KEEP ON KEEPIN' ON - THE REMARKABLE CLARK TERRY STORY

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I was at school with MARC CHARIG, trumpeter and cornetist. [For a sample of his playing, listen to what is now item 46 of the playlist of the Music page.]  

When I was 15 and he was 16 (in the year above me) we were both crazy about jazz and developed a common enthusiasm for the playing of CLARK TERRY. His sound was so beautiful and his improvisation such a great mixture of funky and mellow.

This was 1961 and we scavenged on records for the bits and pieces of solos Clark was given in the Duke Ellington band before he left it in 1959.

Duke tended to feature Clark on Perdido but our favourite was his short party piece on the Shakespearian album Such sweet thunder. Clark played the instrumental part of "Puck" on the tune Duke called Up and down, up I down - I will lead them up and down. It's a gorgeous little solo and, if you haven't heard it, do check it out. (But beware the Sony/Columbia CD box set of Ellington "complete" studio albums. Out of ignorance or carelessness, they have used an inferior alternate take of this track Make sure you listen to the original.)

 

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Marc and I were only young fans, not collectors or discographers so we never discovered Clark's earlier work, like his albums Swahili on Emarcy or Out on a limb on the low budget Chicago label Argo. But we did try to follow Clark's recordings after he left Ellington.  

I remember one day hanging around in Dobell's Record Shop in the Charing Cross Rd during the school holidays. The staff (remember Johnny Kendall and big Trevor Salter?) and customers were raving about Gary McFarland's jazz version of the music from the show How to succeed in business without really trying. "The sexiest Clark Terry we're heard to date!" was the cry.

As time went on, my interest grew. I found those earlier albums and some film footage of Clark playing with Count Basie in the late Forties. This was at the time when Basie had had to give up his big band temporarily for economic reasons and was fronting a sextet which featured Clark and Wardell Gray!

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Clark's career was long, varied and busy. A lot of his time was taken up in the studio where he was the go-to trumpeter and he was the first black musician on prime time US television in the "Tonight" show. He held that coveted job down for ten years.

 Meanwhile he was equally in demand for jazz gigs and recordings. For a while he had a great quintet which he co-led with trombonist Bob Brookmeyer. He started playing more flugel horn and even developed a facility to swap "fours" with himself, with trumpet and flugel in each hand. He also managed to form a short-lived "big BAD band" with arrangements by Ernie Wilkins which was very exciting.

 I caught him live here in Brighton with a sparkling quintet which featured the late Chris Woods on alto. I then rather lost track of what he was up to although I knew he was getting quite old.

Someone alerted me recently to the existence of a documentary filmed over a period from 2010 to 2014 about Clark. He was almost 90 when this began and the curse of the diabetes from which he had been suffering for most of his life was making him an invalid. In the end, before his death in 2015, he had lost most of his sight and had had to have both legs amputated. From bed, or a wheelchair, he befriended a blind young pianist who was half Chinese (and his guide dog) and tried to coach and encourage him. Unfortunately, although the boy had talent, he also suffered badly from stagefright and could not quite relax into swinging as a jazz pianist should.

Clark's old friend and protégé, the great Quincy Jones turns up in the film, looking a bit decrepit himself, having had a severe stroke way back in 1974. Incredibly Quincy survives to this day.

Anyway, as a favour (I would suspect) to his beloved Clark Terry, Quincy made the gesture of taking the pianist under his own wing and giving him a solo slot on his next tour.

 

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It's a very moving and honest film about the last years and months of Clark's life and you can get it on DVD. I thoroughly recommend it.

Clark's recorded legacy is so vast and accessible that I haven't put anything up on the Music page. I prefer to share unheard, private recordings there. But actually one of these very recordings fits nicely with today’s Musing! Excerpts from a live gig by the great Scottish trumpeter Bruce Adams - a great Terry disciple and the nearest thing to him this side of the Atlantic………………………………

 

 

Spike Wells