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Clark Terry: Famed jazz trumpeter soared above humble St. Louis beginnings

Legendary jazz trumpeter Clark Terry, who for more than seven decades performed with the audacity of a riverboat gambler to practiced perfection, has died. He was 94.

When he was 10, John, as his family called him, made his first trumpet out of remnants he found in a junkyard. He practiced outside his large family’s three-room flat in St. Louis.

“I could make noise,” he laughingly recalled over the years. “The neighbors got sick of me playing that lousy-sounding thing so they chipped in and came up with $12.50 and bought me a horn from a pawn shop.”

He would never be without a trumpet again. By the time he was 30, Mr. Terry had been a star soloist with both the Count Basie and Duke Ellington bands. He would go on to lead his own big band and he was the first African-American to play in The Tonight Show house band.

Clark Terry
Credit Provided by the family
Clark Terry

Mr. Terry also mastered the flugelhorn and became a prolific composer and recording artist. His virtuosity embraced a wide range of styles, from brass-dependent swing to bebop. His Grammy award-winning body of work included the theme song for the 1960s TV show, The Flintstones.

The close-up photo on the cover of Dennis Owsley’s “City of Gabriels,” is of a trumpet that belonged to Clark Terry.

As Terry Perkins said in a 2013 article for the St. Louis Beacon, “That choice seems exactly right, given Terry’s distinguished musical career -- and his immense influence on jazz here in St. Louis and around the world.”

Following a long travail with diabetes that included amputation of his left leg in 2012, Mr. Terry died yesterday, (Saturday, Feb. 21) at Jefferson Regional Medical Center in Pine Bluff, Ark., where he had lived since 2006. His death was confirmed by a family spokesperson, Lois Gilbert.

St. Louis booze

He got the trumpet bug watching a parade when he was 5.

“I loved the trumpet because it was the loudest and led the melody,” Mr. Terry said in his recently published autobiography, Clark.”

Mr. Terry was born in St. Louis on Dec. 14, 1920, the seventh of Clark Virgil Terry and Mary Terry’s 11 children. His mother died when he was 6 or 7, and his father worked for Laclede Gas and Light Co. As a young child, he worked to help pay bills. He hauled ashes for the German families on the “white side” of his Carondelet neighborhood and delivered newspapers.

His father, whom he called “Pop,” was adamantly opposed to his son playing the trumpet. He beat him when he found out that he had one; but Mr. Terry, a headstrong child who followed his own mind, just hid his horn and kept on playing. A subsequent infraction got him put out of the house when he was 12: He bought a bike.

Clark Terry's first publicity photo; he was with the George Hudson Orchestra
Credit From his autobiography
Clark Terry's first publicity photo; he was with the George Hudson Orchestra

As fortune would have it, he was taken in by his sister Ada Lee and her husband Sy McField, who was a tuba player with a popular local band.

His brother-in-law agreed to give him lessons and he was soon playing well enough to join the Tom Powell Post #77 Drum and Bugle Corps. When he reached Vashon High School, a shortage of trumpets forced him to take up the valve trombone. The school’s principal, to Mr. Terry’s horror, did not permit the playing of jazz. Mr. Terry simply formed his own jazz quartet, the Vashon High Swingsters. He rehearsed with a rival school’s band to learn to read jazz charts.

Jazz did not occupy all of his time. He boxed well enough to consider it as a career, and he was offered two track scholarships to college. But two months short of graduating salutatorian, he was expelled. It was discovered that he was a father-to-be. There was a shotgun wedding, and he and Mayola “Sissy” Robinson had a son, Hiawatha. They divorced in 1944.

Mr. Terry began supporting his new family with his horn. He played with Dollar Bill and His Small Change Band and with blues singer Ida Cox’s band, Darktown Scandals, and traveled with the Rueben and Cherry Carnival.

During the carnival’s engagement in Mississippi, Mr. Terry was knocked unconscious by a white security cop for not answering him “Yes sir.” It’s an experience he recounts in a chapter in his book titled Nigga.

But the tour afforded him time to learn circular breathing, a note-holding technique good for playing languid tunes like Michelle,  which he wrote for a granddaughter.

