Clark Terry holding a trumpet
Missing the Gig: Remembering Clark Terry (1920-2015)

Missing the Gig: Remembering Clark Terry (1920-2015)

Clark Terry holding a trumpet

Clark Terry. Photo courtesy Marcus McLaurine.

[Ed. Note: Composer, trumpeter, flugelhornist, band leader, and jazz educator Clark Terry died on February 21, 2015 just two months after his 94th birthday. An NEA Jazz Masters inductee who recorded over 100 albums in his own name and appeared as a sideman on over 750 others, Terry had a profound impact on countless musicians, among them composer, bassist, and band leader Marcus McLaurine who performed with Terry for more than 30 years. We asked McLaurine to share his memories of this iconic American artist.–FJO]

To be a real leader, one must possess certain traits such as dignity, integrity, and a sense of fairness, all of which Clark Terry embodied. I personally learned about who the man Clark Terry was many years ago, after being in his band just a short time. I was driving a 1965 Rambler at the time, and it so happened that I was having car trouble this one particular week. So the evening of a gig with Clark’s group, I needed a ride into Manhattan to perform at a club called the “Village West.” I figured since my car was not running I would just call a cab and I should be able to make it on time. The only problem was that every cab company that I called said that they had no available drivers. Now I really started to panic, because I wanted to make a good impression with Clark, as far as being on time was concerned. I realized that I did not have much time and if I didn’t get a cab soon I would be in hot water.

Lo and behold, I did finally reach a taxi service that was able to come and get me and my bass, but the trip would not be an easy endeavor. I lived in Jamaica, Queens and to get to Manhattan from my house when the traffic was good would be about thirty minutes, but now the cabdriver would have to deal with the tail end of rush hour. I knew that there was no way that I was going to make the performance on time. (This was before cell phones were available.) . After much bobbing and weaving through the traffic, the cabby finally made it to the lower west side of Manhattan where the club was located. I paid the driver and hurried inside, but to my surprise the band had started without me and another bassist was on stage performing.

My heart sank into my stomach, because my worst fear was now being realized and I would surely be fired. So I patiently waited until they finished the first set. Clark caught my glance as he was leaving the bandstand and with a gleam in his eye he said, “You really blew it, didn’t you!” Thinking to myself, “Yes, I know that I did,” he then stated emphatically, “Where were you this afternoon for the gig that we had in Midtown Manhattan?” The reality of the situation hit me like a ton of bricks. I had totally forgotten about a job that we had that afternoon. Words cannot fully express the sense of depression that swept over my whole body. Clark casually walked away with some of his friends and the rest of the band, as they made their way back to the band’s dressing room. The whole time back there Clark completely ignored me and I can remember the drummer at the time, Charles Braugham, trying to console me, but to no avail. Well, the time was fast approaching for the band to return for the next set and because I had not spoken to Clark during the entire break, my fate was left in limbo. (Would he fire me or would he let me stay?)

Clark was very clever in how he dealt with the situation, because I think he wanted to see how I would react to what had just transpired. The moment of truth finally arrived and Clark came over to me and said, “This is what we’ll do: You pay the bassist who did the first set and you come and finish up the gig.” The sense of relief that I experienced was overwhelming and I truly could not believe what I was hearing. That day I realized that I was dealing with someone who was of extraordinary character, because the average person would have given me my walking papers. From that day on I became a huge fan of Mr. Clark Terry and he could do no wrong in my eyes. Clark, thank you for giving me the opportunity to be associated with your extraordinary legacy.

Clark Terry and Marcus McLaurine sitting together.

Clark Terry and Marcus McLaurine. Photo courtesy Marcus McLaurine.

Performing with Clark Terry was a pure joy and very challenging at the same time, because his mere presence on the bandstand raised the bar exponentially. His knowledge of the American songbook and of more contemporary composers was extremely vast. I can remember performing at the Village Vanguard with Clark and he began playing a piece impromptu. Clark would do this every now and then, which really forced everyone in the band to learn as many songs as possible. I had no idea what the piece was and was having a great deal of difficulty with the song. Needless to say, this was a very uncomfortable situation to be in. I later found out that the song was “Sweet Lorraine” and I am sure Clark played the song in honor of Lorraine Gordon, who was the wife of Max Gordon, the owner of the Village Vanguard.

