Clark Terry, Influential Jazz Trumpeter, Dies at 94
Clark Terry, one of the most popular and influential jazz trumpeters of his generation and an enthusiastic advocate of jazz education, has died. He was 94.
His death was announced late Saturday by his wife, Gwen. She did not say where he died or provide any other details.
Mr. Terry was acclaimed for his impeccable musicianship, loved for his playful spirit and respected for his adaptability. Although his sound on both trumpet and the rounder-toned flugelhorn (which he helped popularize as a jazz instrument) was highly personal and easily identifiable, he managed to fit it snugly into a wide range of musical contexts.
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 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.
His fellow musicians respected him as an inventive improviser with a graceful and ebullient style, traces of which can be heard in the playing of Miles Davis, Wynton Marsalis and others. But many listeners knew him best for the vocal numbers with which he peppered his performances, a distinctively joyous brand of scat singing in which noises as well as nonsense syllables took the place of words. It was an off-the-cuff recording of one such song, released in 1964 under the name “Mumbles,” that became his signature song.
The high spirits of “Mumbles” were characteristic of Mr. Terry’s approach: More than most jazz musicians of his generation, he was unafraid to fool around. His sense of humor manifested itself in his onstage demeanor as well as in his penchant for growls, slurs and speechlike effects.
Musicians and critics saw beyond the clowning and recognized Mr. Terry’s seriousness of purpose. Stanley Crouch wrote in The Village Voice in 1983 that Mr. Terry “stands as tall in the evolution of his horn as anyone who has emerged since 1940.”
The seventh of 11 children, Clark Terry was born into a poor St. Louis family on Dec. 14, 1920. His mother, the former Mary Scott, died when he was 6, and within a few years he was working odd jobs to help support his family. He became interested in music when he heard the husband of one of his sisters play tuba, and when he was 10 he built himself a makeshift trumpet by attaching a funnel to a garden hose. Neighbors later pitched in to buy him a trumpet from a pawn shop.
His father, Clark Virgil Terry, discouraged his interest in music, fearing that there was no future in it, but he persisted. He played valve trombone and trumpet in his high school orchestra and secured his first professional engagement, which paid 75 cents a night, with the help of his tuba-playing brother-in-law.
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His career got off to a bumpy start. After working with local bands like Dollar Bill and His Small Change, he joined a traveling carnival and found himself stranded in Hattiesburg, Miss., when it ran out of money.
In 1942 he joined the Navy and was assigned to the band at the Great Lakes Training Station near Chicago. When the war ended, he returned to St. Louis and joined a big band led by George Hudson.
“George put the full weight of the band on me,” he told the jazz historian Stanley Dance in 1961. “I played all the lead and all the trumpet solos, rehearsed the band, suggested numbers, routines and everything.”
The regimen paid off: When the Hudson band played at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, Mr. Terry’s work was heard by some of the most important people in jazz, and he soon had offers. He worked briefly with the bands of the saxophonist Charlie Barnet and the blues singer and saxophonist Eddie Vinson, among others, before joining Count Basie in 1948. Times were getting tough for big bands in the postwar years, and Basie reduced his group from 18 pieces to a septet in 1950, but he retained Mr. Terry. The next year, Duke Ellington called.
It was the opportunity he had been waiting for. Working with Basie, he would say many times, was a valuable experience, but it was like going to prep school; his ultimate goal was to enroll in “the University of Ellingtonia.”
Nonetheless, after close to a decade with the Ellington band, he decided it was time to move on. “I wanted to be more of a soloist,” he said, “but it was a seniority thing. There were about 10 guys ahead of me.”
In late 1959 he joined a big band being formed by Quincy Jones, who not that many years earlier, as a youngster, had taken a few trumpet lessons from him. The original plan was for the band to appear in a stage musical called “Free and Easy,” with music by Harold Arlen. But the show folded during a tryout in Paris, and Mr. Terry accepted an offer to join NBC-TV’s in-house corps of musicians.
The first black musician to land such a job at NBC, he soon became familiar to late-night viewers as a member of the band on “The Tonight Show,” led for most of his time there by Doc Severinsen. He also led a popular quintet with the valve trombonist Bob Brookmeyer and worked as a sideman with the saxophonist Gerry Mulligan and others.
When Johnny Carson began his popular “Stump the Band” feature on “The Tonight Show,” in which members of the studio audience tried to come up with song titles that no one in the band recognized, Mr. Terry would often claim to know the song in question and then bluff his way through a bluesy half-sung, half-mumbled number of his own spontaneous invention.
He recorded one such joking vocal in 1964, as part of an album he cut with the pianist Oscar Peterson’s trio. As he recalled it, the song, released as “Mumbles,” was recorded only because the session had gone so smoothly that the musicians had extra studio time on their hands. Much to his surprise he found himself with a hit.
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When “The Tonight Show” moved to the West Coast in 1972, Mr. Terry stayed in New York. Jazz was at something of a low ebb commercially, but he managed to stay busy both in and out of the studios and even found work for a 17-piece band he had formed in 1967. Between 1978 and 1981 he took the band to Asia, Africa, South America and Europe under the auspices of the State Department. Most of his concert and nightclub work, though, was as the leader of a quartet or quintet.
Mr. Terry also became active in jazz education, appearing at high school and college clinics, writing jazz instruction books and running a summer jazz camp. He was an adviser to the International Association of Jazz Educators and chairman of the academic council of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz. For many years he was also an adjunct professor at William Paterson University in Wayne, N.J., to which he donated his archive of instruments, sheet music, correspondence and memorabilia in 2004.
Information on survivors in addition to his wife was not immediately available.
Mr. Terry 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. Diabetes and other health problems forced him to cut down on touring in the 1990s, but he remained active into the new century. He appeared in New York nightclubs as recently as 2008, doing more singing than playing but with his spirit intact.
And Mr. Terry, who in recent years had been living in Pine Bluff, Ark., 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.
“The only way I knew how to keep going,” Mr. Terry wrote in his autobiography, “Clark,” published in 2011, “was to keep going.”
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