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"I've always been a firm believer that whatever type of person you are, that's the kind of music you're gonna' produce."

An interview with Clark Terry

By Rachel Freiman

In a time where countless up-and-coming young jazz musicians are constantly critiqued for the lack of substance beyond technical prowess in their playing, Clark Terry, one of the most unique and personal voices in jazz, offers a refreshing outlook on what is missing in the passing on of this musical tradition. With a resume that reads like a jazz history textbook, he has, to name only a few moments of his career, been a member of both the Count Basie and Duke Ellington bands, led a group with Bob Brookmeyer, recorded a timeless album with Oscar Peterson, and popularized the flugelhorn as a legitimate instrument on the jazz scene. While a life such as this would be fulfilling to any jazz enthusiast, Terry continues his musical endeavors as an active participant in jazz education. His passion to pass on this music is unsurpassed and his overall love of this music can be heard in every note he plays.

FREIMAN: I thought we'd start off talking about some of the recordings that you've done. One of my favorites is your duet with Red Mitchell, Jive at Five. Whose idea was it to do a bass/trumpet duet album?

TERRY: Well, Red and I were always good buddies and he used to like to keep in touch with the recording companies and he'd always had a big hookup in his home, you know? So, we did a couple of things at his home and then we played a few gigs as a result of the record we did at his home, and we were offered a couple of gigs. So we enjoyed doing the duo thing together �cause sometimes he would play piano and sometimes, most of the time, the bass. So, I always had great respect for him and he…I love the way he plays and, well, I guess you might say we have ourselves a mutual admiration.

FREIMAN: And what about your work with the Oscar Peterson trio? Your style and Oscar's are both so rooted in the blues that the two of you seem like a perfect fit.

TERRY: Yeah, well we did uh…a couple years ago now…we had finished the date completely with all the music, and there was a lot of time left because, you know, when you record with Oscar you do it in, and, uh, they always say, you do it down and get �em rollin', �cause he doesn't like to rehash things, you know. So, uh, we had finished the date completely and, uh, I said, "Well since we have all this time I'd like to do a little fun thing just to have at my home for laughs." So he says, "OK, what is it?" So I said, "I'd like to play, uh, sing some blues, and I'd like to sing it like a lot of the old timers used to sound when they were singin' the blues in my hometown in St. Louis. There were several places…bars, or whatever you want to call them, uh, which housed a piano which was strictly laminated to withstand the weight of several stands of beer. So, if you bought the piano player a beer, which was part of his salary, then he'd play for you to sing, no matter how horrible you might have sounded. To uh…that's why, uh…you might decide you want to sing about your breakfast say (singing) "Oh eggs!…" after the first little, uh, grammar was spoken, all the rest was totally unintelligible and kind of ignorant-like. So, uh, but it didn't matter because the food…I mean the foot pattin', the sawdust on the floor was bouncin', fingers poppin' and as Ellington would say, "The earlobe jilting", explained that all the fun and merriment that was exuding from the room was there and that was all that mattered. What you…how you sing about whatever you were singin' about didn't matter at all. So that was my put on of the old blues singers. So I…I started it and Oscar, after about two to three minutes, Oscar was layin' on the floor. So he said, "Wait a minute. We'll put this in the album." I go, "Well this won't have anything to do there." He said, "We'll put it in the album." I said, "Well, I got a slow version, too." He said, "We'll put that in too." That was the incoherent…that was Mumbles, the incoherent blues.

FREIMAN: Recorded on the Oscar Peterson Trio Plus One. That's one of my favorite albums you've done because of that similarity in your and Oscar's style.

TERRY: Oh, thank you. OP's one of my favorite people and of course my favorite pianist. His daughter's my godchild, you know?

FREIMAN: Oh really? I didn't know that…that's really nice. I had the privilege of seeing him perform here in Detroit about a month ago.

TERRY: Oh, you saw him?

