My first introduction to the musical genius of Clark Terry happened back in 1964 during a surfing trip to Oahu. I was 16 at the time. I had purchased the Oscar Peterson Trio + One LP at a record shop in the Ala Moana shopping center. The album featured jazz trumpeter Clark Terry doing a funny song called, “Mumbles,” which sounded exactly like the title implies: Terry mumbling—rather, scat singing in tune, mind you—along to the music. The band had had some extra studio time that day and were just fooling around when this wonderful gem came about and was recorded.
Clark Terry was one of the best jazz trumpeters (and the flugelhorn players) of the 20th century and had the rare distinction of having performed with all of the greats: Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Miles Davis and Quincy Jones—both of whom he mentored—and many more. Whether as a leader or a sideman, Terry was always in total command of his instrument. He could do it all: range, tone, chops, improvisations—the full spectrum of everything that makes a jazz musician a giant.
“Universally admired by other trumpeters for his mastery of the instrument,” Los Angeles Times jazz writer Don Heckman wrote that Terry was “capable of articulating notes with stunning rapidity,” as well as mastering circular breathing, not easy on a trumpet.
In 1960, NBC-TV’s The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson hired Terry as the first African-American musician on staff, making him a household name. Terry remained in New York after the show relocated to Los Angeles to continue performing and recording with other jazz greats.
Blessed with enduring technical dexterity well into his eighties, Terry was also a beloved and hugely respected jazz educator, who impacted and inspired so many young musicians. A previous post I wrote about the recent Quincy Jones Production documentary, Keep On Keepin’ On, portrays the touching story of the deep musical bond shared between Terry and blind piano prodigy, Justin Kauflin. In the film, he mentored his young student for the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Piano Competition, while dealing with his own personal battle with diabetes.
But one thing Clark Terry never did was lose heart because he, in fact, always had so much to give. For his unfailing dedication and consummate musicianship, he was recognized in 1991 by the National Endowment for the Arts as an NEA Jazz Master, and by the Recording Academy with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010. His fascinating biography, Clark, authored by Quincy Jones, was published in 2011.
Clark Terry passed away this past Saturday, February 21, 2015, in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, at the age of 94. To be read to the sound track of him “Mumbl[ing]” from up above, his website now reads, “Our beloved Clark Terry has joined the big band in heaven where he’ll be singing and playing with angels.”
Clark Terry’s solo on the opening track, “Big P,” starts at 2’0″ but listen the whole way through. Audiophiles, this recorded sound will make your audio system shine.
Clark Terry shows off his humor, performing “Mumbles.”
Clark Terry’s Big BAD Band.