Clark Terry was also noted for his highly identifiable sound, which was very rich, warm, and full. All you needed to hear were just a couple of bars of him playing and you knew immediately that it was Clark Terry! His sense of time, rhythm, and melodies were impeccable, and it seemed that Clark was always trying to push himself beyond the envelope, to do things on the horn that no one else had done, such as playing two horns at once or playing the trumpet or flugelhorn upside down. It was a true marvel to watch how he would gradually flip the flugelhorn upside down while never letting the horn leave his lips—all of this while still playing. Pure magic!

Another identifying quality of Clark’s was this language that he had created called Mumbles. I first heard this routine at the University of Nebraska’s student center in 1972, where Clark was performing with the university’s jazz ensemble. I remember laughing so hard that my face was aching. The language sounded like gibberish, but he would do it with inflections from other countries, such as Germany, France, and Italy. You could not understand a word of what he was saying, but you felt as though you understood every word. Clark made a recording with Oscar Peterson called Oscar Peterson Trio + One and, as legend has it, Clark performed this mumbles language over the blues. After listening to the playback Oscar Peterson thought this new language that Clark had created was hilarious and hence “Mumbles” made it on the recording and the rest is history!

Clark was the consummate entertainer on the bandstand with a style that harkened back to the days of Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, and countless others. He always engaged the audience and had this uncanny ability to know just what material to perform next. Clark was also noted for being one of the first jazz educators and was always more than ready to help young musicians who were eager for knowledge. A couple of Clark’s earliest students were Miles Davis and Quincy Jones, who later became jazz icons in their own right.

I was very fortunate in that Clark asked me to be a part of his jazz camps and this was where I was able to learn his method of teaching, where he stressed a system of phrasing that he called the Doodle System, which was phrased “daddle, deedle, dawdle, dowdle, doodle.” The idea would be to sing this phrase very slowly and then, once you had mastered it, gradually increase the tempo, so that you could develop good phrasing for your solos. When you hear Clark performing you can hear him utilizing this system of phrasing in his solos.

Clark also had a great sense of humor and always maintained that feeling of being positive on and off the bandstand. Anyone who was fortunate enough to come in contact with him quickly recognized this and would always cherish the moments spent with him. I personally feel blessed to have had the opportunity to be associated with Clark for more than 30 years. Clark was more than an employer to the members in his bands, he was a true friend for life and we all will miss him dearly. We have truly lost one of the giants. Godspeed, CT!!!

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2 thoughts on “Missing the Gig: Remembering Clark Terry (1920-2015)

  1. Michael Robinson

    Ray Shiner, who together with his brother, Bill, were renowned woodwind specialists and teachers (Bill taught a boy named Stan Getz how to play saxophone), was fond of pointing out how he found Count Basie and Mozart to be the epitome of the art of music. At the same time, if the subject came up, he found one person to be both the finest musician and the finest person alive, shaking his head in wonderment along with a smile for the musical and personal qualities this individual possessed: Clark Terry. Thank you for this beautiful tribute. Personally, Terry is one of many artists I have overlooked, and intend to learn more about, especially in view of what yourself and Ray have expressed about his music.

    Related to your story about arriving late for a gig, I’ll never forget going to see the magnificent Archie Schepp at the Village Vanguard, and he was forced to begin the first set with only bass and piano because the drummer had not arrived. Then, in the middle of one of Schepp’s solos, Charli Persip slipped into position, and instantly began adding his own personal magic, adding immeasurably to the group sound. However, Schepp, perhaps playing with his eyes closed, I cannot recall, stopped his playing abruptly, and left the stand, as if to shift attention even more to the fact that Persip had been late. The master drummer registered a fleeting countenance of remorse on his face, and then proceeded to get lost in the music. What a night of musical magic, with one of the finest saxophonists ever and one of the finest drummers ever interacting. I have no doubt the bassist and pianist were just as fine, but my memory doesn’t serve, and for that I apologize.

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