A Visit to Clark Terry

News | Dec, 8th 2014

On December 7, 2014, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra drove 8 hours on an off day to play for Clark Terry on his 94th birthday. If you know Clark Terry then you understand why. CT (as musicians call him) was born in 1920 St. Louis. He became internationally known when he accepted a position as the first African American musician hired by NBC in 1960 on the cast of Johnny Carson’s tonight show. Most musicians remember him from before that for the work he did with the Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Quincy Jones big bands in the 40’s through the 60’s. 

To sum up Clark Terry purely by his performances is to misinterpret the weight of his being. Wynton Marsalis shared these words about our visit with Clark. "What has more depth than respect and love? That’s what we felt. Veneration." We interviewed some of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra members about the impact CT had on them and what playing for him meant. Here is what they had to say.

Victor Goines (Saxophone):

The way this visit came about is that Kenny Rampton and I went to go see "Keep On Keepin' On" [a documentary featuring Terry], and we were touched in such a way – I was inspired actually – because after a long day of rehearsal and watching Clark teach all of his students I actually went back and practiced. But it was so emotional too to see such a great man and the challenges he was dealing with but always optimistically. So Kenny actually said, “We ought to go see Clark when we are on the tour in December.” I said, “Yeah man, we ought to.” And I thought about it a while and everybody always says "We 'ought to do this, we 'ought to do that, we should do this we should do that!”  So why just talk about we 'ought to, let’s do it. 

I called Wynton and said "Hey man I was talking to Kenny and we thought it would be a great idea to see Clark Terry when we are in Arkansas." So Wynton said, "Man that’s a great idea, just call [Executive Director of Jazz at Lincoln Center] Greg Scholl." 

So I called Greg and he said it may work out and then ultimately different conversations started taking place and I got to [Vice President of Concerts & Touring at Jazz at Lincoln Center] Cat Henry and she said, "Yea that’s a great idea but has anyone talked to Clark’s wife?"

"That’s just a phone call, anybody got Clark Terry’s phone number?" So finally I got Clark Terry’s phone number and I called Gwen Terry and said, "When we come down to Fayetteville, Arkansas, we’d like to come to your house and visit Clark Terry and perform for him.” She said “That would be wonderful.’ The seed just blossomed into a plant that continued to grow and everybody just started pitching in – Gaby Armand, our Director of Brand and Audience Development; production; touring; Raymond Murphy, our road manager – to make this work.

I got a call two or three days before we were to arrive in Pine Bluff from Mrs. Terry and she said, "You know we’ve had a little setback, Clark has to go into the hospital." I said, "That’s ok, we are coming, the venue doesn’t matter. We can go to his house or we can go to the hospital, doesn’t matter, but we are going to come see Clark Terry." So we organized it with the hospital to have Clark brought into an auxiliary room where the band was all set up waiting for him to roll in. This was inevitable, it was going to happen, and it was meant to happen.

(Victor Goines Shaking Hands With CT)

James Chirillo (Guitar): 

I was playing with the North Texas State University One O’Clock Lab Band in the late 70’s –  great band – and I was just starting to get exposed to a lot of different kinds of jazz. I was always into music, always had a good feel for swing, but I didn’t know anything. I mean, I was a hardcore, savage rock-and-roller coming up when I was a kid, so slowly my perspective got to be more focused and serious about music. That band was picked to go down to play the Spoleto Jazz festival in Charleston, South Carolina. I think it was 1978 but this may have been 1977 and I mean I’d heard of Clark Terry because he was on the Tonight Show but most of the time he plays in the section. I didn’t know about what he’d done with Duke Ellington, I didn’t know nothing about nothing. I was a blank slate. I was ready to go. Throw it at me and I’ll soak it up. So we went down there and Clark guested with the band and when he started to play the first thought I had was, "Well, this guy is in absolute control of that horn and there’s nothing he can’t do, there is nothing he cant say on that horn, instantaneously. That’s how a trumpet is supposed to sound." To say that was an illuminating experience is an understatement.

