Clark Terry is one of the most prolific living jazz musicians, having appeared on a staggering 905 known recording sessions. On trumpet, he probably is the most recorded in history. To give you a sense of how many sessions 905 is, Ernie Royal appeared on 661, Louis Armstrong on 629 sessions, Harry "Sweets" Edison on 563, Conrad Gozzo on 547 and Dizzy Gillespie on 501. In some cases, Clark was recording weekly, month after month.
Clark spent the 1950s in the trumpet section of Duke Ellington's orchestra. He also recorded as a leader and sideman on dozens of dates. What makes Terry's sound so special is a signature ability to swing hard and punctuate with confidence—without ever broiling his notes. Clark always leaves the ear with warm, pretty tones, mostly by bending notes slightly for flavor.
In Part 1 of my brief interview with the legendary trumpet player on Friday, Clark, 89, talked about growing up in St. Louis, playing in the Navy and working with Charlie Barnet and Duke Ellington:
JazzWax: What was St. Louis like in the 1930s?
Clark Terry: St. Louis was very prejudiced when I was growing up but it was a good jazz town. All the riverboats used to stop there heading up and down the Mississippi River. The boats brought many musicians into the area who were looking for work in town and in Kansas City. As a result, St. Louis was a good jumping off point to get established. Rent was cheap, the food was good and the ladies were beautiful [laughs].
JW: What did your parents do?
CT: My mother died when I was very young. I don’t know how or why she passed. My older sister Ada Mae took over. My father worked on the tanks for the local gas company. He always had calluses on his feet, and I had to sandpaper them. We had a big family. I had eight sisters and two brothers.
JW: Where did you learn how to play the trumpet?
CT: My oldest sister’s husband was a tuba player. He showed me the fingering, which was pretty much the same for a trumpet. Our family was big, so there was no money for lessons. I made my first trumpet out of a piece of wrinkled up tubing and a lead pipe mouthpiece on the end. [Pictured: A young Clark Terry]
JW: How did it sound?
CT: Horrible. I made sounds on it. Eventually the neighbors got tired of hearing the noise and chipped in to raise $6 to buy me a pawnshop trumpet [laughs]. It was just a raggedy pawnshop horn, but between it and the one I played in high school, I was happy. I played all the time. I mean all the time. I loved to practice all day long.
JW: Where did you learn to read music?
CT: At Vashon High School. Mr. Otis and Mr. Wilson were very good teachers. I also listened to a lot of Fats Waller [pictured] records. One of the few times I had saved enough to go hear a band live I went to see Duke Ellington’s orchestra. I didn’t look at them and think to myself, “I’m going to play with that band someday.” But I sure dreamed about it a lot.
JW: How would you describe the St. Louis sound?
CT: When I was a kid, everything in St. Louis having to do with trumpet was hinged on one player—Charlie Creath. His name was pronounced “Creth,” and he was called King of Cornet. As he went, so went jazz trumpet playing there. Everyone tried to play like him. But there were a lot of other good trumpet players in St. Louis when I was a little kid in the '20s, like Dewey Jackson with his Musical Ambassadors and, Shorty Baker in the '30s.
JW: Did you ever see Miles Davis, who was from East St. Louis?
CT: Miles followed us around a lot. 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” [laughs].
JW: Where were you stationed in the Navy?
CT: I was at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station near Chicago from 1942 to 1945. The bands there were fantastic. The musicians were in barracks No. 1812. We all lived there, in the same place. We were on duty known as ‘ship’s company’—which meant we were permanently stationed on the base. Our job was to form bands from the recruits who were musicians. After the bands were formed, they shipped them out to Naval bases around the world. [Photo: Pianist Hazel Scott signing autographs at the Great Lakes facility in December 1943]
JW: What did you do all day?
CT: We had a lot of time on our hands, so we jammed all day long. A lot of older professional cats who were there taught us youngsters chord changes and musicians’ habits. Guys like Paul Campbell who had played with Fats Waller and Lester Young.
JW: When you were discharged, you joined Charlie Barnet’s band?
CT: Yes, he was a beautiful person. He wrote Duke [Ellington] a letter about me, saying, “I have this young trumpet player in my band. I think you better give him a listen. I think you need him in your band.” I loved Charlie.
JW: You joined Count Basie's band first in the late 1940s. How did that happen?
CT: Basie was always scouting. He sent his people to listen to me. They’d all tell me that I should join Basie’s band. Finally Basie’s wife came around and started talking to me about joining. So I did. I used to practice a lot during this period, working on a doodle tonguing system I came up with. With this system, you sounded the way an auctioneer talks.
JW: How did you wind up in Duke’s band in 1951?
CT: Duke used me as a sub a couple of times for Francis Williams. 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. [Photo: Clark Terry and Johnny Hodges (right) in Duke Ellington's band]
JW: Duke was a very spiritual guy, wasn’t he?
CT: Yes, he was. But I never got really, really close to Duke. He was closest with baritone saxophonist Harry Carney and traveled with him. Harry drove him. Duke was very friendly with the musicians, but he also was aloof. His arrangements were fantastic. Some of them were written out, some sketched out and some were just ideas that Duke orchestrated. Those charts sounded so good.
A special JazzWax thanks to Hal McKusick.
JazzWax clip: In October 1950, the Basie Octet recorded a film short in New York. One O'clock Jump here features Basie on piano, Buddy De Franco on clarinet, Clark on trumpet, Wardell Gray on tenor sax, Freddie Green on guitar, Jimmy Lewis on bass and Gus Johnson on drums...