Trumpeter and trailblazer Clark Terry has written his autobiography in his own idiosyncratic language, chock-full of period slang of the jazz musicians of his generation. Terry played with Count Basie’s and Duke Ellington’s bands among many others and in 1960 broke the color line at NBC as a member of the Tonight Show’s band under Jack Paar and Johnny Carson. He tells stories about not only the greats, but performers such as Stump & Stumpy and Peg Leg Bates that haven’t been told in the pages of any other book.
Los Angeles, CA (PRWE April 13, 2012
Trumpeter, flugelhornist, trailblazer and teacher, Clark Terry can now, with his autobiography Clark, add memoirist to his long list of accomplishments. With high-profile friends like Quincy Jones writing the preface and Bill Cosby penning the foreword, you have some idea of the high esteem in which Terry is held.
But what makes this book all the more remarkable is the fact that he wrote it himself, with the help of his wife Gwen. Unlike most musician autobiographies, there is no “as told to” or professional writer to put together the episodes of its subject. We are reading Clark’s story in his own idiosyncratic language, chock full of the period slang of the jazz musicians of his generation. This places the reader smack dab in the middle of the times and places where Terry plied his trade: the theaters, dance halls, night clubs, not to mention the trains and busses (Clark was terrified of airplanes) that took him there.
Check out his description of the fashions of the time:
“Zoot suits were the rage. Wide shoulders—much wider than your actual shoulders. A long jacket that came almost halfway between your hip and knee. The double-breasted ones were called “One Button Roll.” Wide lapels that bowed across your body, instead of being flat. Pants with thirty-inch-wide knees and sixteen-inch-wide bottoms—real skinny bottoms. It was hard to get the hem of the pants over your feet. You definitely couldn’t do it with shoes on. Then there was the long chain from the watch pocket that drooped down to your knees and back up to your right front pants pocket.
“Shoes had to be AAA, which made my feet look extra long. Pointed toes. I had to get a couple of sizes longer than I usually wore in order to compensate for the sharp points and excessive narrowness. Cramped toes, and eventually lots of corns. But I had to be hip, even though I ended up with more corns than a farmer.
Solid Ted, ‘nuff said.”
Terry takes us from his St. Louis childhood in his Carondelet neighborhood, near the Mississippi River bottom, with the trains clacking by, playing his homemade “trumpet,” through his years as a leader and founder of the Vashon High Swingsters, getting expelled from high school just months before graduating as Salutatorian for getting a girl pregnant, being forced to marry her, then joining up with a carnival band, his first professional gig.
He played on the waterfront with the band of the legendary Fate Marable in 1940, gigged throughout the Midwest, even doing a little pimping for a whore named Feather, who called him her “tennis shoe pimp” because he didn’t beat her.
After Pearl Harbor, he joined the Navy when a musician acquaintance told him he could get into the Navy band because, for the first time in history, a black man could hold a prestigious position in the Navy as a musician instead of a chef, cook or bottle washer. In the service, he got to play with guys he would encounter in years to come.
In 1946, Clark made his recording debut with the Texas blues singing alto saxophonist Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, playing on the hit “Kidney Stew.” He toured as the opening band for tenor man Illinois Jacquet, whose famous solo on “Flying Home” was a huge hit for Lionel Hampton, whom Terry next joined. In between all this, he met and married his second wife, Pauline.
Clark’s skill on his horn made him an in demand player, crossing the racial line when asked to join the band of Charlie Barnet. Barnet is not as well remembered today as he should be. A white rich kid, Barnet’s mother owned controlling stock in the New York Central Railroad, and financed his band to the tune of one million dollars. Charlie could play, and had great charts on top of it. He treated his few black sidemen well, even though the times dictated that they weren’t allowed to stay at the same hotels as the whites.
When Count Basie made an offer in 1948, Clark leaped at the chance to be with the jumpingest band in the land, remaining for the next three years until Duke Ellington snatched him away.
The next eight years were musical heaven, blowing with the likes of Johnny Hodges, Ray Nance and Harry Carney on sides like “Satin Doll,” and “Take The ‘A’ Train.” We hear stories about great stars like Dinah Washington and Billie Holiday, as well as great performers such as Stump & Stumpy and Peg Leg Bates that haven’t been told in the pages of any other book.
In 1960 Terry broke the color line at NBC when he joined the network’s staff orchestra, playing on The Tonight Show, with Jack Paar and, later, Johnny Carson. Carson had a gimmick called “Stump the band,” where the audience was invited to make requests. Clark soon became known for something he made up on the spot one night, which he called “Mumbles.” You ought to look it up on Youtube.
By now an in demand sideman, Terry was squeezing in four and five record dates a day in addition to his duties on the NBC staff, not to mention night club dates after the show. As if that weren’t enough, he began what would become his life’s work in his later years: teaching, forming bands of young players and traveling the country to numerous schools and colleges.
Back problems and the death of his beloved Pauline didn’t stop him, as he pressed on over the years, eventually finding love for the third time with Gwen, who is his wife now.
Clark Terry’s story is one of a respected, talented and highly successful musician and mentor who, although not as well known as the Miles Davises and Charlie Parkers, is a man well worth knowing all about.
Title: Clark: The Autobiography of Clark Terry
George Gund Foundation Imprint in African American Studies
Publisher: University of California Press