His career began to take off in 1940, when he was hired by pianist and bandleader Fate Marable. Like many jazz musicians, Marable came from the south, playing his way north and back on Mississippi riverboats. And like many, Marable docked for a time in St. Louis.

That, said Mr. Terry, was because St. Louis was a very alluring city with “great cooking, beautiful girls and the booze was reasonably priced.”

The Wonder Years

Ironically, Mr. Terry never played on riverboats. Instead, he worked with Marable’s smaller, landlocked bands, until he enlisted in the Navy in 1942. He played in the Navy band while stationed at the Great Lakes Naval Station near Chicago.

After his discharge, he returned to St. Louis and continued his musical apprenticeship with a number of small bands, including the George Hudson Orchestra. As part of Hudson’s band, Mr. Terry played with some of the hottest acts of the day, including the Mills Brothers, Peg Leg Bates, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn and Nat King Cole.

“We were swinging like there was no tomorrow, backing all those sizzling acts,” Mr. Terry said.

And they dressed the part. When the Hudson band played the Apollo, Mr. Terry said, “We were dressed sharper than Gillette razors.”

He later played with Lionel Hampton and saxophonist Charlie Barnet, a white bandleader who did live radio broadcasts. While working with Barnet, he recorded Phalanges, the first of his more than 200 compositions. It was his big break, even if the band had to perform before segregated audiences – and he had to live separately from his bandmates.

Betty Grable, Harry James, Clark Terry and Duke Ellington
Credit From his autobiography
Betty Grable, Harry James, Clark Terry and Duke Ellington

After working with Barnet, he teamed up with royalty.

In 1948, he joined Count Basie’s band. Three years later, Duke Ellington stole him away. He played his first “gig,” as he called it, with Ellington on Armistice Day, 1951, at Kiel Auditorium in St. Louis and traveled the world with the hippest orchestra of the time.

"Count Basie was college, but Duke Ellington was graduate school," he often said.

One night on stage at the Blue Note in Chicago, Mr. Terry decided to try out a gimmick he’d been practicing. He played his solo portion of Perdido with his horn upside down – and left-handed. Ellington was not amused, but it became a crowd-pleaser for Mr. Terry, along with his ability to play three horns at once.

Ellington was more amenable to another of Mr. Terry’s innovations: the flugelhorn.

Few jazz artists played the flugelhorn, but its softness, perfect for songs like My Romance, had always intrigued Mr. Terry. Ellington lamented that Mr. Terry never received proper recognition for popularizing the instrument.

In a 1981 review of a performance at Carnegie Hall, the New York Times rhapsodized that Mr. Terry’s flugelhorn solos “combined melodic substance and wit with admirable purity of tone.”

Don Wolff, a local jazz aficionado, tapped Mr. Terry to headline the 1995 Big Brothers Big Sisters benefit concert in St. Louis. He did so, he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, because Mr. Terry was a native son, he was the premiere flugelhorn player and “It wouldn't be a party without him."

Civil Rights at NBC

Mr. Terry began yearning for his own band but the transition took a while. The first step was leaving Ellington’s band In 1959, and joining the orchestra of his first student, Quincy Jones, to play Harold Arlen's opera, Free and Easy.

A year later, he joined NBC’s house band. He said civil rights organizations raising “sheer hell” got him there.

“Without the civil rights movement, my chances of being there would have been as slim as a toothpick,” he said.

Mr. Terry showed his appreciation by performing benefit concerts for the NAACP, the Urban League and the Congress for Racial Equality. An annual CORE fundraiser was held at Jackie Robinson’s home in Connecticut; sometimes, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. attended.

At NBC, he was initially assigned to The Arthur Murray Show and The Morning Show. Soon, he was on The Tonight Show. There he introduced what became the wildly popular character ‘Mumbles,’ who could ‘scat’ unintelligible verse like no one before.

When bandleader Skitch Henderson left the show in 1967, it was widely rumored that Mr. Terry would replace him. The job went to Doc Severinsen. There was fear that a black person would ruin ratings in southern markets.

“I loved Doc and I was happy for him, but I was also pissed!” Mr. Terry recalled.

