Last week, as I logged into my computer I saw the headline that caught my attention: Legendary Jazz artist Clark Terry dies at 94. As I read the news item, it seemed almost surreal. Clark Terry lived so long I began to believe I would never see such a headline. Nevertheless, we are now faced with the reality of the loss of another great artist. Since I read about Clark Terry’s death, my thoughts went back to my childhood, long before my teen years to time spent with my father. My dad, a jazz trumpeter himself, introduced me to the music of Clark Terry long before I began to study music or pick up a trumpet myself. He was very fond of Terry and uttered nothing except kind words about the man and musician. Clark Terry was the consummate entertainer. Of course, he was a sensational trumpet player, but also exhibited the type of personality that just made people like him. My dad had a different angle as he knew Clark Terry personally, but he still said the same things about him that everyone else did. Therefore, Clark Terry was genuine. What you viewed on stage, television and heard on recordings, was how Clark Terry lived up until death.
Clark Terry, born December 14, 1920 in St. Louis, Missouri was an American swing and bebop trumpeter, a pioneer of the flugelhorn in jazz, composer, educator, and NEA Jazz Masters inductee. He attended Vashon High School and began his professional career in the early 1940s, playing in local clubs. He served as a bandsman in the United States Navy during World War II. His first instrument was valve trombone. Terry began to establish prominence in the 1940’s during his tenure with the Duke Ellington orchestra. As I started to grow and became aware of musicians and music history, I understood Duke Ellington’s place in not only jazz history but history overall. The big band era made a great impression on me as my father told me story after story about the band leaders and individual members. I always loved hearing about all the various personalities of the musicians. During Terry’s period with Ellington, he took part in many of the composer’s suites and acquired a reputation for his wide range of styles (from swing to hard bop), technical proficiency, and good humor.
Of course, Clark Terry would easily influence any young, aspiring jazz trumpet player. However, that influence certainly has made way all the way down to modern music of our day. Many young people may be wondering how a jazz musician of the 1940’s and 1950’s could have anything to do with today’s music. Terry influenced musicians including Miles Davis and Quincy Jones, both of whom acknowledged Terry’s influence during the early stages of their careers. Terry had informally taught Davis while they were still in St Louis, and Jones during Terry’s frequent visits to Seattle with the Count Basie Sextet. Miles Davis, the man who as late as the mid 1980’s found a much younger audience with a good young band accompanying him and once again secured his place as the epitome of “cool”, was greatly influenced be Clark Terry. Also the iconic Quincy Jones, the same one who produced arguably the album of music that changed modern music forever, Thriller by Michael Jackson. Jones also looked upon the music of Clark Terry as extraordinary and influential.
One of the joys of my youth was being able to see some of the performances of Clark Terry with the NBC Tonight Show Band. He appeared for ten years on The Tonight Show as a member of the Tonight Show Band until 1972, first led by Skitch Henderson and later by Doc Severinsen, where his unique “mumbling” scat singing led to a hit with “Mumbles”. By the time I grew up to watch late night television, Clark Terry had left his permanent place in the band, however, he frequently returned for guest appearances. Throughout those performances you could really feel the friendship between Terry and band leader Doc Severinsen. You could say they possessed similar personalities as Severinsen displayed humor constantly with Johnny Carson and Ed McMahon. Speaking of “Mumbles”, I know my dad and I could listen to it over and over and sit amused by his performance. I’m not alone as many think of “Mumbles” first when the name Clark Terry is mentioned.
Throughout this past week, I went back into my music collection and started to listen to my favorite Clark Terry album, The Happy Horns of Clark Terry. Please, if you get a chance download the album and take a moment to enjoy a jazz master at work. Of course there are many more Clark Terry albums you may enjoy better, but Happy Horns is my personal favorite. Listening to that music brought back much of my early childhood listening to jazz with my father. I started to remember being exposed to music at such an early age, long before starting to study music formally. I guess you could say that I, too have been influenced by Clark Terry music. I’m sure I listened to his music before I could even talk. Now I say goodbye to a musician who has been a part of my life since the very beginning. Like so many others the world over, Clark Terry’s happy horn will be missed.