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Open Ears on Clark Terry

By (July 1, 2010) 4 Comments

There is a story concerning jazz musicians that is usually considered apocryphal, but like many jazz stories, there seems to be a need for it to exist. The great drummer Art Blakey was driving one of his legendary Jazz Messengers ensembles to a gig, when the car got trapped in the middle of a funeral procession. Rather than fight traffic, the car joined the caravan to the gravesite, and the five members of the band politely filed out of the car and listened to the eulogy. When the minister had concluded, he asked if anyone present had any thoughts to add. After a lengthy silence, Art cleared his throat and spoke up.

“If nobody has anything else to say about the deceased, would anyone mind if I said a few words about jazz “

As a jazz saxophonist for over thirty years, in jobs ranging from clubs to silent film accompaniment, I have heard this story a number of times. Unlike most oral history, the versions have varied little from teller to teller, and the quote attributed to Art is usually within a couple of words of the statement I have remembered here. It’s unvarying character indicates something of its importance. To someone who loves jazz, any gathering of people ready to listen is an opportunity to spread the word about the music; about that one style, or one recording, or one musician that you think a specific person or group is just going to dig (and there is no replacing that word for expressing the joy of getting the essence of a musical experience).

Despite the steady increase in jazz programs across the high school and college spectrum, jazz still feels like a neglected child: so talented, so original, so taken for granted. While international listeners have long agreed that jazz is the United States’ own unique contribution to the musics of the world, most Americans have a blissful unawareness of it. Everyone has their own idea of what jazz music means to them (that is those willing to occasionally leave their comfy iPod bubble of favorite tunes). To many, it’s the slippery, shiny concoction that used to have the adjective “smooth” tacked onto the front. A plaintive sax or moody trumpet in front of shimmering electric keyboards, over rhythms that might indeed include an actual drummer somewhere in the mix. To others it’s the scratchy old LP’s your dad used to play, although it also could be the hiss-filtered CDs a different kind of jazz-loving dad might roll through the expensive media rig that you weren’t allowed to touch. The main word many people would choose for jazz is irrelevant. It was probably cool back in the thirties and forties, but then it got all angry and atonal. Besides, jazz is for musicians; non-musicians just can’t understand what’s going on. At some public functions, jazz is applied like a musical sedative, or hung up as musical wall paper.

Even in the most benign of these settings, I discover repeatedly that jazz is a spectator sport. This is true of all music of course, but actually watching a jazz group perform often opens up the improvisational aspect of the music in a way that a repeatable, unchanging recording cannot. You can see the change on listeners’ faces as they watch the bassist and drummer tossing ideas back and forth; sometimes responding to a soloists phrasing, sometimes leading the way. Just the activity of the drummer’s kit can be hypnotic, with the high hat cymbal’s motions seemingly independent from the rest of the drummer’s movements.

With this knowledge, it is a rare privilege to have this forum to say “a few words about jazz,” because I can start with some visual samples of a musician who exemplifies to me the concept and the lifestyle of jazz. Clark Terry was born in St. Louis on December 14, 1920. He played trumpet in the very active St. Louis jazz scene in the early forties. Another trumpet player in that milieu was the teenaged Miles Davis, in whose acerbic, brutally honest memoir, Clark Terry is one of the few musicians described with true warmth and affection. Miles even shares a shameful tale where he borrowed Clark’s horn for a job, then sells it to score some drugs to feed his then burgeoning habit. Nevertheless, Clark was a stable mentor for many of the musicians in St. Louis. Then he took to the road; two years with a very popular big band led by tenor saxophonist Charlie Barnet. After moving to Count Basie’s big band and sextet for a few years, Clark wound up spending 1951-59 as a featured performer in the trumpet section of Duke Ellington’s band, sharing the spotlight with venerable Ellington trumpet stars like high note acrobat Cat Anderson and trumpeter/singer/violinist Ray Nance.

Thanks to the wonderful production team of ‘Reelin in the Years,’ the Naxos–sponsored Jazz Icon series makes it possible to see the thirty-eight year old Clark Terry performing with the Ellington band at a concert in Holland in 1958. The black and white cinematography is crisp; the camera seems to always show the most interesting sight at any given moment. The eighty minute performance catches two complete sets. The sound is clean and well balanced; Ellington’s orchestra was a deep blend of reed and brass textures and the live room resonance brings out every detail. On the second tune of the concert, the band plays “Harlem Airshaft,” an Ellington composition first recorded by the legendary 1941 edition of the band. On the original recording, Cootie Williams essays a trumpet solo that snarls and growls.


