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Clark Terry: ‘Mumbles’ Makes Time for Mentoring

Jazzed Magazine • July 2011Spotlight • July 26, 2011

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A legend for generations, Clark Terry has spent countless hours with every willing student, translating a lifetime’s worth of experience into an invaluable resource for young jazz musicians everywhere.

The legend of the upstart jazz master takes many forms and carries with it a tempting mystique. Whether born out of Kansas City farmhouse or a tenement in New York City, jazz fans often like to imagine future jazz greats emerging fully formed, armed with nothing but their own scrappy intuition. Think of the dissonant harmonies of Thelonious Monk, the energy of Charles Mingus, and the nonchalance of Stan Getz.

But none of these pioneers did it all on their own. Every master comes from a rich tradition of mentors and educators, and horn legend Clark Terry embodies that perhaps more than anyone today. A superstar performer by every measure from the end of the Swing Era to today, Terry’s story is one of both a devoted pupil and a proud teacher. It’s the story of an immensely talented kid who grew up looking for all the help he could get, and the story of a seasoned pro who’s offered all the help he could give. In many ways, he’s changed the institution of jazz education, creating new standards for a performer’s generous relationship with students of all types, and a healthy respect for the place of a thorough education in the evolution of jazz.

Terry was a trumpet and flugelhorn veteran of Duke Ellington and Count Basie’s bands by the time he became the first African-American staff musician at NBC, joining Doc Severinsen’s Tonight Show band in 1960. There, he scored the hit “Mumbles” and grew to be a beloved member of the band. His discography is enormous, spanning over 900 known recording sessions, and he’s garnered pages of awards from around the world including the Grammy Lifetime Achievement and the NEA Jazz Master awards.

Throughout, Terry fostered a strong relationship with an endless string of students, high school programs and university programs, ushering in more than a few notable careers in jazz. He’s set up lasting relationships with college music programs, holding adjunct professorships at schools like the University of New Hampshire and William Patterson University (home to the Clark Terry Archive). He’s otherwise taught classes at schools throughout the world and he’s had several jazz camps named in his honor. A jazz writer in 1971 declared him “The World’s Busiest Jazz Clinician.”

“Emulate, assimilate and innovate” has served as his mantra, and it couldn’t be simpler. Success so often depends on a student finding the right teacher – we’re lucky that Terry has made himself so easy to find.

Terry, who turned 91 this year, has a new autobiography -– Clark (University of California Press) – due for release this fall. He recently spoke with JAZZed about his vast experiences in the world of jazz and education.

You’ve always maintained a strong position as a leader throughout your career in music – what’s made you enjoy helping others organize and educate themselves about music?

I was born in jazz in St. Louis, and have loved jazz all my life. My older sister was married to a tuba player. At Sauter’s Park in St. Louis, I would have to sneak into the park to hear the music because of segregation.

When I wanted to learn about the trumpet at a young age, some of the older musicians told me the wrong answers to my questions intentionally. So, that made me want to help young kids get the right message of the ways and means of playing jazz. In the old times, they thought it was hip to tell you the wrong things. As a little boy I asked an old dude one time about how to getter a better sound in the lower register on my horn. He told me to sit in front of a mirror, up straight, then wiggle my left ear and grit my teeth at the same time while playing.

You were a big hero of East St. Louis native Miles Davis – what do you hear of yourself in his playing and writing?

Miles was a kid when I was a professional. When he became professional, he played his own music, and I played my own music. We had a lot of respect for each other, and we loved each other.

[Elwood] Buchanan was Miles’s high school teacher. He wanted me to come and hear Miles play in East St. Louis, and so I went to hear him. That was our first interaction. Another time I was hired to play in Jerry Lynch’s band for a celebration in Carbondale, Ill. A lot of pretty girls were there, you know, dancing around a maypole. So, I’m watching these foxy ladies, and Miles comes up to me and asks me a question about the trumpet. Now, all of my attention is on playing and watching the pretty girls, so I fluffed him off. I don’t remember what I told him – it might have been something nasty.

The third time we interacted was at the Elks Club. It was a walk-up-club – stairs, you know – and they were featuring “Eddie Randall and the Blue Devils.” Before I could get up the stairs, I was digging the trumpet. Later on when they finished the set, I went up to the trumpet player to congratulate him. I didn’t know that it was Miles. Didn’t remember him. Well, he reminded me of that time in Carbondale when I had been too busy checking out the ladies to answer his question.

