Jazzman of the Year: Clark Terry

Many Happy Returns

Dear CT,

It's that time of year again—holidays, wrap-ups, and your birthday, number 82 on December 14, which undoubtedly seems more incredible to observers like me than to you, living with courage and style, and still playing with a gleaming ingenuity that spits in the eye of mortal ailments. I believe in choosing one's own savior, and this year, like it or not, I choose you. You inspire me, emboldening me with the desire to embrace and hear music anew. Since your phoenix-like recovery from serial ills—one of the more astonishing and upbeat stories of the year—I've found myself thinking a lot about what you have meant and continue to mean to jazz.

To be honest, last winter I feared you had finally put the flügelhorn away for good. The daughter of your great friend and mighty trumpet player Jimmy Maxwell had called to say she had heard you were in troubled health and was worried. You may not know that she and I were in college together. In fact, the first time I caught you live was when the Clark Terry-Bob Brookmeyer Quintet, or a version thereof, came to Grinnell, Iowa, during our freshman year. Anne later told me that until that evening (given the excited conversation that anticipated and followed it), she didn't realize that her father was famous or that you are one of the jazz gods. Of course, your casually infallible technique and comic esprit sometimes suggest that you don't know it either—but then true modesty is often inherent in true wit. I've never forgotten a moment that occurred after the concert, when the musicians were packing up. You and Bob had brought a pickup trio from Chicago, and they did their best. Right before leaving the stage, you walked over to the pianist, shook his hand with a wide smile, and said, "Don't think it hasn't been a gas just because it hasn't."

One of the last unmistakables, period
photo: Hiroyuki Ito
One of the last unmistakables, period

Maxwell passed on a few months ago—as you know, he'd been suffering a long time. But I cannot think of a more remarkable recoup than your appearance last summer with Jon Faddis's much lamented Carnegie Hall Jazz Band. When you were helped onto the stage and got a big laugh with your punchline ("The golden years suck!"), I thought: The last thing I want to hear is Clark Terry in less than sterling form. Not that it wasn't a joy to see you, but for some dumb reason I presumed that a weakness in your legs somehow connected to your embouchure. Well, holy Moses, man, when you started playing, my jaw hit my lap—I mean, you sounded as only Clark Terry can sound, every note robust, beaming, and shadowed with impish resolve and irony, the phrases whiplashing through the changes with the requisite trademark Terrytoons, floating on a raft of confidence. I had heard from Dan Morgenstern (remember his Down Beat essay, "Why Is This Man So Happy?"—it came out the same time as the Grinnell concert) that you played superbly at the Eddie Bert tribute weeks before, but if I hadn't seen you with Faddis and, months later, at the Fats Navarro memorial show, pressing half a dozen younger trumpet virtuosos to the wall (followed by a week at the Vanguard and last week's tribute to you at the Blue Note), I wouldn't have believed it possible that you are playing as well as ever. You are, after all, a beloved figure, and that induces a certain amount of sentimental forgiveness. None was needed.

A friend recently noted that you are the last of the major, unmistakable Ellingtonians. In truth, you are one of the last of the unmistakables, period. No one's likely to be fooled by you in a blindfold test: Two bars, and you know it's CT and that you're going to hear something good. As Benny Carter once said of Ben Webster, one immediately knows "who it is and who he is." I've always wondered how you came to develop that distinctive, chortling style. On early records (with Basie, Barnett, and Dinah, and even in the beginning of your near decade with Duke), it isn't completely there. With hindsight, one hears the characteristic feints, the dramatically launched high notes, the terse, bent notes that round the corner from one note to the next like a motorcycle zooming around a curve—but not the full revelation of personality. It's certainly there by the late '50s, though, when you recorded with Monk. The brass radiance that so inspired your fellow St. Louisian Miles Davis suddenly takes on a three-dimensional disposition. Ellington definitely had your number when he cast you as Puck in Such Sweet Thunder. But you created your own alter ego on the first album with Oscar Peterson: the irrepressible, sometimes doddering, always mischievous vocalist, Mumbles. Incidentally, you must be one of the very few things in music about which Monk and Peterson agreed.

And why not? The main thing you brought to jazz in the '60s was an ebullient style beyond style, beyond category, beyond definition (my God, you even cut a track with Cecil Taylor)—not bop or swing or mainstream or avant-garde, yet embraced by musicians across the board. Another thing you brought was the flügelhorn. Others had played it, notably Shorty Rogers, but in the mid '50s you put it on the map and made it stick—eventually working up those inimitable solo duets, trumpet in one hand, flügel in the other. I guess 1964 was your breakthrough year: After being everyone's preferred sideman for three decades, you moved to the front. (Is that what you had in mind, in 1957, when you wrote "Serenade to a Bus Seat"?) Many fans probably don't recall Johnny Carson's role, and the part you played in breaking the color bar in New York's studio system. There you were, the first black player in the NBC studio orchestra, sitting in the Tonight band, and every time you were given a feature, which was pretty often, music lovers around the country asked, Who is this guy? At the same time, you were taking honors in Gerry Mulligan's Concert Jazz Band and filling the Half Note with Brookmeyer. Inevitably, even record labeIs began to pay attention.

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