FREIMAN: Yeah, yeah, he was here with his group about a month ago or so. It was great. It's a little sad because of his stroke, but his right hand is still all over the place.

TERRY: Yeah. Barry Harris sent him an email that said: "Now that you're handicapped, uh, you're almost as normal a piano player as the rest of us."

FREIMAN: Yeah, right. It gives everyone else a chance to catch up, right?

I wanted to talk a little bit about jobs that you've done, bands that you've played with. You often describe your time with the Ellington band as the time when you "attended the University of Ellingtonia…"

TERRY: That's right.

FREIMAN: And the period with the Count Basie band was your "prep school in preparation for enrollment at the University of Ellington." What exactly was Basie preparing you for, and how did it prepare you?

TERRY: Well, Basie was the king of, uh, tempo and utilization of space and time. We teach a lot of kids this in their playing, you know, to learn how to use space, and if you've got a good rhythm section, you use it. So you might just say (singing), "Bamp" and let the rhythm section go, "Bam-ba-lo-ba-boo-bamp" and use, use all that space. And after, you know, having been around Basie for so long, you know, he knew so much about tempos and so forth, uh, so it was just instilled in you, you know. One of the things that explains about how endowed he was about things of that sort, uh, one of the arrangers, Neil Hefti, brought in an arrangement one time and he passed it out and the band played it, and, uh, Basie, he looked at Basie and he said, "What do you think chief?" And Basie shook his head negatively. He said, "What's wrong with it? You don't like the arrangement?" Basie says, "Its OK." He says, "Well, what's the problem?" He says, "Tempo." So the tempo, incidentally, was like this (singing and clapping fast tempo). Can you hear that tempo?


TERRY: So Basie says, "Wrong tempo." So he says, "What do you think it should be?" He says right here (sings and claps much slower tempo). Do you know what the tune was?

FREIMAN: What's that?

TERRY: (Singing)

FREIMAN: Li'l Darlin'.

TERRY: When Neil brought it in it was (singing Little Darlin' at much faster tempo).

FREIMAN: And Basie just made it about ten times harder to play.

TERRY: That's right. Then, of course, graduating up to the University of Ellingtonia. Ellington was far more endowed with, you know, theory and harmony and counterpoint, etc., than Basie was. Basie just had the other way, but Duke had the book knowledge, the learning. And, of course, he was the type of, uh, elegant person who would…could be and was at home with, uh, heads of states, kings, queens, and…he could be at home with them and still be elegant. And, uh, just from having been in that band and been around Ellington for so many years, uh, so many things just rubbed off on you that you wouldn't even be aware of until the time came when you needed �em. And when I became a bandleader, many times I would question, "What should I do here?" and I'd push a button and the answer would come from Ellington. Uh, a ways and means of establishing a rapport between audiences and the bandstand, you know, choosing material, figuring…deciding on tempos, and deciding on what kind of audiences you're going to be playing for. So, all these things come natural to you when you've been around Ellington for a while.

FREIMAN: And what about your work with Bob Brookmeyer? I've heard you portray great admiration for him, and in the same breath you're quick to mention that you both played unusual instruments at the time, him the valve trombone, you the flugelhorn. Did this admiration stem from this shared unique quality in terms of instrument choice?

TERRY: Yeah, well, my first instrument in school was the---they didn't have any trumpets, so the teachers told me, "Here, take this thing. Its bigger than that---than the trumpet---it's louder and you can make more noise with it and it has the same fingerings, so take it and get the hell out of here." I took the valve trombone but I never really wanted to play it, I wanted to play the trumpet. So I stuck with that until I got---something became available in the next class, you know, at graduation. So, when Brookmeyer and I got together we were really a team of, uh, admiration society, you know, and I loved the way he plays and he loved the way I played, so we put together a group but, uh, the Half Note downtown and here in New York and, uh, we made a few albums and I still think a couple of the swingingest albums out there.

