Master improvisers have a personality in their playing, a singularity to their sound. They have the ability to adapt to any musical context while maintaining a sense of personal identity, displaying distinct individuality while always contributing to the needs of the collective. One of the greatest practitioners of this humanistic art died on Saturday: the ebullient, effervescent, irreplaceable, irrepressible trumpet virtuoso Clark Terry.
Born into a poor family in St. Louis in 1920, 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. Even at the height of his fame and technical expertise, he still played with the imagination and abandon of that ten-year-old on a homemade creation; there have been few musicians who so embodied the sound of musical joy, of playful engagement and exploration. He was well cast as Puck in Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s 1957 Shakespearean suite “Such Sweet Thunder”—his playing glowed with trickster energy and elfish glee.
The trumpet (or the flugelhorn, a related instrument with a darker, fatter sound that Terry single-handedly popularized among jazz brass players) is a notoriously difficult instrument to play, but Terry made it dance. He pioneered a kind of “doodle-tonguing” articulation, which allowed notes to spill out of his horn without ever sounding rushed or frantic. His tone was a wonder of flexibility and range, a warmer, more liquid timbre than Miles Davis’s icy cool or Dizzy Gillespie’s bright attack. (And if I were forced to name a triumvirate of post-Armstrong trumpet innovators, those would be the three.) He employed a compendium of jazz styles—from the growling plunger mutes of early big bands to the lightning runs of bebop—while wholly transcending category. He was also an entertainer, a witty man on the bandstand where his “Mumbles” scat-singing routine was a big hit, but don’t let the comedy obscure the music—Terry was a genius.
Terry was present at some of the most important moments of twentieth-century American music. Coming up in St. Louis, he was a mentor and lifelong friend to Miles Davis, who was six years Terry’s junior. A few years later, during an extended stay in Seattle, a young Quincy Jones sought him out for lessons, which Terry would give him at his hotel room in the mornings, after Terry returned from late-night gigs and before Jones would go to junior high school. After emerging from the Navy band in 1942 and developing his chops touring with regional big bands, he came to national prominence as a featured soloist with Count Basie. In 1950, Duke Ellington poached him from Basie’s band, starting a ten-year run in what Terry always referred to as the University of Ellingtonia, one of the most vibrant periods of Ellington’s career.
Duke Ellington had a creative (and psychological) gift for bringing the most out of his musicians, crafting pieces that magnified and spotlighted the extraordinary individual talents of his band members like Johnny Hodges or Cootie Williams or Ben Webster. Terry provided Ellington, and Ellington’s compositional alter ego Billy Strayhorn, a soloist whose brilliance and fluidity thrived in the more harmonically and structurally complex music Ellington and Strayhorn were developing in the nineteen-fifties. One of my favorite sounds in recorded music is the Ellington band in full roar, breaking on a dime to launch a Clark Terry solo into the world.
In 1960, after his long tenure with Duke and a short stint with his former student Quincy Jones, Terry became NBC’s first African-American staff musician. In a time when studio gigs were the lifeblood of working musicians in New York and Los Angeles, Terry was a trailblazer, and actively fought to diversify the pool. The network heads weren’t brave enough to appoint a black bandleader on the “Tonight Show,” so Doc Severinsen got the job instead, but everyone knew Terry was the best trumpeter in that band. Terry also formed a quintet with valve trombonist Bob Brookmeyer; the tight arrangements and near-psychic improvisational brass lines made that group stand out as the epitome of small-group swing in the post-bop era.
In the nineteen-seventies, Terry fulfilled a lifelong dream by leading his own large ensemble, the aptly named Big BAD Band. Along with the Thad Jones–Mel Lewis Orchestra, Terry carried the big-band sound into the new decade, in a period when the economic pressures of the shrinking jazz industry had made it almost extinct. The band also became a teaching tool—Terry recognized the hunger for jazz education in American universities, and became one of the first musicians to make college workshops part of the touring circuit. Education and mentoring young musicians became a central component of Terry’s life mission.
Happily, in addition to the film, Terry’s life and music were well documented. His discography approaches a thousand recordings, with well over a hundred as a leader. His autobiography captures his gift for storytelling and his wry humor, especially in chronicling his early years on the road, with struggles through segregation and gigs in juke joints and carnivals, all while developing one of most distinctive improvisational voices in music history. It pains me to never hear that sound live again; no musician has made me laugh out loud in surprise and wonder more often than Clark Terry. But his imprint is a lasting one—a testament to the power of individual creativity, and a reminder that the best we can do is to be like no one but ourselves.