The gatherings that follow a renowned jazz musician’s death honor musical greatness we already knew about. They also reaffirm a sense of community we too easily forget.
That community is bound by musical values first and foremost but also by other things, including a sense of shared purpose and common history. The musical greatness in celebration itself generally has to do with far more than talent and charisma, though trumpeter Clark Terry, who died at 94 on Feb. 21, had those qualities in abundance.
What lends these events special power, more so than the solemn beauty of the music played, are the reflections of character, discipline, boldness and compassion, seriousness of mission and lighthearted humor, and the resonant lessons that run through generations and radiate well beyond music.
Such was the case on Saturday, a week past Terry’s death, at Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church. This funeral, like the man being laid to rest, was hard-hitting yet also serene, elegant but casually disarming, funny despite deep and even hard truths.
Trumpets sounded at both beginning and end. First came Roy Hargrove, accompanied by Terry’s working quintet, who played Ferde Grofé’s “Grand Canyon Suite,” which Terry had recorded more than once. Last, after the music and the testimonials, the prayers and the scripture readings, Wynton Marsalis and several members of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra entered the church in the processional style of a New Orleans jazz funeral, playing “Just a Closer Walk With Thee,” as a dirge. They paused before the casket, which was draped in American flag (Terry was among the earliest Navy recruits once black musicians were given the rating of Musicians in 1942), where trombonist Chris Crenshaw sang the hymn, and then escorted the funeral party out to the street.
Terry, who possessed a wondrously warm tone on trumpet and a distinctly nonchalant authority, whose gift extended equally well to the darker and thicker sound of flugelhorn, and who played on nearly a thousand recordings that spanned most of jazz’s styles and eras, was a source of inspiration and influence to nearly any jazz trumpeter to follow, many through direct mentorship.
Miles Davis, six years Terry’s junior, soaked up lessons from him in St. Louis, where Terry was born and raised. A 12-year-old Quincy Jones sought out lessons from Terry in Seattle. Jones couldn’t attend the funeral but through a lengthy tribute read by Adam Fell (vice president of Jones’ production company) he recalled how Terry had made time in early morning hours, after long nights playing in clubs and before Jones went to school, to teach him proper embouchure. “Clark Terry was my first teacher, my original mentor,” he had written, “one of the men who made me who I am.” He explained how those early lessons humbled him as a boy, and then feeling humbled in a different way decades later “when Terry left Duke Ellington to join my band.” “Sac,” he said, using the nickname he and Terry called each other, “wherever you are, I know your lips are greasy.”
Terry had recognized a hunger for jazz education at universities earlier than most, and was as gifted and focused an educator as he was a player—that influence extended well beyond his instrument. Even after his health had deteriorated, he was teaching students from his wheelchair or bedside. A processional during the funeral was played by Justin Kauflin, a blind piano prodigy more than 60 years Terry’s junior, whose relationship with Terry was captured in the recent award-winning documentary “Keep On Keepin’ On.” It is an inspiring story of musical mentorship, during which Terry, battling debilitation from diabetes, leads Kauflin to grasp jazz phrasing, to overcome devastating stage fright, and to get on, as Terry put it “a plateau of positivity.”
David Dempsey, who heads the jazz program at William Patterson University in New Jersey, where Terry’s archives reside, acknowledged Terry as a “founding father of the modern jazz education movement.” Then he skipped back 35 years, to when he was a 27-year-old saxophonist in Augusta, Maine, tasked with putting together a band for Terry, who had been invited to perform by the local arts council. After a full day’s rehearsal of Terry’s compositions, Dempsey said, “Clark didn’t call a single one of those tunes onstage. He had joyously, surgically used that rehearsal to find our level and hang us four inches above that level for the next two hours. I’ve been a different musician since then. That night I found out what jazz was.”
Wendy Oxenhorn, executive director of the Jazz Foundation of America, which had worked closely with Terry in the latter years of his life, talked about her deep experience with people in difficult times, and how she knew of none more courageous and considerate that Terry and his widow, Gwen, who sat in the front row throughout the proceedings. She spoke of some final moments for Terry, when in a fevered daze, he said, “I’m later for a gig, and the boat is leaving.” She left us with that image of Terry, floating on to that next gig. (In lieu of flowers, the Terry family asked that donations be made to the JFA; these should be noted “In Honor of Clark Terry,” and can be made here.)
As Reverend Mickarl D. Thomas, Sr., of Ebenezer AME Church in Detroit, a close friend of the Terrys, reminded us that Terry, who grew up poor in a St. Louis of stark racial prejudice, nevertheless cultivated a sense of humor whose power rivaled his musical prowess. He let those assembled in on private jokes and moments of personal generosity when it mattered most, and what it means when, like Terry, “you are blessed with a great life but you never lose the common touch.”
Wen Jimmy Heath stood right next to Terry’s casket and performed Thelonious Monk’s “’Round Midnight,” on soprano saxophone, accompanied by members of Terry’s band, his playing, gentle and sure, knowing and well swung, found a sweet spot between solemnity and joy.
Before the final brass-band style procession, Reverend Calvin O. Butts, III, who officiated, cited Terry’s distinctive version of scat-singing nonsense syllables, which never failed to entertain a crowd but also never masked his genius, and that earned him the name “Mumbles.” Rev. Butts cited Scripture, about speaking in tongues as a mode of communing with god, and the need for those who can translate Divine information.
“He was known for speaking in tongues,” Rev. Butts. “Nobody understood but it sure sounded good, sounded hip. Some people called him ‘Mumbles.’ When Brother Terry was mumbling, he was communicating with God. Now he can go home and mumble all he wants, and the people will understand him.”
Terry would often tell the story of building a horn out of junkyard parts—a garden hose attached to a funnel—since his family couldn’t afford an instrument when he was a child. As an adult, he invented a career path that otherwise wouldn’t exist, and certainly not for a black musician in his day—playing at jazz’s highest echelons (Basie’s and Ellington’s bands, among others) and anchoring The “Tonight Show” Orchestra. He taught students including Kauflin the fine points of jazz phrasing through his homemade method of “doodle-tonguing.”
He was clearly understood here on earth, articulating what jazz sounds like and how dignity feels.