Ted Nash (Saxophone):

In 1975 at the Monterey Jazz Festival I got to play with Clark Terry. I was 15 in an All-State band that would feature guest artists – Benny Golson, George Duke, and Chuck Mangione – just all sorts of different artists that were hot at the time. Clark Terry was one of the guests we had the first year I was in the band and I remember him playing "Mumbles," which was just great. We were laughing the whole time. It was the first time I heard that tune. He wrote a blues and brought this chart that featured soprano sax and the trumpet. I was the first saxophone so I got to play the thing. I came out and joined him in front of five or eight thousand people. We played this blues, we both played a solo, then we played the head together and at the end of it he grabbed the mic and said “Ted Nash!” It was so exciting man, in front of the Monterey audience. It was so beautiful the way he embraced us, it was just the type of thing you always hear about Clark.

So a year later, my family was on vacation in New York and we saw that Clark Terry was playing with his quintet. My dad said, "Let's go down, get your horn!"

I said, "C’mon man."

He said, "Get your alto!"

We showed up and Clark immediately asked, "Man you got your horn?"

He told me to come up and play. So he calls me up with this expectant crowd that has been checking out Clark all night and now they got to hear this sad 16-year-old coming up. We get up on the bandstand and he asked, "What do you want to play, some blues or something?"

I said "No, Cherokee!"

You’re brave when you're 16.

(CT receiving his cake in celebration of his 94th Birthday)

Vincent Gardner (Trombone):

I heard Clark Terry in 1982 when I was 9 or 10. He played at Norfolk State University. This was at a time when I didn’t like jazz music at all. I was just not into that at all. He was like the first jazz musician that I ever liked and it was only because he did a scat solo and at the end of it he said "ABSCAM" and it broke everybody up and everybody was laughing and I tried to laugh too like I knew what was going on when I really didn’t. I had never made a connection between anything that anybody could do musically and people actually liking it and actually laughing, you know. I was like, this cat is kinda cool. My father was a trumpet player and I could see how much he respected Clark Terry and that was my first exposure and that was what really opened my eyes up to jazz.

Clark Terry is pure honesty. In everything that he does, in his sound, he plays the trumpet like nobody else. Down to the way he moves his air and the way he tongues, the way he articulates, all of that which defines his sound is honest. I don’t know of anybody before him that did it that way and there have been many people after him that have done it like him. Something started with Clark and just like any genius that you’ve had in any genre of music, He had to come up with something that didn’t exist before and say, I’m going to sound like this and it doesn’t matter if people like it or not, and it just so happens that people love something that genuine. There’s brute honesty in everything that he does from the way he plays to the way he sings to the way he interprets all the different styles of jazz music. It always sounds like him but it always fits and it is always new. There haven’t been too many people like that.

Walter Blanding (Saxophone):

I tend to think of myself as a sensitive person but of course we all are and there is no shame in that. I think there were three really strong moments that moved me at Clark’s concert. One thing was that I could see how much his wife loves him and that feeling is beyond what words can express. She really is there for him. 

The other thing that was beautiful was any little expression or anything that he did while we were playing that indicated he was grooving. That’s why we were there for him and that made my day. Another very special moment was when I spoke to him and he doesn’t remember who I am but I told him how happy I was to be there and how happy we are to be here for him. He said, "I love you guys," then it got quiet and I was holding his hand. After a while he said, "well… I don’t know what to say,’ and I said, "Man, you don’t have to say nothing."  We both didn’t say anything. I just held his hand and the emotion… I’m already trying not to cry and he started to cry, and it just messed me up. 

Clark Terry, thank you for everything you’ve done because you are a great inspiration for us all in so many ways and that’s straight from the heart. That’s not just words, that’s honest to God truth, and thank you. The music is without words. It can be interpreted in many ways, but it’s that feeling of love and togetherness and so many wonderful things that are beyond what can be described in words. That’s what you mean to me, Clark, and that’s what I hope I can give back to you and to all of us through the beauty and the love of music. 

(Walter Blanding wishing CT a Happy Birthday)

Click here for a photo album from the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra’s trip to wish Clark Terry a happy 94th birthday. 

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On December 7, 2014 the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra drove 8 hours on an off day to play for Clark Terry on his 94th birthday. Victor Goines, James Chirillo, Ted Nash, Vincent Gardner, and Walter Blanding recall the day and the impact that Clark had on jazz.

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