In Holland eighteen years later, Clark Terry, in complete contrast to the smears of Williams, calmly strides to the mike and issues a beautifully poised stream of dancing phrases and tricky tonguing patterns that would evolve in many directions over the course of the next thirty years. Sometimes Ellington’s soloists chose to stay close to the spirit of the recorded solos they inherited, but Clark did something totally different that still projected easily over the weaving band textures. That Ellington programmed the song second on the list and let Clark take the first extended solo set the tone for the whole concert which features ample performances from Ellington stalwarts: baritone saxophonist Harry Carney, and altoist Johnny Hodges. Fascinating camerawork clearly shows Terry, Carney, and Hodges using circular breathing techniques. Circular breathing, not a New Age term, refers to ways to bring air in through the nose while expelling it through the mouth and into the horn, thus making it possible to hold notes without a break. It’s wonderful to watch these men extend musical phrases simply by finding more air for their very different instruments. This technique is usually considered a stunt; it’s strangely compelling to see it be employed for strictly musical ends. The entire two set concert is an utterly stimulating sonic and visual peek into another world and should be experienced by every jazz skeptic in the country.

Jazz DVD’s are not numerous enough to provide a meaningful look at most musicians’ careers, but thanks to Jazz Icons again, a DVD of a televised concert by an all-star band led by Quincy Jones lets us experience two prime Clark Terry moments: a beautifully phrased flugelhorn solo on “Moanin’” and a rousing duel of plunger mutes with fellow trumpeter Benny Bailey on a chart called “Everybody’s Blues.” At one time all trumpet players carried a variety of mutes, implements of brass and rubber (even plumber’s plungers were part of the arsenal) that were used over or in front of the bell of the horn. These implements completely changed the sound of the instrument, enabling the performer to add some very vocal textures to the music. In an interesting interview in Scotty Barnhart’s book The World of Jazz Trumpet, Clark talks about the challenge of playing with mutes and the joy of finding a rare blue plunger mute that produces radical sounds without making the horn play out of tune. Once again, Clark is only part of a very entertaining well-directed, well recorded big band, featuring the likes of Phil Woods on alto sax, and dynamic arrangements by Quincy Jones about twenty years before he turned around the career of a performer named Michael Jackson.

The third DVD I’ll recommend this time around carries the unwieldy title Norman Granz’ Jazz in Montreux Presents the Clark Terry Sextet ’77. This live concert features Clark leading a festival all-star band members (seven players, sorry Norman) consisting of guitarist Joe Pass, vibist Milt Jackson, pianist Oscar Peterson, the incredible Niels Pedersen at the bass, Bobby Durham on drums, and the wild card, Ronnie Scott on tenor sax. Scott was a British musician known mainly as the owner a jazz club in London, but his unfettered playing in this concert makes you grateful to Clark for including him. This hour-long set has the friendly competitive feel of a jam session. Clark is in great form throughout, both on trumpet and flugelhorn (a bigger, darker sounding horn, resistant to mutes), and once again the visuals show the camaraderie of passing the ball around so everyone can score some points. In particular Oscar Peterson is on fire throughout the set — you feel the performances gain momentum whenever he solos. Plus, Niels Pedersen’s acoustic bass solo on the closing, way up-tempo bop anthem “Donna Lee” simply must be seen to be believed. Joy is etched on the faces of all the players, and when Clark is playing, joy is unavoidable.

Despite what the DVD evidence might suggest, Clark’s most productive decade was the sixties, when he gained extensive national exposure as a full-time member of Doc Severinsen’s Tonight Show Band, frequently called on when Johnny Carson strolled into the audience for a segment of “Stump the Band.” It was during these segments that Clark unveiled the unique vocal stylings that led to his hit tune “Mumbles,” first recorded on a memorable early sixties set with (again) the redoubtable Oscar Peterson, and part of Clark’s musical persona ever since. That collaboration with Peterson produced a wonderful CD, The Oscar Peterson Trio Plus One. In any jazz lover’s list of top ten trumpet-with-rhythm-section albums, each Plus One track seems to top the previous. Peterson reins in his volcanic technique only to unleash it for selected stretches, like during the controlled cyclone that is “Squeeky’s Blues.” Other amazing music: Clark’s plunger mute clinic on “Smedley’s Blues,” great solos from all on the unusual “ Roundalay,” Oscar’s oh-so carefully gorgeous intro to “ They Didn’t Believe Me,” which features Clark’s flugelhorn sound that earned him featured solos on dozens of Hollywood soundtracks. “Mumbles” makes its initial appearance here. Sometimes I prefer the second vocal “Incoherent Blues,” in which Clark delivers both a virile male and a teasing female blues persona with a scat duet in a language of indeterminate origin. Plus that old chestnut “Mack the Knife” receives a scalding fast rendition that will make you forget all about Bobby Darin. This is truly a terrific CD and hopefully the easiest Clark music to find.