FREIMAN: I would agree. Tell me about your background in playing. You've mentioned the profound effect that Louis Armstrong had on your playing and also Lester Young, which I thought was interesting…

TERRY: Yeah, I used to love the way Prez played…a lot of the things that we try to teach kids today, uh, uh, moans and, uh, flips and, uh, and sort of the literature that we've had to come to on our own because you can't always use, uh, uh, you know, the Italian dictionary of music like we use in legitimate music. Largo, and uh, you know, uh, andante and, uh, you know, all the terminology that we use and you won't dare say to a person on the bandstand, "Lets play some largo blues." A lot of terminology really definitely explains what type, what tempo and so forth of the blues you're gonna' get involved in. So, uh, this was, uh…the one thing we try to teach the kids how to do. And Prez was one of the people who originated a lot of these things like (demonstrates tonguing techniques), and they're a very, very important ingredient in the colorations of sound in jazz. So, uh, that's why I, uh, that's why I love Prez so much.

FREIMAN: And then from Louis Armstrong you learned phrasing and things of that sort?

TERRY: Yeah, well Louis Armstrong was the king, and I used to…I still tell students many times, uh, sometimes they have a tendency to…the super hip ones, you know…have a tendency to think of music that was original, as old time stuff, and they prefer the newer stuff. So I tell them, I say, "OK, Louis Armstrong was one of the people who knew nothing about theory, harmony, and counterpoint, any of that sort but if you listen to any of his records and you find me one on which he played a wrong note, I'll pay you a hundred dollars."

I haven't paid one yet.

FREIMAN: It's like that old saying that no one's ever played anything that Louis Armstrong didn't play first.

TERRY: That's right. Johnny Hodges used to always say, whenever somebody thinks he's playing something new, he'd say, " Well that ain't new, that's been in the kitchen for years." It came out of the kitchen.

FREIMAN: It's a humbling thought.

TERRY: Yeah. And it's true.

FREIMAN: In books that I've read, your playing is often described as uncategorizable. I have a quote that says, "During his eight years with Ellington, Terry developed from a Dizzy-influenced bebopper into an uncatagorizable soloist with his own distinctive sound." (Trumpet Kings, Scott Yanow) What do you think, as far as what practice techniques you used growing up, or who you were listening to, was responsible for your development of such a personal voice?

TERRY: Well, uh, so often critics have a way of, uh…their version of what happened and what's going on. But, uh, Dizzy and I were pretty close to the same age and we were pretty much into our own thing. Of course, when Bird came along and created this new approach and Dizzy of course was his, uh, sidekick, all of the music kind of went in that direction, you know. So if you rebelled, you'd be left standing on the corner by yourself. But, uh, I've always been a firm believer that whatever type of person you are, that's the kind of music you're gonna' produce. You find, uh, hardball, aggressive, uh…people, they play like that. People who are endowed with a little bit of humor, they play with a little bit of humor. People who are very legitimately strict, they play a little bit that way. I once heard a guy refer to one of the jazz players as a person who reminded him of a queer person straightening up his dresser.

FREIMAN: That's a new thought. During your development, you used to practice with a piece of felt over your horn and practice out of clarinet books?

TERRY: Yeah, I used to love to play…the trumpet books didn't have interesting little moving enough lines so I found the clarinet books you could always play (sings moving eighth note line), and I used to love the sound of, uh…in order to muffle the sound a little bit to keep it from being too loud. A lot of times I would practice in the Navy in the shower and a lot of times…sometimes in the areas where people were holding conversations, but they wouldn't mind because I'd muffle it with a little felt or take an old hat and put a slit in the middle and hang it over the bell of the horn, it kind of mellowed it a little bit. And I think I got this idea from the fact that years ago in the Jimmie Lunceford band, all the people, uh, all the trumpet players used to play flugelhorns. And so at first I'm thinking this was the basic sound I had in mind all the time so I reached back and when I got with the Selmer company, I had Keith Eckerd to, uh, put together some, uh, pieces of tubing that he had around and we actually put together the first flugelhorn that Selmer produced. I sent it back and they put it together technically and gold plated it and sent it back to me. That was in 1957 in November and we were doing a date with Billy Taylor in Chicago and Billy was using the old Ellington band, except Ellington, and, uh, that's how it came about. I took it on the date, he said, "Why don't you play it on the date?" I said, "I intend to." Of course, that night we were working at the Blue Note with Ellington. So I took it to work that night and whipped it out and played a little bit and Duke said, "Let's keep that in."

