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Hitting the high notes

Clark Terry reflects on a life in jazz



The history of jazz may be a field of study to most of us, but not to Clark Terry. He's lived it.

Over the past eight decades Terry has brought his trumpet --- and his voice --- into just about every possible setting on the jazz landscape. In small groups and big bands, Terry has delighted generations of music lovers.

He was a member of the Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Quincy Jones jazz orchestras during some of their greatest years. He served as a mentor for Jones and Miles Davis. He even had a long-term stint in The Tonight Show band during the show's heyday with Johnny Carson.

"He's not only an incredible master musician, but also a great human being," says Bill Dobbins. The Eastman School of Music professor will lead the Eastman Jazz Ensemble when Terry appears as a guest artist Friday evening.

Born in 1920, Terry grew up in a poor St. Louis neighborhood, a block from the Mississippi River. It was fortuitous that his older sister married the best tuba player in St. Louis. Terry found himself at rehearsals of Dewey Jackson's Musical Ambassadors, where he met Mr. Lattimore, a trumpet player.

"He owned a candy store and he was his best customer 'cause he always had a pocketful of Mary Janes and caramel, my two favorite candies," Terry says. "When they'd take a break, he'd say, 'Son, watch my horn,' and give me a couple of Mary Janes and a couple of caramels. That's how I became attracted to the trumpet."

His family was too poor to have a record player, so Terry listened to radio stations he could pull in on a crystal set, placed in one of his mother's baking bowls for amplification.

Aside from band rehearsals and the radio, he was also drawn to the music of the church.

"The most popular church in the neighborhood was the sanctified church," Terry says. "They used to dance and sing and play the tambourine and bass drums and all us kids used to like to listen to the rhythms --- boom chicka-boom, chicka-boom, chicka-boom. We became so inspired by that and the Dewey Jackson band till we decided we'd try to do something ourselves."

His friends put together some makeshift instruments. And Terry made a trumpet out of an old water hose.

"I wired it in three places to hold it together in shape and act as valves. They were poor enough days that I took some old chewing gum and stuffed it on top of each of the wires to make valve tips."

A piece of a discarded kerosene container became his bell and a piece of pipe his mouthpiece.

"Of course I was totally unaware of the fact that lead was poisonous."

But did it play?

"It served its purpose. It made enough noise for the people in the neighborhood to get together and buy me an old trumpet from a pawn shop."

Once Terry had a real instrument there was no stopping him. He had established a strong local reputation by the time a friend from East St. Louis told him about a talented child.

"He said 'man, you gotta come over to the high school and listen to this little kid, Dewey Davis. Man, he's fantastic.' Dewey was Miles' middle name. He was a thin, timid, shy little kid; he couldn't even look you in the eye. When he talked to you, he would look down at the floor. If he would have stood sideways they would have marked him absent from school."

Terry played in a Navy band during World War II. After returning he joined the George Hudson's group from St. Louis. When it traveled to New York for its first engagement, the Basie band happened to be there holding auditions for trumpet players.

He went to the rehearsal studio to "take a crack at the book," while musicians like Harry "Sweets" Edison, Emitt Berry, and Buck Clayton evaluated him.

"They did the usual thing with the new guys. They put all the difficult things on --- 'Let's see what this kid can do.' So they had a tune in there called 'South.' Snooky Young had played lead. He had padded the part and played a high A natural, which was very difficult for any trumpet player in those days. I had never made one before so I was shivering, looking at that A natural coming up. I finally made it. It surprised the heck out of everybody, including me. They looked at me --- 'Whoa, he did it.' That gave me a little confidence, so I said, 'Anything else you guys want me to do?'"

A few years later, he was in Chicago with Basie when Ellington was holding auditions for a trumpet chair. Ellington had already sent his people to scout Terry, who finally agreed to talk about joining.

"Ellington said, 'I'll come up to your hotel.' So he called from the lobby and I said 'I'll meet you at the elevator.' As the elevator arrived on the floor, he opened the elevator door and just in front of the elevator was Freddie Green's room. [Green, a guitarist, was a fixture in the Basie band.] Almost simultaneously the doors opened. Duke stepped out and Freddie Green saw me there greeting Duke. He said, 'Uh-Oh!' and he ran back in and slammed the door. That night on the gig with Basie he looked up at me and he never said much except with his eyes, but he looked up this time and said, 'If you don't, you're a fool.' That's all he said."

Terry did. And he found Ellington to be a wonderful person and a mentor.

"I absorbed a lot from him: the ways and means to establish a rapport between the bandstand and the audience, how to get along with all sorts of people psychologically, how to deal with egotists, how to arrange programs," Terry says. "All these things, you absorb them and suddenly when you need a decision to be made, you go back to where you stored all this stuff and push a button and out comes the answer."

Terry is in the process, with the help of his wife, of writing his autobiography. Several chapters will deal with the plight of black musicians traveling in the South.

"I was almost attempted to be lynched on a couple of occasions in the South. That's the way things were in those days," he says. "You were a second-class citizen to the nth degree. Nobody was a man. If you were black you were a boy or an uncle. One time in southern Illinois, in a band with Ellington, one of the gangsters grabbed his necktie and pulled out a pair of scissors and cut it off and told him to dance. Duke said 'I won't dance.' He said, 'Well you're going to dance now.' He was shouting until somebody managed to take him away."

At the Eastman concert, Terry will perform with the Eastman Jazz ensemble and faculty members Dobbins, Harold Danko, Jeff Campbell, and Rich Thompson and Eastman alumnus Dave Glasser, the saxophonist in Terry's quintet.

Dobbins has arranged tunes Terry is known for, including perhaps his most famous song, "Mumbles."

"People say I practiced all my life to be a good trumpet player, I make one silly song and it opens doors."

"Mumbles" came out of Terry's experience in a St. Louis joint where buying a beer for the piano player entitled members of the local crowd to sing a tune. One woman Terry has never forgotten sang an unintelligible song that, in a strange and funny way, captured some of the magic of jazz's beginnings. It began with a few coherent words, but...

"The rest of it was the foot-pattin', the sawdust jumpin' off the floor and, as Ellington would say, the ear-lobe tilting, the finger poppin', the head-shakin' and the merriment that exuded from the room. So what we're singing about and how bad or how good it was didn't matter at all."

Clark Terry and the Eastman Jazz Ensemble play on Friday, February 25, at the Eastman Theatre, 60 Gibbs Street, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $7.50 (free to UR ID holders) and are available in advance at the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra Box Office, 108 East Avenue, by phone at 454-2100, on line at at Rochester-area Wegmans Home Video departments.

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