My own preference from this busy period is the two-CD set Clark Terry-Bob Brookmeyer Quintet Complete Studio Recordings. Co-leader Bob Brookmeyer plays the valve trombone, replacing the slide with three pistons that give the instrument an agility difficult to match with a slide. The valves also make the traditional slide glissandos a bit challenging, a fact that never keeps Brookmeyer from developing his own series of growls, snarls, and even the occasional squeal. The Terry-Brookmeyer sound blended warm trombone with dark flugelhorn for rich harmonies and pitch-perfect unisons. The original sessions appeared on a short-lived jazz label called Mainstream, and they captured a group that had been performing regularly and were at the top of their game. The later sessions featured the remarkable pianist Hank Jones, (mistakenly identified as Roger Kellaway on the Lonehill reissue), who passed away in May of 2010 after forty-some years on the jazz scene. Even more effective in capturing the surprising sense of humor of this group was the relatively unknown (and still wonderfully active) Roger Kellaway on piano.

This earlier version of the quintet featured subtle, witty charts and a fondness for solos over stop-time backdrops. (Stop-time refers to the practice of literally stopping during the same beat in each bar of a chorus, sometimes punctuating the beat but leaving the space open for the soloist to play free of the rhythm section – it’s a technique that requires a bassist and drummer that know each other well enough to stay out of each other’s way). Bill Crow and Dave Bailey, the bass and drum team for one of Gerry Mulligan’s famous piano-less quartets, have more than enough experience to make these rhythmic niceties work. Pianist Kellaway (best known for his closing theme for the classic sitcom All in the Family) adds to the free-ranging solos by Terry and Brookmeyer with piano commentaries that cover the breadth of jazz piano, from twelve-tone rows to two-fisted stride piano. The opening tune “Tete a Tete,” a clever Terry line based on the venerable ‘I Got Rhythm’ chord progression, sets up the ground rules. The blurry blend of flugel and valve ’bone ricochets along, landing on dissonances that are funny rather than jarring. Clark’s opening solo bursts from the melody line, punctuated on the fourth beat of every other measure by subtle Crow and Bailey rhythm hits to become a full fledged stop-time figure at the point Brookmeyer slithers in with a solo making full use of the rhythm breaks and including some squeezed tones that sound like they could only come from a slide trombone.

Kellaway’s piano solo follows, moving from fractured post-bop lines to a thundering stride that Fats Waller would have been proud of. The group’s arrangement of the old Count Basie warhorse “The King” starts with Clark and Bob emulating the Basie brass section, flying through the bridge in a double improv of dazzling mutual hearing, sending Brookmeyer spinning through two choruses full of his loping, laconic phrases, always building on the preceding phrase. Clark’s straight-muted two choruses bubble along with phrases that could come from no other trumpeter. Then Kellaway enters, channeling some future Keith Jarrett (including the humming!) before cartwheeling into some splashy gospel inflections that logically spill over into romp ‘em-stomp ‘em barrelhouse piano. Two ‘little big band’ chase choruses climax with Clark achieving what can only be called delicate screams on the instrument. The Brookmeyer original “Hum,” with its constantly climbing-up melody, sounds like the opening tune from an unwritten Broadway show and exhibits the most hypnotic display of trombone and flugel unison, weaving through the sinuously upbeat melody with their breath moving the sound seemingly in and out of phase. Brookmeyer skips out of the blend to deliver a solo that develops completely out of one motive eventually into some kind of nursery rhyme. After a run-to-catch-up-with-yourself finish, Clark Terry’s entrance with a tightly Harmon-muted trumpet is like downing a pitcher of iced tea.

After two bracing choruses, at precisely the 3:00 mark, Roger Kellaway rolls in with his own nursery rhyme, which soon wraps itself all over Brookmeyer’s series of modes, taking brief form as one of Bud Powell’s creations, then paying respects to some of his signature phrases, before morphing into a chordal conclusion that returns to the pit orchestra on opening night. This is a terrific performance, an expansion of the scale constructions of Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue some three years before, but remaining its own unique species. Another exceptional half-modal tune is Gary McFarland’s “Weep,” beginning with the Terry Flugelhorn cast in utmost yearning, joined by Brookmeyer’s high altitude tone melting in octaves and barbershop harmonies before entering more obviously Miles-inspired territory. The blend of modes and chords give all Terry, Brookmeyer and Kellaway a lot to play with. To form the sequence into even more of an obstacle course, Crow and Bailey make the bass and drums go away during each solo, forcing each player to skitter across the space between beats like a goalie with no skates. Brookmeyer navigates the distance by going from a bevy of swirling doubletime lines to a careful step by step advance. Bob ends his solo with a raunchy hollering phrase of triumph. Kellaway replies with two snarky rumbling phrases that ripple with laughter. Kellaway adds to the laughs by disassembling the melody into its component parts, putting them in a box, and never looking at them again, winding up his tiptoe though the stop-time with descending chords like a man going down a staircase with no light on, ending at the bottom with a big churchy flourish. How many jazz solos are funny?