FREIMAN: Then he wrote �Juniflip on the Flugelhorn', his first piece for you.

TERRY: That's right, �Juniflip on the Flugelhorn', right.

FREIMAN: Speaking of Selmer, you recorded an album, It's What's Happenin', and on it you used an electric trumpet which Selmer made for you.

TERRY: Yeah, I used the…

FREIMAN: And you regret doing that…you thought of it as a gimmick?

TERRY: Yeah, I never…I never thought it was…it was a good thing because any kid can stick the plug in before he even realized he did not find the center of his tone, he had no individuality there, so everything sounds electric.

FREIMAN: Is that your view on all electronic music? Do you see it as a gimmick?

TERRY: Not necessarily all of it but, uh, brass instruments, trumpet in particular, it gets a little… out of hand, you know, no individuality there, it's just the (makes buzzing noise), just like any other electrical sound. You push a button, you know.

FREIMAN: How do you feel about modern jazz and its use of electronics? Do you feel it's a positive step or a negative one?

TERRY: Well, I feel that everybody's entitled to whatever they want to give a whirl at. I think there's a place for everything. I remember even years ago they used to, in the dance halls, they used to turn on the little ball in the center of the floor with the reflectors on it, the rotating ball, they used to call it the waltz ball, it was time to waltz. And when they turned off the waltz ball, there was no more waltzing. So you can't have the same thing going on all the time anyhow, so its nice to have different categories and different areas to get into.

FREIMAN: How about as far as education? You're pretty active on the jazz education in schools scene right now. I always joke around with Mel Wanzo and I tell him that I think I was born at the wrong time because he tells me stories about back in the day when there were jam sessions constantly…

TERRY: Oh yes.

FREIMAN: Do you think that the lack of this environment of jam sessions and learning on the job, is affecting the music that's being produced from the younger musicians today?

TERRY: Well, I think it's just one of the things that's gravely missing in the younger musicians today is they don't learn to use their individuality, uh, to really get involved in giving in to their feelings, you know. Everything is more or less technical, you know. In the old days when the old timers got involved, they knew nothing about theory, or harmony, or counterpart, but they knew how to listen to…they used their ears a lot. They used to play the melody, and the melody thereafter they uh… how the term…improvisation was before this was born…used to call it "get off" which simply means you play the melody the first time, the second time you extempoariously move away from the melody, using the melody as a guideline, so you "get off" the melody. It was called "get off". Yeah.

FREIMAN: And it seems students today are just the opposite, it's all theory and harmony and not enough just opening up your ears and listening.

TERRY: Absolutely. Yeah.

FREIMAN: As far as the schools themselves go, what do you see as being the most critical aspect that's being left out in jazz education?

TERRY: Getting the people to use their ears, to listen, to give in to their feeling, what we were just speaking about. I think there's so many… well, one of the problems is that, a young person goes to school, he graduates, he's involved in music. He wants to teach. He gets a degree. He gets another degree. And by this time he's married, he's got…he's got a family. He's got to support that family, so he gets a job teaching. He's never been on the road, he's never gotten that old road hump in his back, he doesn't know about the hardships of the road, the rigors of traveling, etc. He doesn't know how to create and give in to his feelings and make ends meet. He's in college teaching kids that are in high school, teaching kids how to do what he never did do. But he learned how to teach it. So that's one of the things, that uh, you got teachers who can…can explain to a student the square root of a Bb chord but he can't play a blues chorus. That's one of the problems.

