Clark Terry, Part 2

How the eminent Clark Terry and the locally regarded Swing Fever managed, in 1995, to cement a relationship is a story by itself.

Bay Area jazz fans will remember the truly beloved tenor saxophonist Pee Wee Claybrook. Pee Wee had played with the bassist Vernon Alley for eons. He had played with Swing Fever for 10 years. In 1995, Pee Wee was nearly 83. Though it looked as though he and his Big Chu Berry tenor tone would go on forever, to celebrate Pee Wee the time was now.

Clark Terry and Pee Wee, both from St. Louis, had become friends during WWII in the Great Lakes Naval Training Station Band. (For the historically afflicted, a later blog post will attempt to characterize the jazz hot bed of St. Louis, 1942, with Clark and Pee Wee’s roles in it.) The two never played together afterwards, but had kept up their friendship for nearly 60 years, writing letters and occasionally visiting whenever Clark came to San Francisco.

We schemed. What if we could get Clark Terry to come out from New York for a recording? I called Clark, whom I’d never met. It took no convincing. The result, in 1995, was a tour and a live-to-two track studio recording. We called the CD “Reunion.” We hired the late Orin Keepnews as co-producer. Jon English wrote the arrangements and lent sharp ears to the control booth. Orin took the opportunity to chat up Clark about the old days at Riverside. This despite the discomfort Orin was having from a knee replacement, all the more troublesome since doctors had operated on the wrong knee! (Yes boys and girls, these medical mistakes are more than legend.) With the clock running, we tried to short- circuit the palaver to get the recording finished.

Clark’s diabetes was giving him eye troubles. For several years he’d been avoiding appearances and recordings that required him to read trumpet parts. Being a good reader had always been a point of particular pride. That skill had escaped many notable players, but Clark was not one of them. No longer being able to read was a huge frustration, which he expressed numerously through the three recording days.

“I used to be able to read fly shit,” he said.

Somehow we had missed any warning of Clark’s eyesight difficulties. The arrangements were important, nevertheless, and we were loath to abandon them.

In a quixotic moment one of us came up with the notion of blowing up the trumpet parts, doubling their size on paper. Clark thought that might be sufficient! Whatever he couldn’t read, he’d fake. No time to waste. My daughter, Leslie, was given the task of explaining the copying job to Kinkos, but something got lost in translation to the night crew. When the trumpet parts came out next morning they were not double the size, but double again. Opened up they looked like billboards. Clark thought they were the funniest things he’d ever seen. He insisted we snap a photo of him standing next to them.

This proved to be a fortunate mistake. As we played through the numbers, Jon English, the arranger, held up the sheets like giant cue cards, putting down page one as he held up page two, and so on, as Clark chuckled between phrases. But even with billboarded eighth notes and darkened-in figures, sometimes the glare off the page troubled his perception. There were occasional moments of hesitation as Clark tried to fox his way through tough sections, but his solutions for climbing out of trouble, as usual, were as fascinating as what was written on the page. Whenever I listen to those recordings now – his duets with saxophonist Howie Dudune on “Isfahan” and “Come Sunday” are especially delicious – I picture Jon holding up the cue cards and Clark snowshoeing his way through. I saved the arrangements. I expect to be getting calls from the Smithsonian.

As for Clark and Pee Wee, It was a frolic, musically and personally. Maybe for them it was 1942 again. They turned “There Is No Greater Love” into a monument.

Timing, as it turned out, was everything, as Pee Wee died shortly afterwards.


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