By Devon Wendell
There’s no way my piece on Clark Terry will be as journalistic and informative as my boss Don Heckman’s was in the L.A. Times obituary, but I had to say something about the master himself, in my own way.
I can’t imagine life without Clark Terry. That tone on the trumpet and flugelhorn was so warm and clean that it caressed and nurtured you out of the darkness. His phrasing swung harder than life but not in a flashy fashion. Terry’s lines were elegant, sly, and precise. They were perfect.
I grew up on Clark Terry. The first record I heard with Terry on it was Ellington At Newport from 1956. But it was Terry’s 1957 masterpiece on Riverside Records; Serenade To A Bus Seat that got me hooked. Like Coleman Hawkins, Terry came from the big band era and wasn’t afraid of the be-bop and hard bop schools of thinking and playing. Serenade To A Bus Seat is proof of that. Terry burns through Charlie Parker’s “Donna Lee” with confidence and soul along with bop masters Johnny Griffin, Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers, and Philly Joe Jones. The entire album stays at that level of brilliance.
Terry didn’t just go along with the changing music scenes, he added to them. A rarely spoken of gem and one of my all-time favorite recordings from the late ‘50s hard bop era is In Orbit, recorded with Thelonious Monk. Terry and Monk (along with Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones) play some of the most beautifully twisted blues you’ll ever hear in your life. Neither musician is trying to reinvent the wheel here; they are just having fun and swinging beyond belief.
I got to meet Clark Terry at The Village Vanguard in NYC sometime in the mid-‘90s. He wasn’t performing. Johnny Griffin was on the bill that night and I spotted Terry seated close to the bandstand.
After the show I nervously approached him and he joked, told stories of Duke, Basie, Miles, and the music business. He may be the kindest person I had met up to that time in the music business. I had worked with so many narcissistic jerks that Terry’s presence was warm and sweet, just like his sound. His smile and sense of humor were larger than life.
Of course I’m sad that Clark Terry has passed on and I send my deepest prayers and condolences to his family. But I’ve got the album Top And Bottom Brass playing loud as I write this and stacks upon stacks of other classic Clark Terry recordings that I’ll be playing all night so I feel great. This man left us with so much to cherish and learn from and nothing can take that away.