whole world – recently from Canada and Portugal – continue to file into his makeshift “classroom.”

There’s nothing that Clark loves more than holding court around the kitchen table, just visiting, and talking not only about music, but life in general. A humble, self-effacing man, he especially likes to hear what they have to say, rather than just tooting his own horn, so to speak. On these occasions, he used to enjoy drinking coffee and an occasional “taste” of sherry, but since suffering a heart attack in 2008, he has switched to water and an occasional cup of tea.

For the past half a century, Clark has been paying it forward by making jazz education his number one priority.

At one major American university alone, he has taught some 50,000 students! I crunched the numbers and this is really accurate, and not just mere hyperbole. Says David Seiler, head of the University of New Hampshire’s jazz studies program, “When God created Clark, he broke the mold.” Clark earned an honorary doctorate from UNH in 1978; since then, he has racked up no fewer than 15 additional degrees from various other universities.

Since becoming a co-founder of Jazzmobile in the mid-1960s, along with the pianist Dr. Billy Taylor, bassist Milt Hinton, and arts patron Daphne Arnstein, Clark has personally donated dozens of instruments to aspiring musicians who wouldn’t otherwise have been able to afford them.

All of this, in addition to appearing on some 905 albums, hundreds more than Louis Armstrong, Harry “Sweets” Edison, or Dizzy Gillespie (who once called Clark “the greatest trumpet player on the earth”), spending a decade with the Basie and Ellington orchestras (from the late 40s through the late 50s), serving as the first on-staff African-American to work for NBC’s Tonight Show band in the 60s, a stint that lasted a decade, spending many grueling decades touring the country and world, and appearing at more than 50 festivals on all six continents (but not Antarctica).

He also served in the Navy as a bandsman during World War II and represented the State Department as a jazz ambassador in Africa and the Middle East. He was awarded the National Endowment of the Arts Jazz Master Award in 1991 and the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010. He has even been knighted in Germany. Over his lifetime, Clark has seen 19 presidents come and go, starting with Woodrow Wilson – and has shaken hands with eight of them!

Some have said that Clark’s sound on trumpet (and his pet instrument, the flugelhorn) is so unique you can recognize it after hearing only three notes, or two notes, or even just one. He aspires to get a round, velvety tone that he describes as “mellifluous” (which comes from the Latin words that mean “flowing as if with honey”).

In addition, Clark pioneered the use of the flugelhorn as a solo jazz instrument, prior to which it had only been recorded in ensemble work, notably in Jimmie Lunceford’s big band of the 1930s. Clark’s flugelhorn was first featured in 1957 on Billy Taylor’s “Taylor-Made Jazz,” which featured Ellington veterans Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney and Paul Gonsalves. The first time that Clark brought the instrument to one of Ellington’s rehearsals, Duke ate it up.

These days, when good manners seem to have gone by the wayside, Clark is old-school polite. When I told him that I had talked to one jazz musician who finds the word “jazz” offensive, he replied with typical Clark directness that “I don’t think it matters what it’s called, as long as you’re doing something that you feel, and something that’s for real.” The same musician, I said, also frowned on the word “bebop,” instead calling it “revolutionary music” because, he said, this was when (in the mid-1940s) black musicians started writing their own tunes and collecting the royalties, rather than recording songs that had been written by white composers. To which Clark replied, “Different strokes for different folks.” Then he showed me why bebop is called “bebop” – by proceeding to scat the first line of Thelonious Monk’s “Well You Needn’t”!

Although Clark has been labeled a swing trumpeter, he is equally adept at bop. In fact, my favorite Clark recording session is led by the raconteur/vocalist Babs Gonzalez. On a sadly long-out-of-print LP from 1962 called “Sunday Afternoon with Babs Gonzalez at Small’s Paradise,” Clark trades ones with himself on trumpet and flugelhorn! (The album also features Johnny Griffin, Horace Parlan, Buddy Catlett, and Ben Riley, and, for my money, the smokingest-ever rendition of W.C. Handy’s old warhorse, “The St. Louis Blues.”)

Then, of course, there’s the legacy from his eight years with Duke, who wrote “Juniflip” especially for Clark. He recorded it with Ellington twice in 1958, and again in 1996 with the DePaul University Big Band (and in the same session, a stunning version of Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s “Something to Live For”).

Many of these songs are available on iTunes. If you’d like to check out the early stuff, there’s a great YouTube of his rendition of the old chestnut “Deep Purple” with the Charlie Barnet band, recorded in 1947, the year before he joined Basie.

In addition to recording with people like Oscar and Ella, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Aretha and Wilson Pickett, and blues shouter Big Joe Turner, his work also turns up on recordings by relatively obscure artists the likes of Gege Telesforo, Grassella Oliphant, Arne “Dompan” Domnérus, and Cachao y Su Ritmo Caliente. Over the past seven decades, Clark has worked with just about everybody – even Snoop Dogg!

