“Imitate, assimilate, innovate.”
Miles Davis’ trumpet tone was punchy, unadorned, and direct, Clark Terry’s was slippery, buoyant, and loose.
Miles Davis’ public demeanor was guarded, surly, and biting. Clark Terry’s was ebullient, cheerful, and expansive.
Miles Davis was a primarily a leader, insistent on propelling the music forward. Clark Terry was primarily a sideman, happy to bring other’s music to life.
Despite these fundamental differences in personal and musical philosophy, Terry was one of young Miles Davis’ significant influences.
Born six years before Miles, Clark Terry was a native of St. Louis, Missouri, and, like Miles, his first playing experience came in a militaristic setting, with the Tom Powell Drum and Bugle Corps. In high school, he traded in his bugle for a valve trombone and a trumpet, but in 1942, before he career advance beyond the riverboat band scene, he was drafted into the Navy, serving a three-year stint. Fortunately, wasn’t sent into battle in Europe, but rather was stationed at the nearby Great Lakes Naval Station. Taking full advantage of his free time, Terry—who by now had entirely ditched the clunky, not-particularly-in-demand valve trombone—practiced incessantly, often using a book full of etudes…for clarinet. These demanding exercises both honed his technique and helped him, to quote Steve Jobs, think different. Brass and woodwind instruments had natural intervallic leaps that, while they weren’t entirely dissimilar, were somewhat divergent, so the clarinet drills gave him a wider palate to work with, a palate that gave him a distinct sound. It was this individuality and grown-up approach that helped him get a ton of work after his discharge in 1945.
Over the next three years, Terry evolved into what NPR called, “the ultimate freelancer,” working in bands led by Charlie Barnet, Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson (who, himself, would play a small but significant role in Miles Davis’ life), and Charlie Ventura. In 1948, he landed the most important gig of his young life: featured soloist with the Count Basie Orchestra. During one of Basie’s most vibrant periods, Terry appeared on a number of classic sides recorded for the Columbia and Victor labels.
As both a soloist and ensemble player, Terry caught the ear of Duke Ellington, who poached him away from Basie. “Duke used me as a sub a couple of times for Francis Williams,” the ultimate freelancer explained. “Soon enough, I was full time with the band. I was very excited. It’s hard to fathom how I felt. I was very, very grateful and realized I was playing in a band I had dreamed about for years.” The Ellington trumpet section of the 1950s was an all-star unit featuring Cat Anderson and Ray Nance, among others, so Terry didn’t have as many feature opportunities as he did with Basie, but, as he stayed with the band for the majority of the decade, that was clearly not an issue for the affable brassman.
Come 1955, record producers took notice of the bespectacled young veteran, and gave him his first opportunity to record as a bandleader. During this period, he delivered a trio of records that are considered to be among his best: 1957’s Serenade to a Bus Seat and Duke with a Difference, and 1958’s In Orbit. (All three of these were cut one right after the other, right after the other, for the Riverside label, who, like many jazz labels of the day, liked to squeeze as many records out of their artists as possible, regardless of when the previous one was released.) Throughout the 1960s, while a member of NBC’s Tonight Show Band, Terry added the flugelhorn to his arsenal, an instrument that was considered as much a cousin to the bugle as it was to the trumpet; ironically, the flugel was developed by Adolphe Sax, inventor of, you guessed it, the saxophone. By the time the 1970s rolled around, the flugel was his instrument of choice, and his warm, accessible sound on the bigger hunk of brass—along with his winning personality—made him one of the favorite jazz musicians of the casual jazz listener.
Even though he was regularly recording as a leader—his frontman discography eventually numbered in the 50s—he still hooked up with the leading jazzers of his day, everybody from trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, to tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins, to pianist Thelonious Monk, to vibraphonist. The mainstream music industry, specifically the National Association of Recording Arts and Sciences, took notice, nominating Terry for three Grammy Awards and, in 2010, bestowing him with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. It should be noted that in 1994, Terry made a guest appearance on the Grammys with jazz/hip-hop band Digable Planets, which featured the author of this book on bass.
Miles and Clark first met in 1941, a tale that Terry, clearly proud of his association with Davis, has told time and again, the best, and funniest, version of which was documented by Jack Chambers in Milestones: “I was with a band led by a one-legged piano player named Benny Reed. We were playing at a Carbondale, Illinois, night club known as the Spinning Wheel. One afternoon, we were engaged to play at a picnic grounds where there was an athletic competition between various southern Illinois high schools. There were several school bands in attendance with their teams. One of the bandleaders who had the East St. Louis outfit, was an old friend of mine.” (Chambers notes that on other occasions, Terry claimed that the bandleader was, “an old drinking buddy.”) “He wanted me to meet a little trumpet player he admired very much and eventually brought the kid over to introduce us. The kid started right in asking questions—how did I do this or that? We talked, but my mind was really on some girls dancing around a Maypole. I was so preoccupied with all the beautiful schoolgirls around that I said, ‘Why don’t you get lost—stop bugging me,’ which is something I never normally do. I kind of fluffed the kid off.”