That’s when I promised myself to always take time for students. No matter what’s going on. We became great friends, Miles and I, and we mutually admired each other. I liked the way that he had his own ideas about things, practiced a lot, and pursued his ideas. He was innovative, and I liked his beautiful sound. Miles had the whole idea about how a trumpet should sound and he made it go that way.

Before Miles passed away, we were in different hospitals at the same time. That was back in ‘91. He couldn’t talk, you know, so they would put the phone up to his ear when I called. They told me that he smiled at what I said. We were very close. I tried to cheer him up, encourage him to hang on, and things like that. Man, when they told me that he was gone, it really broke my heart.

What do you remember about your earliest teaching experiences?

I was at the Palomar Theater with Count Basie in Seattle, Wash. Quincy used to come by the club every night. He’d come up to my room in the morning at five or six o’clock. He was persistent, eager and sincere. It made me feel real good because he wanted to learn from me.

And then years later, there’s a story about you nearly missing a gig at the Kennedy Center because you had gotten so wrapped up in a lesson.

About 10 or 15 years ago I was supposed to be performing at a Kennedy Center concert. When it came time to perform, they couldn’t find me anywhere. They only found me because they heard my horn in a stairwell that led to a basement. That’s where I was teaching a student who wanted to learn trumpet. I had gotten so involved with the lesson that I had forgotten about going on stage.

Was there any moment in particular you can think of when it became clear that you wanted to devote so much of your life to helping students of music?

Some of The Tonight Show staff asked us to go to schools and talk to the kids about jazz. I went to high school, elementary and junior high schools. I felt good talking to the kids – the way they would respond to me and try hard. Instead of teaching one, I could teach 20 or 30 at a time.

Has your approach toward students changed much since when you first started teaching and donation programs?

I always insist that if they really want to do it, then they really have to practice. And they really have to practice more than other people in order to play better. It’s like putting money in a bank. You can only get out what you put in, and if you put enough in there, you can even get more with increased dividends.

How do you think you would approach music today if you were growing up all over again? Would you be drawn straight to jazz? Anything else you think you might try out?

I’d more or less be in the same thing. If you’re a kid, you’ve got to be a good listener. Pay your respects and learn from the people first-hand. Look at the television and go to as many concerts as you can. Jazz should be taught in the schools in order for the students to learn it. I’d probably teach the students to learn their instruments and learn to apply it to jazz.

My neighborhood and school influenced me. Today you can learn about jazz through [mp3s], YouTube, and internet services like Spotify and Pandora. We’re looking into Skype now to see how we can teach jazz more effectively in the schools. And I love my iPod. I’m never without it.

Are there particular methods and techniques that you’ve always found enjoyable and essential to pass on to students?

When my brother-in-law, Sy, played the bass tuba horn, he showed me how I could semi-suppress the valves and not let them come all the way up or all the way down in order to get a different sound with the notes. This was right above or below the notes. He showed me how to flip the notes by letting the valves come quickly and how to bend the notes. This is fun and exciting to a young kid.

I would teach circular breathing where you breathe both out and in at the same time. I’d also teach doodle-tonguing versus tonguing the traditional way. You can play faster notes just by using your tongue in different ways. It’s much more effective.

Students need to learn to play a passage forward or backward, if it’s a difficult one. Start slowly at first, then gradually increase your speed until you can play it flawlessly. Students have to learn to use their ears to play in all 13 keys.

What kind of ties do you maintain with St. Louis?

I left St. Louis to join various bands – Charlie Barnet, Basie, and Duke. It’s my hometown, and I love going back to St. Louis to perform. I don’t play much anymore, but I can still sing. I sang “Mumbles” recently at the Greater St. Louis Jazz Festival, and I enjoyed working with the students in the band.

I enjoyed going to the Griot Museum to see the collection of my memorabilia. That life-sized wax figure of me is a gas! I also like to see my star on the Walk of Fame at Blueberry Hill. Last time, it was too chilly to go by and see it. No matter where your hometown is, the main thing to remember is that if you want to learn, you have to be willing to put in the time to practice, practice, practice.

Who were some of your most important mentors when you first started learning to play?

St. Louis was a jazz town. A whole lot of jazz came through there – riverboats came through there and celebrities and lots of folks played it on radios and graphophones (those were before gramophones, you know). So it was all around my neighborhood, and I heard it every day.

