Clark Terry – Obituary

Jazz trumpeter Clark Terry remembered – by Kevin G. Davy


The passing of the great jazz trumpeter Clark Terry marks the end of an era. He lived to the age of 94, and is perhaps the most recorded trumpeter in jazz history, having performed and recorded with all the jazz greats since before WWII. He was indeed the last major jazz figure of his generation.

Much has already been said about the stature of the man, as a leader, an artist, a consummate professional and master musician. Fellow trumpeters like myself, have followed jazz, and looked into the significance of the music and its African-American roots, and find a figure like Clark Terry, a benevolent and reassuring father-figure, who we have read, by all accounts, mentored other great musicians, including arguably the greatest jazz visionary of all, Miles Davis, both men coming from St Louis, Missouri, with Clark Terry being Miles Davis’ senior. His constancy over the decades and his discipline must have been so strong, and which he must have tried to instil in others, and also set such a high example.

His career spanned the various golden eras of jazz history, having worked with the greatest of jazz figures, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Billy Holiday, and many more.

Clearly also Clark Terry’s force of personality and ebullient, irrepressibly positive attitude, acted to elevate and inspire the musicians around him. He did work during the years of segregation pre-civil rights legislation in America, and along with his contemporary black musicians, suffered many indignities. These obstacles strengthened their resolve to continue the work. In his life he will have seen incredible changes.

It is well-documented that he was one of the first trumpet virtuosos, with a flawless technique in the execution of trumpet playing. Also it is known that he was one of the musicians known for “wood-shedding”, which was the term used to describe, long hours of diligent practice on a musical instrument. By his own account, he studied seriously from étude books, and was thorough on the technical, theoretical, and harmonic aspects, sight-reading, and the art of improvisation.

From a trumpet standpoint, he had everything. A wide variety of articulations in the tonguing techniques, in particular, legato and “doodle-tonguing”, which is a highly developed legato tonguing used within swing and improvisation. He was a master and pioneer of this technique.

Like Miles Davis after him, he had a great embouchure, which is the formation of the lips or “chops” and how they apply to the trumpet mouthpiece. Again on observation, he was flawless. It has to be emphasised that these elements were products of hard work. The “shedding”, and also the environment he was in, at the time. He was also able to play the trumpet equally well with either hand. He was ambidextrous. So in the end, he made it look easy. But we trumpeters know that it isn’t easy at all.

Clark Terry admitted that he enjoyed practicing and studying and was genuinely curious, and also keen to pass on that knowledge. So he was heavily involved in jazz education, conducting master classes, and music clinics around the world, managing to combine discipline with a good-humoured approach. Like Louis Armstrong, Clark Terry had a brilliant singing voice, and a distinctive tone and scat singing technique, working with contemporaries, such as Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald.

So these are just a short few notes on the great Clark Terry. He was gentleman, an exemplar, to his African-American community, and his music transcended his own community as Jazz music gained respect around the world, and emerged as a force. He broke boundaries with working in television, and commercial music as well, and broke the colour bar in that regard, thus paving the way for others to follow.

I’ve just spent some time listening to Clark Terry with alto saxophonist Donald Harrison and co., at the 2002 St Lucia Jazz festival. Incredibly, Clark Terry is over 80 years old in this concert, and his trumpet chops are as strong as ever. It is a brilliant gig, and shows him at the top of his game. His influence will continue.

Clark Terry – 14 December 1920 – 21 February 2015

Kevin G. Davy

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