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Clark Terry: Not Just A Jazz Jester
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Clark Terry: Not Just A Jazz Jester

Music Reviews


Trumpeter and flugelhorn player Clark Terry is one of the most admired jazz musicians. He's a veteran of Count Basie's and Duke Ellington's big bands, and "The Tonight Show" orchestra. Terry's also known for his warmth, superb playing and dedication to teaching young players. Two Terry albums from the 1960s are back in a new reissue.

Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead has a review.


KEVIN WHITEHEAD: Writing about Clark Terry in the past, I've grumbled that this great and distinctive trumpeter had long been stereotyped as a pixie-ish jazz jester. There's more range and deep blues feeling to his sound than that. It wasn't all sweetness when he was growing up poor in St. Louis, touring in the Deep South before WWII or breaking the color line with TV orchestras in 1960. He talks about all that in his recent autobiography "Clark," one of those jazz books brimming with good stories. Still, he did make a record called "The Happy Horns of Clark Terry," one where his dexterity and high spirits ran together - even at low volume.


WHITEHEAD: Clark Terry with drummer Walter Perkins. That's from 1964's "The Happy Horns of Clark Terry," where he's flanked by altoist and clarinetist Phil Woods and tenor saxophonist Ben Webster, who, like Terry, had played with Duke Ellington. The repertoire is heavy on Ellingtonia, and the two vets complement each other well. Webster can wail, but his slower, more reflective side offsets the trumpeter's hotdogging.


WHITEHEAD: "The Happy Horns of Clark Terry" is now paired on one CD with his even more ebullient album, "It's What's Happenin'" from 1967. There he hooks his trumpet up to a Varitone, an electronic gizmo that doubles or filters a horn's sound; more often used by saxophonists such as Eddie Harris.

Like Harris, Terry knows the key is not to do overdo it - to use Varitone to shade his sound, not blanket it. The device proved oddly useful on ballads like "Secret Love."


WHITEHEAD: Clark Terry writes in his book that he tells students to make up lyrics to wordless tunes to help them phrase the melody better. Like earlier Ellington brass men and later modernists, including Jason Moran, he injects speech rhythms into his music - not least in role-play dialogues between his voice and horn. Like Fats Waller talking to himself at the piano, he seems to drift off into a rich fantasy life.


CLARK TERRY: I say or else. Wait a minute. Wait a minute. Stop everything right where you at 'cause I got something I want to tell you. Now, you listen to me. And you sit down there. Sit down right there. That's what I mean. Yes, right there. All right then. Now listen here. What I got to say? You listen to what I got to say. That's right. (Humming) Shut up...

[end soundbite]

WHITEHEAD: Did I mention he's friends with Bill Cosby? Much as I rue Clark Terry getting typecast as a clown, he does have a flair for it. The new Terry reissue is part of a series on Impulse pairing two LPs on one CD. The current batch includes two classic Charles Mingus albums, and two by Keith Jarrett's so-called American quartet, recorded in one week in 1975.

There's also a Freddie Hubbard, with Sun Ra saxophonist John Gilmore on one session, and a pair of enjoyable trifles where arranger Oliver Nelson got Hank Jones and Steve Allen to play electric harpsichord, and Clark Terry to sing "Winchester Cathedral." A clown who can really play can always find work.


GROSS: Kevin Whitehead is a jazz columnist for and author of "Why Jazz?" He reviewed "Clark Terry: The Happy Horns of Clark Terry" and "It's What's Happenin'" on the Impulse label. Clark Terry is 91 years old and has had some serious health problems. A fundraiser to help him with medical expenses will be held at St. Peter's Church in Manhattan April 23.

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