Tomorrow morning—Sat. Feb. 28—at 10am, Manhattan’s Abyssinian Baptist Church will likely be packed, as Reverend Calvin Butts leads a funeral service for Clark Terry. There’ll be top-notch jazz musicians, and those from the many walks of life who were touched by: the sweetness and clarity of Terry’s playing on both trumpet and flugelhorn; his decades of bold work as sideman and bandleader; his pioneering and compassionate work as a musician and educator, and by the casual, natural charm he exuded through careful conversation or just singing nonsense syllables, as he did on the 1964 tune, “Mumbles,” that grew into a signature hit.
Terry, who died at 94 in Pine Bluff, Arkansas on Feb. 21, was one of jazz’s formidable talents as well as a memorably uplifting soul.
“He left us peacefully, surrounded by his family, students and friends,” his wife Gwen wrote on his Facebook page Saturday. Her earlier post, after Terry had entered hospice care on Feb. 13, suffering from the effects of advanced diabetes, led to an outpouring of appreciations worth reading here.
During his career, Terry led or co-led more than 80 recording dates and played on more than 900 sessions by the time of his last session in 2004.He was named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master in 1991 and was given a lifetime achievement award by the Recording Academy in 2010.
Yet these numbers and honors only scratch the surface of his impact and presence. There has hardly been a figure in jazz that spanned more of the jazz’s musical contexts while performing, nor one more beloved offstage. His accomplishments and demeanor personified his frequently offered mantras to “keep going by keeping going,” and “getting on the plateau of positivity.”As Peter Keepnews reports in a New York Times obituary,
He was one of the few musicians to have worked with the orchestras of both Duke Ellington and Count Basie. He was for many years a constant presence in New York’s recording studios — accompanying singers, sitting in big-band trumpet sections, providing music for radio and television commercials. He recorded with Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk and other leading jazz artists as well as his own groups.
He was also one of the first black musicians to hold a staff position at a television network and was for many years a mainstay of the “Tonight Show” band, as well as one of the most high-profile proponents of teaching jazz at the college level.
In Nat Hentoff’s memoir, “At the Jazz Band Ball: Sixty Years on the Jazz Scene,” Hentoff describes how Terry (who emerges as one clear hero throughout the book) walked away from a Harlem music education program he’d established when students refused to work with white teachers.
When I was a child, I knew Terry as the jokester in Doc Severensin’s “Tonight Show” band—the go-to guy for Johnny Carson’s “Stump the Band” feature whenever a member of the studio audience came up with song titles that no one in the band recognized. Mr. Terry would spring into action, bluffing his way through a bluesy half-sung, half-mumbled number of his own spontaneous invention.
When I was a young man working at the Blue Note club in New York, I met Terry, who was then a septuagenarian member in a ‘Golden Men of Jazz” all-star group led by Lionel Hampton, still playing with fire and joking with style.
A decade ago, at a Jazz Foundation of America benefit, Terry was helped to stage. “You know what they say about those Golden Years,” he said off-mike. “They suck.” Yet, seated onstage, his playing projected joy and gratitude. (In lieu of flowers, the Terry family is asking that donations be made to the Jazz Foundation of America, which helped over the years to make sure that Clark’s needs were met. These should be noted “In Honor of Clark Terry,” and can be made here.)
Terry liked to talk about his time in the Basie band as “prep school” and his studies at the “University of Ellingtonia.” For generations of musicians who didn’t get to soak up jazz education that way, on the road, Terry was among the earliest and most forceful musicians to help more formal jazz-studied programs take shape and gain acceptance.
He continued to be a mentor to young musicians after his performing days were over. An acclaimed 2014 documentary, “Keep On Keepin’ On,” directed by Alan Hicks, told the story of his relationship with a promising young pianist, Justin Kauflin, whom Mr. Terry first taught at William Paterson, and with whom he continued to work even after being hospitalized.
Among the emails and posts I’ve received in the wake of Terry’s death is this link to outtakes from Michael Kantor’s 2001 film for PBS “American Masters,” Quincy Jones: In the Pocket.” Here, Terry offers insights into Count Basie’s aesthetic, and discusses the challenges of touring the southern U.S. with an all-black big band and what Quincy Jones learned from Count Basie.