Clark broke color barriers as one of the first African-Americans to join Charlie Barnet’s all-white group. His disdain of any type of discrimination was cemented by an incident that occurred early on in his career. In Clark’s book, in a chapter entitled “Nigga,” he vividly describes the time in Meridian, Mississippi, while touring the country with the Reuben and Cherry Carnival (earning $2.50 per week). A security cop conked him on the head with his nightstick, and he was almost lynched by a group of white men, before being saved by another group of white men, who worked for the circus.

While nursing the bump on his head, he recalls, “I reached out for the crew guy who had come to my rescue and we shook hands. Unforgettable handshake. Firm and warm. Indelibly etched in my mind.”

From that point on, Clark vowed to never judge anyone by his race. According to Gwen, her husband has made it a point to hire people of all ethnicities, as well as female musicians.

One of Clark’s protégés, Greg Glassman, remembers his apprenticeship with Clark, an informal one, twice a week, for free. At the time, Clark was a real night owl who regularly stayed up until six in the morning. At the time Greg was going through a messy break-up and knew he could always call Clark for advice, even at four in the morning. Although Clark may not always be totally open-minded, can be stubborn and moody, and likes to get his way, he more than makes up for these traits by being, in Greg’s words, “one of the most vivacious, generous, givers to the world – specifically to younger musicians – that there’s ever been.”

Others have described him as kindhearted, ethical, and hilarious; in his prime, he was a tall, physically fit, strong man. (Early in life, he considered becoming a boxer, but decided he didn’t want anyone to bust his trumpet chops.)

Gwen remembers one instance when Clark was hospitalized just before he was scheduled to give a concert with his students. “He cares so much, almost to a fault sometimes, because his students come first,” she told me, adding that after the heart attack, “he was in the ICU, hooked up to these machines and all kinds of things, [and] he asked the doctors in charge if they could please just unhook him long enough to go and play the concert with the students who had practiced for a year. And he said, ‘They’ve practiced for a year, and I promise you if you let me go and play, I promise you I’ll come back.’”

And he did.

She describes Clark as “the most good-hearted, caring, sharing, sincere, devoted, and compassionate man I’ve ever met.”

Clark is perhaps most famous for his years with Count Basie, from 1948 to 1951, followed by nearly a decade with Duke Ellington (1951-1959). As the dates indicate, he went directly from the Basie band to Ellington’s. Incidentally, Clark is one of only a select few who have played in both bands, although he wasn’t around in 1961 when the two leaders recorded together, on an album called “First Time!”

I asked Clark what the difference was between playing in the two bands and he told me that for one thing, he had to audition for Basie, whereas Duke decided he liked Clark’s playing and came after him. An admirer of Duke’s talent, Basie let Clark go, regretfully, but with his blessing.

Secondly, Basie had a stable of great arrangers who wrote tunes and charts for the band, notably Thad Jones, Ernie Wilkins, Frank Foster, Neil Hefti, and Quincy Jones, whereas Duke wrote and arranged his own music, either by himself or, starting in 1938, in collaboration with Strayhorn.

And thirdly, Basie was laid back, while Duke was more orchestral-minded.

While Clark was with Basie, Duke heard something in Clark’s playing that he felt he needed to incorporate into his band’s sound. There’s a famous, and very funny, story about this recruiting campaign, which, again, is retold in full in Clark’s excellent 2011 autobiography. The gist of it is that Duke tried to do the deal secretly and Clark, who is an honest man, felt guilty for years about sneaking around behind Basie’s back. All the while, Clark actually had Basie’s tacit approval. Basie knew it was the right career move for Clark, but he kept it to himself. Years later, after the truth came out, Basie always good-naturedly teased Clark about the incident, and they remained friends forevermore.

Being a big Basie fan, I wondered how on earth Clark could have decided to leave the that band and join up with Ellington’s. The answer is simple, he told me: “He wowed us with his music.” Ellington’s compositions were more complex. There was no first or second trumpet. Each piece that Duke wrote was tailored to the individual soloist.

Not to mention that by the early 50s, when Clark joined the band, the Duke Ellington Orchestra had become the band – the undisputed greatest. Anyone would have jumped at the opportunity to play with Duke.

After having grown up in the Jim Crow South, Clark has witnessed the integration of schools, mourned the loss of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and the Kennedys, and played countless benefits for the NAACP and other organizations. And now here we are, in 2013, with a two-term African-American President in the Oval Office, a scenario which would have been unheard of back when Clark was building that first trumpet.

Does he think that we’ve made any progress in race relations in America?

“I don’t know,” he told me. “All I can say is, you can hope for the best, you know?”

Finally, I asked him the secret to his longevity, and he replied, “But for the grace of God.”

I recently read on his blog, incidentally, that he has a nickname for God.

It’s “Big Prez.”

Clark Terry’s family is currently accepting donations to pay for his continuing medical care. Please visit To contact the author, or for more information on his forthcoming book “The Jazz Masters: Setting the Record Straight,” write to Peter Zimmerman at