There are many other feasts in the Terry discography, but the above two recordings and DVDs should give you the idea. Most maddening is the unavailability of important recordings. Clark’s 1960 album Color Changes featured a miraculous band of reedists/flautists Yusef Lateef and Seldon Powell, undervalued trombonist Jimmy Knepper, Julius Watkins’s French horn playing some inventive arrangements by Al Cohn. The range of colors Clark produces is astonishing. It’s frustrating when a long sought-after session finally reappears on CD then disappears with no warning whatsoever. Any effort you expend to track down Color Changes will be amply rewarded.

This first “Open Ears” column is devoted to Clark Terry primarily as a belated response to an event that graced two days sometime in the spring of 1970 at a KMEA (Kentucky Music Educator’s Association) convention. I was selected to be one of two tenor saxes in a band performing a 10 a.m. seminar on “Rehearsing Sight Reading with a Large Jazz Ensemble” led by Mr. Clark Terry of the NBC Tonight Show Orchestra. Clark had sent down a batch of charts from his own New York big band. They were so hard that rehearsals were hastily scheduled so that we could learn how to “sight read” the music without looking like total fools. When we “sight read” for Clark, eyebrows popped up knowingly.

“You guys cheated didn’t you,” Clark chuckled, saying something to the effect that the result wasn’t bad but was also “wasn’t sight reading.” He implored us to “rough it up a little in the morning. So we have something to do for two hours.”

That night there was a jam session hosted by Clark at a downtown Lexington motor inn. Clark had a reunion with an old Kentucky friend, a fine alto player named Duke Madison, and once their first set rocked the high school band directors, I found my two beers’ worth of courage after a guy walked on stage pulling the amplifier for his electric clarinet. Clark asked, “Where are you from?” “Pittsburgh,” I replied. He asked “What would you like to play to lead off a ballad medley?” A ballad medley is a jam session staple where each soloist plays a different ballad, with the poor pianist responsible for changing keys in between songs. Without thinking, I said “Misty,” then realized this was probably not the most impressive choice. Nonetheless, Clark let me have two choruses; I remember being happy that I didn’t resort to any meaningless doubletime hijinks, the kind where I played lots of notes hoping inspiration would strike. Clark was standing behind me making little comments like “say it” or “that’s it” or “I hear you” just loud enough that only I could hear. Somehow this helped me edit myself, and for the first time I actually played “Misty.” I used the melody until I could hear somewhere else. I blushed when Clark asked me to stay for the rest of the set. He called me “The Pittsburgh Wailer,” a nickname that (thankfully?) never caught on.

At 8:30 the following morning, Clark woke us in the motor lodge by playing a gentle reveille on his flugelhorn. The ‘sight reading’ rehearsal lasted for about an hour, then Clark just called up a set’s worth of his arrangements and treated sixteen white college students like we really were his band. When there was a solo anywhere in the sax section, Clark would grin and bring the mike down to me and say “have a taste” — and for the second and final time, I became “The Pittsburgh Wailer.”

We got to see the full array of Clark’s instrumental arsenal. Trumpet in his left hand, flugel in his right, Clark traded phrases with himself, the dark stately flugel contrasting with his darting muted trumpet lines. In one solo, he flipped the flugelhorn upside down and raised the valves on the knuckles of one hand. This forced him to improvise using “fingerings” that were backwards and upside down. Circular breathing was also on display as Clark strutted through multiple choruses without breaking the line with a visible breath. There was also much great plunger mute work, although I don’t remember if it was one of Clark’s rare, coveted blue plungers. Being so close to Clark’s sound gave the whole band a ‘massage on the inside’ that we talked about later on the buzzed-up bus ride back to our hilly Kentucky campuses.

After the clinic, Clark came around to each of us as we were putting away our horns. He shook my hand and palmed me a business card. All pumped up, just seeing Clark’s genuine enthusiasm about the performance calmed me down. I thanked him for letting me sit in at the jam, and I actually thought to say his listening helped me edit myself. He laughed, and I got all encouraged and said something like “before last night I thought I may be the wrong color to play this music.”

“You can be orange, as long as you can play,” Clark said before I even finished the sentence.

Clark Terry will be ninety years old this December. This is a very early happy birthday card and a thank you to a man whose encouragement stays with me as I continue to play tenor, soprano, and some bari (and hopefully again, a non-electric clarinet). Thanks also for showing that bitterness is not a necessary ingredient in a jazz player, though there are indeed some excellent musicians who can exhibit it. If this column coaxes even one other Open Ear to sample Clark’s music, then it’s been a pleasure to say “a few words about jazz.”

Brad Jones uses his retail job to fund his career as an obscure jazz saxophonist. He’s performed over 1,000 improv shows as a member of the Proposition Theatre in Inman Square and was a founding member of Boston’s Next Move Theatre.