Thinking of Clark Terry, one of the least consequential of memories, and yet one of the dearest, keeps creeping back. One of our concert tours with Clark stretched us across the Sierra from North Tahoe to Chico, where we were due for a concert that night at the University. I was driving with Clark and his nephew, Terrance White, who in 1995 travelled as part of the Clark Terry package.
Highway 89 is a beautiful forested stretch of winding road, nearly bare of traffic, but rich with tall Douglas fir and cedars, dropping down through Quincy, where it joins Highway 70, and meanders through Feather River Canyon.
It’s a route I know well, but a very different sort of environment for Clark, who politely wondered from time to time just where the hell I was taking him.
Through most of the trip I was playing a tape that Dean Reilly had made for me. It was Ellington’s Bal Masque concert from Duke’s Billy Strayhorn years. Clark had been a part of the Ellington Band then. Quite often you never knew whether the Ellington arrangements were actually by Duke or Strayhorn. Clark said the Bal Masque was Strayhorn top to bottom. The music was not the familiar Ellington, but ancient pop tunes like “Laugh Clown Laugh,” “Poor Butterfly,” stuff you never heard, served with Billy’s special reverence. As we wound through this landscape of fir and cedar, Clark revisited his own beloved landscape, tune by tune, peppered with Duke and Billy stories.
Clark had played with Basie as well as Ellington. He talked about travelling in their different buses. The Basie bus was clean and orderly, sixteen or seventeen well bathed guys happily chatting or playing cards. Ellington’s bus, he said, had socks hanging in the windows, shoes kicking around the aisles, a pervasive human smell, and at any one time eight or nine guys who weren’t speaking to one another. Above and apart from it all, Duke would be napping next to the driver
It was on the Ellington bus that Clark found himself enmeshed in one of the two lethal fights he said he experienced; in this case trying to physically restrain the enflamed Juanito (valve trombonist Juan Tizol) from burying his familiar shiv into a fellow band member. “That was the second time,” Clark said. There was an even more famous incident on the bandstand between Juanito and Charles Mingus, with Clark again as embattled referee.
Clark said the Ellington band had a thief. When the band would stop for a meal, or a bathroom break, everyone would leave the bus except this one player. “Don’t you want to get out man, take a breather?” “No, man, I think I’ll just stay back and rest a bit.” Band guys began to discover things missing from their personal bags. After a while they figured out who the culprit was; when one of them spotted him stealing half dozen silk handkerchiefs from the bag of Duke himself. A posse formed, confronted the thief, and returned the handkerchiefs without Duke ever knowing the theft had occurred. That stopped the thefts, Clark said, “for a while.”
That high-note specialist remained in the band for years. “Fired?” Clark said, “The old man never fired anyone. May have eased them out here and there, but fired – that wasn’t Duke.”
Clark’s Sylvan ride with me through Feather River Canyon had a rude interruption when he had a diabetic episode. It was necessary to get some food into him and quickly. We were miles from anything that looked like a grocery or café. This was 1995. Clark’s diabetes had already been an issue. His forgetfulness about eating, and sometimes poor nutritional choices when he did eat, was one of the big reasons that his nephew Terrance was sent along from New York for company.
It was touch and go for 40 miles. Eventually as we climbed out of the canyon, a grocery, like a mirage, appeared out of nowhere. Nothing around it but trees. Food bought, food ingested, crisis averted.
Fully himself, Clark and Swing Fever played that night at the Laxen Auditorium in Chico.
So now whenever I put on the Bal Masque tape my mind wanders. I’m in the car with Clark again, winding through Feather River Canyon with the Ellington band and Billy Strayhorn.
There’s more coming