There will be a funeral Service for Clark Terry next Saturday at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York City’s Harlem. The trumpet and flugelhorn giant died last Sunday in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, where he and his wife Gwen lived for many years after they left New York. Terry will be buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.
From the time we first met when he was in the house band at the New Orleans Jazz Festival in the late 1960s, CT and I spent time together whenever we found ourselves in the same town. Conversations with him were full of laughter and, for me, learning. Here’s a section of what Clark told me about an early job with Fate Marable, who decades before had hired Louis Armstrong to play in his band on Mississippi River steam boats. This is from Jazz Matters: Reflections on the Music and Some of its Makers.
‘Fate was an old man then, but he was still leading bands on those Mississippi steamers. He used to get a big kick out of playing tunes in weird keys. You’d go on this gig and you’d be accustomed to playing something in F, he’d play it in F-sharp and laugh through the whole tune while you struggled. It was good training.’
Marable’s sense of the unusual extended to non-musical matters and may have given rise to a colorful addition to the language. Terry says the river boats were equipped with axes to be used in the event it became necessary to chop an exit from a flaming cabin or passageway. Marable used the implement instead of a pink slip.
‘Whenever Fate would get ready to make a change in the band, he’d tell the rest of us to come early. Then, when the cat he was going to fire would come at the regular time, he’d find an ax on his chair. I’ve never heard any other explanation of the term, so it seems logical that’s where it came from. Cat got the ax.’
Terry never got the ax from Marable or from any of the other famous leaders for whom he worked. After a stint in a Navy band during World War II, he played with Lionel Hampton, George Hudson, Eddie ‘Cleanhead’ Vinson, Charlie Ventura, Count Basie and Duke Ellington, the association that made him one of the best known soloists in jazz. With Ellington, Terry blossomed. Duke’s genius for recognizing and capitalizing on the characteristics of his sidemen has rarely had more startling results than in the case of Clark Terry.
Ellington sensed in Terry something of the New Orleans tradition. When Ellington was preparing A Drum Is A Woman, his suite in which New Orleans plays a large part, he chose Terry to portray Buddy Bolden. Bolden’s style is entirely legendary; no recordings of him are known to exist. Terry recalls protesting the assignment.
‘I told him, ‘Maestro, I don’t know anything about Buddy Bolden. I wouldn’t know how to start.’ Duke said, ‘Oh, sure, you’re Buddy Bolden. He was just like you. He was suave. He had a good tone, he bent notes, he was big with diminishes, he loved the ladies, and when he blew a note in New Orleans, he’d break glass across the river in Algiers. Come on, you can do it.’ I told him I’d try, and I blew some phrases and he said, ‘That’s it, that’s Buddy Bolden, that’s it, sweetie.’ That’s how Maestro was. He could get out of you anything he wanted. And he made you believe you could do it. I suppose that’s why they used to say the band was his instrument. The Buddy Bolden thing is on the record, and Duke was satisfied. So as far as I’m concerned, that was Buddy Bolden.’
We’re going to miss you, CT.