But Mr. Terry had opened a door. Saxophonist Branford Marsalis, who called Mr. Terry for counsel before taking the job, debuted in 1992 as Jay Leno's first bandleader on The Tonight Show.

While at NBC, Mr. Terry and his second wife, Pauline, who died in 1979, bought their first home, a three-bedroom ranch in Bayside, N.Y., in an all-white neighborhood. A white friend, Jim Maxwell, posed as the prospective home-buyer. Mr. Terry’s affable nature converted his once-hostile neighbors, and he was soon seen driving neighborhood children for ice cream in his powder blue Cadillac.

He was equally sanguine in the face of two ills that plagued him much of his life: “galloping dominoes,” as he called his favorite game of chance, and a back injury suffered during a 1960s softball game. He lamented that “pain became a way of life.”

But his music never became moribund, nor did his spirit.

A Big Life

Mr. Terry remained with NBC for 12 years while continuing to play nightclubs. He worked and recorded with numerous artists and co-led a quintet with valve trombonist and pianist Bob Brookmeyer.

When The Tonight Show moved to Los Angeles In 1972, he chose to stay in New York. It was time to become a bandleader. He led small groups and two big bands: the Big Bad Band and Clark Terry’s Young Titans.

Clark Terry still played his horn upside down in the late 1980s.
Credit From his autobiography
Clark Terry still played his horn upside down in the late 1980s.

From the 1970s through the 1990s, Mr. Terry performed at Carnegie Hall, Town Hall, and Lincoln Center. He was featured with Skitch Henderson's New York Pops Orchestra. He also became part of promoter Norman Granz's traveling all-stars in Jazz at the Philharmonic. The U.S. Department of State made him a musical ambassador to the world.

In one of the longest careers in jazz, Mr. Terry had more than 900 recordings, including with the London Symphony Orchestra, the Dutch Metropole Orchestra and the Chicago Jazz Orchestra.

He was one of the earliest active jazz musicians to take time off from performing to teach. He did so in part seeking redemption for having rebuffed an aspiring young jazz trumpeter from East St. Louis named Miles Davis.

Between global performances, he taught at universities, conducted numerous clinics and summer youth camps and jazz festivals, including one that bears his name at Southeast Missouri State University.

"Not only is Clark one of the world's greatest jazz icons, he's also just a great humanitarian -- and a great educator as well,” Jim Widner, director of the University of Missouri-St. Louis Jazz program, told Perkins for the Beacon article. “Clark was a leader in jazz education. He was one of the first to go into high schools and colleges to perform with ensembles."

His multitudinous honors included the 2010 Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, recognition achieved by only four other trumpet players: Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, who described Mr. Terry as the greatest jazz trumpet player on earth, and Benny Carter.

He was inducted into the National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Hall of Fame in 1991 and the St. Louis Walk of Fame in 1996. In 1999, his wax likeness took up residence in the Griot Museum of Black History in St. Louis. He has performed at the White House eight times, was knighted in Germany and received the French Order of Arts and Letters. He received numerous honorary doctorates, the first from the University of New Hampshire in 1978.

He contributed his unique sound to several film scores, including The Fabulous Baker Boys and The Wiz.

Mr. Terry is the subject of a 2014 documentary, Keep on Keepin' On. It documents his mentorship of a 23-year-old blind piano prodigy, Justin Kauflin, as the young man prepares to compete in an elite, international competition.

Gabriel’s Band

“Our beloved Clark Terry has joined the big band in heaven where he'll be singing and playing with the angels,” said his wife, Gwen Terry, in a Facebook post.

The two were married on Valentine’s Day in 1992, and Gwen Terry helped him complete his autobiography, which was 20 years in the writing.

In the introduction to Mr. Terry’s book, David Dempsey, curator of the Clark Terry archives at William Paterson University in New Jersey, said without Mr. Terry, “jazz might have been relegated to the museum by now,” instead of flourishing worldwide.

Funeral services are pending.

Mr. Terry will be buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in Bronx, N.Y., alongside other jazz greats, including Duke Ellington and Miles Davis.


Tonight show band https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3AvImcsbt1U

Satin Doll https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GivaZbLzaoQ


Gloria S. Ross is the head of Okara Communications and AfterWords, an obituary-writing and design service.