My brother-in-law was my oldest sister’s husband. He played jazz bass lines with a tuba. They didn’t have a bass fiddle in their band, just Sy’s tuba (Boom, boompady, boom, BOOM) and things like that. Sy was in Dewey’s band – Dewey Jackson and His Musical Ambassadors. It was a very popular jazz band in St. Louis. I liked going to their rehearsals, and listening to them play around town when I was young.

George Hudson was the leader of a great band. He had a real good band, a popular band. Everybody wanted George’s band to back them up at the Club Plantation because his musicians played the music so well. They took it to heart. Took the charts home with them to make sure they played it right. I was a member of his band, and I especially liked the fact that he listened to our ideas. I could say, “Let’s try it this way or that way,” and he would allow things like that. He allowed me to speak my opinions on how a passage should be played. You know, fifteen people would play it fifteen different ways, but if I had an idea and I said, “Make this note quicker, or make this note louder, or make this note shorter,” he’d try it. In other words, he would let me “stylize” the band. So I felt respected. George was a great cat.

Anyone else from early on?

Another experience was when I was in Len Bowden’s band. He was a little older than the rest of us and his music was a little different than what we had been playing, and I learned about different styles. Later on, he was head of the music scene at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station. We used to play for the new guys at happy hour, played in some parades, and then occasionally we did some radio broadcasts. Then there were the Black Brothers, but I can’t remember their first names right now. Harold “Shorty” Baker was a well-known and respected trumpet player in Duke Ellington’s band. Not only was he a great soloist and leader, but he was also an excellent trumpet player with marvelous articulation.

When I was around sixteen, I was a member of the Tom Powell Post #77 Drum and Bugle Corps. Doug Cloud and Pop Owens were the leaders of the corps, and I learned a lot while I was a member. Of course, with a bugle, you know, there are no valve tips, so when I played bugle calls – things like: [Clark mimics playing “Reveille”]. I learned a lot about my embouchure. I learned a lot about articulation, single, double, and triple tonguing on that bugle. And I learned about buzzing, which is tucking your lips inside and then blowing through a small hole in the center, and making them vibrate while you’re blowing. It’s like when you’re blowing into your mouthpiece, but you just use your lips.

Count Basie and Duke Ellington were great bandleaders to begin with – two of the top band leaders in the world. Basie was more or less known for his swing. I learned a lot about “space and time” in music from Basie. Duke was more “siditty,” you know, more sophisticated. I consider the time while I was with Basie as “Prep School,” and the time when I was with Duke as going to “The School of Ellingtonia.” I learned so much from Duke. They were both dear friends, the greatest musicians, and they had the great musicians playing in their bands.

What do you tell kids to work toward nowadays as jazz musicians?

Perfection, mastering their craft, playing lessons without flaw both fast and slow. Just stand out above all the rest of them, and do it better than all the rest.

I’d love to hear more about one of your earliest gigs – working with the Navy Band during WWII outside of Chicago. How did you end up with so much responsibility early on? Did you perform music with the Navy, or just organize recruits for overseas bands?

Well, when we first worked boot camp with “For Further Transfer” (FFT) in the Navy, we used to have jam sessions all day long. Just about any kind of music you could think of. We would put bands together, then ship them off to other naval bases. We had a marching band, concert band, radio band, orchestra, happy hour band on Sundays, etc..,

We didn’t learn to shoot guns or sail ships. We were there as teachers for the new recruits. We worked at the ground level. We played charts for celebrities that came to the base and for concerts. I had to play charts for some visiting artists -– Duke Ellington, Dorothy Donegan, Cab Calloway, Lionel Hampton, and anyone else who needed a band to back themselves. It was a sensational band, the Navy band.

Growing up with and working with so many musicians, you must know tons of unsung heroes throughout the business – you’ve mentioned the great Charlie Creath before in interviews, for instance, who seemed to lead a generation of St. Louis trumpeters around by the nose. Is there anyone else like that who comes to mind, either from growing up, playing in live bands, or doing recording session work?

There are any number of those people scattered all over the world. Yeah, I guess my students are my unsung heroes: Josh Shpak, Ham Davis, Leon L., Justin Kauflin, Michel Petrucciiani, Stantawn Kendrick. My students have become grown, and I’m now teaching 2nd and 3rd generation students. Now you have teachers like Esperanza Spalding, the youngest staff musician at Berklee.

What’s the most recent musical trick you picked up?

“Shut up and lay out.” In other words, know when to keep quiet.

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