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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 846

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This is the grave of Clark Terry.

Born in 1920 in St. Louis, Terry picked up the trumpet at a young age and was playing in local jazz bands when he was in high school. He grew up poor, like real poor. He was good enough that his World War II service was in military bands, so lucky him. St. Louis had an active jazz scene and its own style that was different than that of New York. Ambitious, Terry took what he knew from St. Louis and went to New York after the war. His first big break was in 1947, when he briefly worked with Charlie Barnet. An even bigger break came the next year when Count Basie hired him. He stayed with Basie for two years before Duke Ellington recruited as a centerpiece of his band in the 1950s. By that time, Terry was one of the nation’s most prominent trumpet players. Always a mentor, he worked with future trumpet stars, including Miles Davis, who he knew from St. Louis. He also mentored Quincy Jones, who was in Seattle and they met frequently on Basie’s tours when they played in the Northwest. His work during these years were really great. He knew that Ellington brought the best out of him and he loved the Duke for it. Think of the albums he played on in those years–Ellington at Newport, Black Brown and Beige, The Cosmic Scene, so many classics.

Terry was a great, great player. He remained an interesting player for his whole life, but he also remained pretty stable in his music of the 1950s and 1960s. There’s nothing inherently bad about this, but there’s also a reason that the people he mentored are seen as greater innovators today. Instead, Terry decided to make a living. He took a job with NBC, primarily appearing in The Tonight Show band that was first led by Skitch Henderson and then by Doc Severinsen. He was a prominent member of the band and was used in skits. He was Clark Terry after all. His scatting was particularly popular. He was also the first Black musician to get hired to be part of one of the network orchestras. He should have led the Tonight Show Orchestra. Nothing against Severinsen (still alive as it turns out!) but Terry was by far the best player in the band and he was also tremendously charismatic. But you know, he was Black so Doc it was, born in the known jazz center of…..Arlington, Oregon, which always amazed me because that’s a tiny little town on the Columbia River in the middle of the desert. But I digress. He left The Tonight Show in 1972 when it moved to LA and he wanted to stay in New York. He did still appear on the show occasionally.

This TV work also gave Terry plenty of time to continue playing in working bands with his friends. In the 1960s, he frequently played with Oscar Peterson and J.J. Johnson. He also became a go-to for charity jazz events, especially on TV, including the BBC. He would frequently play big jazz events at Lincoln Center or Carnegie Hall by the 70s and 80s. This sort of event fit him well–he was personable and his music was very accessible, including to the rich whites who would buy tickets to this sort of thing. This might sound like I am being dismissive, but I’m not, or not really anyway. Terry found his niche as a man specializing in classic jazz stylings in the post-fusion/post-Coltrane era. This was a time when experimentation in jazz was a bit lost anyway, with the great musicians who blew things open in the 60s not really sure where to go (Miles himself, Shorter, Herbie, McLaughlin, Shepp, etc) and the new generation that would move things in a different direction in the 90s (Parker, Shipp, Ware) still coming of age. Always sure of his work, Terry was the perfect guy to provide what passed for mass entertainment through jazz while also being a first-rate musician with a great band around him. Terry also switched mostly to the flugelhorn during these years and went far to make this a popular instrument in jazz. He formed a big band that traveled the world as part of State Department goodwill tours, including to South Africa at a time when few musicians went there.

By nearly all accounts as well, Terry was a good soul. He was featured on various charity albums, including for AIDS. He also really became committed to mentoring young musicians as he aged. As mentioned earlier, he was also great on that issue, but by the time he was in his 50s, this was a major and very intentional part of his life. He and Milt Hinton, another aging great, raised money to buy instruments for poor kids in Harlem. He held jazz camps and festivals that featured young players, often kids. He had his own big bands as well that could fill a festival stage. In 2011, Terry even published his autobiography. This was reviewed by another great trumpeter–the astounding Taylor Ho Bynum–in The New Yorker, which was pretty cool. In his late life, he also mentored the young blind pianist Justin Kaulfin. This was documented in the 2014 film Keep On Keepin’ On. I recommend it. By this time, Terry was very old. He had diabetes. He was bedridden. And he was still helping talented young musicians. Really, Terry went out the best way one can–his body collapsing, but having lived a full life, still with a great spirit, still making the world a better place. It’s not necessarily a great film and Kaulfin really isn’t that interesting of a pianist in my opinion, but for a look at the great Clark Terry, you aren’t going to do better. Terry died soon after the film came out, in 2015. By this point, he was living in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. Why someone would leave New York for Pine Bluff when you aren’t from there (or even if you are) I do not know. He was 94 years old.

Let’s watch Terry work.

Clark Terry is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, Bronx, New York. As for the style of the tombstone, this sort of stone, with the picture and a lot of text, has become more common in the last fifteen years or so. May seem gaudy to some of you, though I have no strong opinion on the point.

If you would like this series to visit other great trumpet players of jazz history, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Very few people actually do donate anymore, but hey, hopefully this series can continue. Dizzy Gillespie is in Queens and Clifford Brown is in Wilmington, Delaware. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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