FREIMAN: What was it like for you growing up in terms of how you learned? Did you transcribe all the solos you heard Louie Armstrong play?

TERRY: Yeah, we had a system that I still go by that'll…imitation, assimilation, and then innovation. Then you wish them to copy in order to find out what it was all about. Then the second point you say, "I wonder why he made a right turn there, I thought he was gonna' make a left turn." Then you're using your imagination. So the approach is very good today. We used to have to learn by asking questions, the old timers, you know, all the guys who had been established before, and one of the hazardous things was they used to think that the younger people were become…gonna' become a threat to their livelihood and security, you know. They'd tell you the wrong answer. This old timer told me once, I asked him how to improve my tone in the lower register, he said, "Oh son, you got a mirror at home?" I said, "Yes sir." He said, "Well, you sit in that chair, you sit back in the chair with your feet flat on the floor?" I said. "Yes sir." "Now that sounds great. And do you leave your arms at the point where you don't hamper your air column?" I said, "Ooh that's sounds great." "Sit back and you hold your embouchure in the proper fashion." And all this sounded good. He said, "And while you're lookin' in that mirror you grit your teeth and wiggle your left ear. Not the right ear! The left ear!" All that, of course, was garbage to throw you all off. Then they'd go home and get on the phone and say, "Well, I'm gonna' ruin another one of them whipper-snappers."

FREIMAN: Yeah right, one less to worry about.

TERRY: Yeah.

FREIMAN: Well, even though young people today don't have the scene you did, it does seem that people of your stature who have been through all this are very willing to share their experiences in order to keep the music alive. Back then, that was the heyday of the music when the thought wasn't really there as much that we need to keep this music going, because it was the popular music. Now that threat is here that this could die out, so it seems more urgent that it's passed on.

TERRY: It is urgent. This is a critical situation. Another thing is that they're trying to change the history a bit too, if you know what I mean.

FREIMAN: They're trying to change the history?

TERRY: Change the history, yeah. Rewriting the history books. For instance, you might find, as far as the heritage is concerned, you'll find some people who are teaching maybe that Bix Biederbeck taught Louis Armstrong how to play. Things of that sort, you know. And there's a lot of untruths that are being told. Which are concocted on spur of the moments for political reasons, you know. Racial reasons, you know. We don't have to discuss that, but you know what I'm talking about.

FREIMAN: Well, that leads me to my last question, do we have any hope of you putting out an autobiography?

TERRY: Oh, I got it almost finished. Yeah, As a matter of fact January fourth to the tenth or the fourteenth, whatever it is, uh we've blocked out the whole period because we've been working on this book for ten years. I had four other people who were doing it and…lets see, two…three of them passed away and one of them had the bright idea that he was going to do a bio instead of an autobio. And he wanted to write it his way, and, uh, that was Dempsey Travis in Chicago. He's written a lot of good jazz books. But when he found out that I was not gonna' give him all this information for a bio, I said you could do a bio on your own. Anybody could write what they want about anybody else if they want. But if its gonna' be my story, let it be my story, so we fell out. So my wife just took it over. And, uh, we've been working on it for ten years.

FREIMAN: And it's coming out in January?

TERRY: We got it almost…we got four hundred and fifty something pages. So we just need to tie up the ends. She just got to…well I know she's gonna' have to shorten it up and put…tie up the ends from when I come out of the Tonight Show and into, to other scenes, you know. And when I got into the jazz education scene. But all the other stuff is there. It's all in there.

FREIMAN: Can you tell me the name of it or is that being held under wraps?

TERRY: Well, nobody knows yet. We've been kickin around all sorts of names.

FREIMAN: Great, well sign me up, I'll be the first in line to buy one.

TERRY: Oh OK. I got to warn you, its gonna' be a little provocative.

FREIMAN: Uh oh. That's OK. If I could make it through Miles' autobiography, I think I can take it.

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