Brad Terry took a rowboat oar he found and bolted it to the wall, next to the stairs. It serves as the handrail he grips going between the first and second floors, whistling a flurry of notes over the chord changes in his head.
He didn’t plan the oar, the music or much else.
“Everything is improvised in this house,” Terry said. “I don’t think there’s a right angle anywhere.”
He found the wooden oar amid broken light bulbs and other rubbish about 30 years ago inside the three-car garage in Bath he bought to convert into a home.
From jazz to daily things, improvisation is where Terry is comfortable. But nearing his 78th birthday, the unknowns ahead and thoughts he might hang it all up are tinged with anxiety.
“Maybe it’s time,” said Terry, whose expansive career can be traced back to the suggestion of a Connecticut neighbor, swing bandleader Benny Goodman, that his mother buy him a clarinet.
Terry took the instrument in his own direction from there, finding attention deficit disorder — diagnosed in his 50s — had complicated his efforts to learn to read music or take well to instruction. He relied on his ears and the inspiration of other players. And he still does.
Terry in May put the finishing touches on a 413-page memoir, titled “I Feel More Like I Do Now Than I Did Yesterday,” documenting stories behind his musical career and memories of the musicians who influenced him most, from New York to Poland and destinations in between.
On June 9, the clarinetist and whistler will play his last scheduled duet with 25-year-old Mount Vernon guitarist Peter Herman and host a book signing at the Theater Project in Brunswick, the last scheduled before Herman sets out for Oregon. That’s bittersweet for Terry.
“I’m hoping that he will realize how good he is,” Terry said of Herman. “What I want to do is to promote (Herman) and help him in any way I can while I’ve got the time.”
During the past two years, the musician who’s shared a stage with Dizzy Gillespie, borrowed the kitchen floor of Buddy Tate’s New York apartment and taught scores of young instrumentalists the language of music has sought out gigs wherever he could find them for what could be his last duo.
He describes Herman as “a phenomenon,” one of six players in his long career with whom he’s had “this locked-in communication.”
That list also includes late guitarist Lenny Breau, with whom Terry recorded informal sessions around 1979 and released in 2003 as the “Living Room Tapes.” It was during an annual tribute concert to Breau in 2012 that Herman and Terry met and first shared the stage.
“He got me out of a slump,” Terry said. “I wasn’t playing, and he forced me out of retirement, which I am not objected to.”
Having relied on a keen ear and not reading music for his entire life, Terry said Herman’s fresh takes on jazz standards provide a new font of ideas for his single-note lines.
“What’s interesting is the curveballs that he throws at me harmonically,” Terry said. “And I say, ‘That was the chord I was looking for 45 years ago!’”
At 75, Terry began to consider he might hang it up, seeking to end his career at the right time. He said that ending makes him think of seeing saxophone great Lester Young at an outdoor concert in Bryant Park in New York.
“I had heard so much about him and heard so many of his records and he could hardly walk and it was just awful,” Terry said.
It’s not just that. Terry jokes that he’s one of the jazz musicians in it for the money, but he’s not interested in settling down his clarinet in a Dixieland band playing weddings, he said.
“Here I am, dead broke and with my house falling down on my head, but I made sort of a commitment to myself early early on that the day I went to work for the sole sake of the paycheck was the last day of that job,” Terry said. “I want to be the low man on the totem pole and be hanging on by a thread. I’m sure I could find a bunch of people that would play all of the old standards the old way.”
In his living room recently, Terry demonstrated his method for practicing, whirling through notes on the Selmer clarinet he bought in Paris in 1958, with his 15-year-old Belgian shepherd Holly listening nearby.
“I try to hear something in my head and play it accurately once and then move on,” Terry said. “If you practice licks or scales and patterns, then when you’re improvising, then you start using those patterns and you stop thinking.”
Terry said he feels he’s playing at a peak now, which might make it time to quit. But he’s still taking down names of leads. And in his mind, he’s got a picture of how he’d like to go out.
“I sort of imagine that I’ll play the best concert ever and the announcer will say, ‘Brad won’t be out for the encore.’ That’s how I’d like it to end,” Terry said at his home recently, laughing. “I’ll have to have someone to catch the clarinet, because I don’t want to drop it on the floor.”