Unfazed by the brush-off, Miles listened closely to what Terry was laying down both in and out of the Blue Devils, soaking in the elder trumpeter’s every note. “He was playing like [revered swing trumpeter] Buck Clayton in those days, only faster. I started to play like him. I idolized him.” (According to Terry, that idolatry continued for the next several years: “Miles followed us around a lot,” he said. “He had a lot of respect for me and for Dizzy [Gillespie]. Miles wouldn’t change anything he was doing unless—he said—‘Clark or Dizzy told me to.’”)
So while Miles and Terry took divergent paths—Miles raced from bebop, to hard bop, to modal and beyond, while Terry’s entire career was spent with one foot firmly planted in the swing school—the two of them will be forever linked, if only because of geography.
SOME ESSENTIAL CLARK TERRY
Serenade to a Bus Seat – 1957
To listeners who thought of Clark Terry a swing-rooted big band soldier who was content to round out the ensemble and take a solo here or there, this bebop-soaked small combo session must have come as a shock. Featuring phenomenal support from Miles Davis’ then-backing rhythm section of pianist Wynton Kelly, bassist Paul Chambers, and drummer Philly Joe Jones, Terry et al romp over a handful of cheery original composition, as well as the Miles Davis composition, “Donna Lee.” Critic Scott Yanow summed up Serenade to a Bus Seat succinctly and accurately: “This set contains excellent straightahead jazz performed with plenty of spirit.”
STANDOUT TRACK: “Boomerang.” In addition to a blistering spot by tenor saxophonist Johnny Griffin, this bouncy mid-tempo features Terry sounding downright Miles-ian.
In Orbit – 1958
Logic would dictate that Clark Terry’s jaunty lines wouldn’t meld with pianist Thelonious Monk’s jagged weirdness, but that didn’t stop producer Orrin Keepnews. Terry explained, “I needed a piano player, and Orrin wanted to use Monk. I said, Great, so Orrin called him in. After we recorded a bunch of things, we still hadn’t played anything of his. I said, ‘Monk, I think it’s about time we recorded one of your tunes.’ He didn’t answer, so as I walked away, he growled, ‘Come back here. Fine, let’s play this.’ He started playing the opening notes to ‘Let’s Cool One. He said, ‘You’ll hear it and then we’ll record it. Just listen.’ So I listened and then we recorded it. I had never heard that tune before, and there wasn’t any music. We just did it.”
STANDOUT TRACK: “Let’s Cool One,” naturally. It’s one of the pianist’s most melodic compositions, and melody was Clark Terry’s meat and potatoes. Plus, more so than any tune on the album, Monk sounds like himself, demonstrating that Keepnews knew what he was doing when he invited Thelonious to the party.
Clark Terry & Bobby Brookmeyer Quintet – 1962
Another hugely successful outing, even though this appeared to be an even odder pairing than Terry and Monk. Brookmeyer, a valve trombonist/pianist/composer was an angular player who knew bebop and swing, but wasn’t of bebop and swing. His staccato eight notes were delivered in an academic fashion, yet somehow he and Terry made for a simpatico front line. Miles, coincidentally enough, made a career out of contrasting frontline mates, e.g., John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter.
STANDOUT TRACK: “Pretty Girl.” Terry was an underrated ballad player, probably because, unlike his old friend Mr. Davis, he didn’t play ballads all that often. Here, he and Brookmeyer deliver some interweaving lines reminiscent of the trumpet/saxophone combo of Chet Baker and Art Pepper.
Oscar Peterson Trio Plus One– 1964
Unlike Monk, Oscar Peterson’s two-fisted (or some would say three-fisted) piano style and Terry’s brash brass is a logical pairing, and the two popular musicians made the most of their union, delivering an album that is the picture of jazz happiness. The two tunes that Terry plays with harmon mute, “Mack the Knife” and “Squeaky’s Blues,” owe more than a little debt to Miles who, at the time, was the reigning king of the harmon.
STANDOUT TRACK: “Mumbles.” Although it’s a fun little tune filled with some goofy scat vocals from Terry, musically speaking, this was one of the least interesting cuts on the record. But it became Terry’s signature song, and this was its definitive early recording, thus it’s worth a listen or ten.
One on One – 1999
When this collection of flugelhorn/piano duo tunes was released, Clark Terry was 79-years-old, and his chops sounded as strong as ever, making him one of jazz’s freaks of nature. (Other noteworthy freaks include saxophonists Sonny Rollins, Benny Golson, and Jimmy Heath, all of whom, as of this writing, are in their eighties, and all of whom sound shockingly strong. How their lungs remain so strong after decades and decades of blowing remains a mystery.) Clark was accompanied by 14 pianists from several generations, including Tommy Flanagan, Geri Allen, John Lewis, and Marian McPartland, offering him the opportunity to demonstrate his mastery of both swing and bop.
STANDOUT TRACK: “Honeysuckle Rose.” Like Terry, pianist Benny Green is comfortable in any jazz setting, and the twosome, with their reverence for both the material and the entirety of jazz itself, make Fats Waller’s classic composition their own.