Clark Terry’s 90th Birthday
December 14, 2010 is Clark Terry’s 90th Birthday. For those for whom the name rings only a distant bell, trumpeter Clark Terry has been one of the most respected and renowned players of the past 60 or 70 years, having served long apprenticeships in both the Ellington and Basie bands, and led many versions of his own band, resulting in countless recordings.
Two of those recordings were with Swing Fever. Both were studio recordings done in San Francisco, and came at the culmination of numerous concert dates touring around California. (Both are available – just ask us.)
Our first meeting with Clark, grew out of our determination to honor Pee Wee Claybrook, the fine saxophonist who played with Swing Fever for many years, but had never recorded. He and Clark had known each other since the early says of WWII. Clark loved the idea of joining us on a CD. It turned out to be just in time, as Pee Wee died shortly afterward.
Knowing Clark has been one of my great personal thrills in my 32 years of Swing Fever. One indelible memory is driving Clark over the Sierra and through Feather River Canyon – the shortest route between two concert gigs – while we played a tape of Duke Ellington’s Bal Masque concert. Clark had been part of that concert, and his running commentary on the performance should have become a CD by itself. One thing that stood out is Clark’s delight with Billy Strayhorn’s arrangements for that performance.
Among Clark’s virtues is his effervescent humor. In the be-bop era it was considered taboo by the serious frowners (Miles, etc.) to display humor onstage or in the music. Dizzy Gillespie, for one, attracted criticism for his clowning, but got away with it because he was Diz. The same can be said of Clark, who followed humor-wise, in the tradition of Armstrong and Fats Waller, at the same time as his music hued closer to Charlie Parker. It’s a playfulness, scarcely diminished by numerous physical ailments as Clark has aged.
Another memory grew out of our first recording where, due to Clark’s failing eyesight, I had the trumpet parts blown up to double size. However, the printer had mistaken my instructions, and expanded the parts to a factor not of two, but of four. Having no time to correct the error, we arrived at the Mobius recording studio, and presented Clark with trumpet parts on huge posters. Some artists of Clark’s renown might have taken this as a colossal insult, but Clark laughed about it then, and hasn’t stopped yet.
I will include the recollection tomorrow in my telephone birthday greeting. If it doesn’t elicit at least a chuckle, I’ll know I have the wrong number.
Here’s a reflection for us: Dave Brubeck, who just celebrated his 90th, and Clark Terry were born just days apart. What a contrast in backgrounds – hardscrabble in St. Louis, horse ranch in California – and in their contributions to American music. My only encounter with Brubeck was the one I recounted on the previous entry (though treated to numerous Dave and Paul stories by Joe Dodge, Brubeck’s early drummer and ours) but I grew to know Clark quite well during tours and recordings, and later a visit to his and Gwen’s home in New Jersey.
And then just a very few years ago, my wife Laurie and I met them in Manhattan for dinner at the Jazz Standard, where Frank Foster’s Big Band was playing. Frank was then recovering from a stroke, and was unable to manage his saxophone, but yanked out a trumpet, which he could operate with his good hand, and lured Clark to the stage for a trumpet duet. The place was full of musicians. The great thrill for Laurie and me, besides the music, was sitting with Clark as musicians crept over by ones and twos and threes to pay tribute, reminisce and chat. The camaraderie among those players, mostly younger, mostly black, seemed tremendous. It felt like community.