Race Relations Ambassador to the State Department – Clark Terry, Jazz Great

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Clark Terry, born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1920, has a career that spans more than six decades. When Terry was a young boy, he made his first horn from a garden hose, a funnel and a piece of pipe. There was no money in his family of ten children to purchase a horn. Recognizing his determination, his neighbors collected $12.50 to buy him a trumpet at a pawn shop.

At Vashion High School, he learned to play a bugle in the Tom Powell Drum and Bugle Corps and later learned to play the valve trombone. After graduation, Terry’s talent playing the trumpet allowed his budding sound to penetrate the local St. Louis music scene, filled at the time with the blues, a form that was rapidly evolving into another new indigenous American music.

In summer, St. Louis, a hot humid place by the river and a freezing place in winter, was the intensely creative atmosphere, no matter what the season, that exposed Terry to his first professional taste of swing, bebop and early jazz, which were burning new paths in riverboat pubs, smoky nightclubs, alleys and basements along the Mississippi River in the 1930s and ’40s.”

During World War II, Clark Terry joined the U.S. Navy and was sent to the Great Lakes Naval Station (1942-1945), where he joined the Navy Band, gained valuable lessons of discipline, developed his practicing technique from a clarinet book and grasped John Philip Sousa’s contributions to U.S. military musical convention.

Upon honorable service discharge and over the next several years, Terry worked with Lionel Hampton, Charlie Barnet, Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, Charlie Ventura, George Hudson, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Quincy Jones, Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson, Dizzy Gillespie, Dinah Washington, Ben Webster, Doc Severinsen, Ray Charles, Billy Strayhorn, Dexter Gordon, Thelonious Monk, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughn, Coleman Hawkins, Zoot Sims, Milt Jackson, Bob Brookmeyer, Jon Faddis and Dianne Reeves.

It was with Ellington’s band, though, that Terry became a national musical sensation. Becoming a connoisseur and creator of a joyful jazz, with which he intended to lift his own spirits and the spirits of his listeners, Terry’s impeccable taste in note selection and musical phrasing made him famous for his delightful treatment of traditional interpretation in his unique musical style.

Terry’s most high-profile position came in 1960 when he was hired by the NBC-TV Orchestra, conducted by Doc Severenson, on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, making Terry the first African-American staff musician at NBC, where for 12 years he was a hit with his singing invention, ‘Mumbles,’ based on a combination of vocal slurring and scatting, which he performed to a jazzy musical groove. In 1972, when The Tonight Show was moving from New York to Los Angeles, Severenson asked his popular trumpeter to move with the NBC Orchestra but Terry turned down the offer to move, making the difficult decision to leave The Tonight Show and remain in New York where he was in demand as a studio musician and popular performer.

Going on to become an international jazz luminary, Terry toured the United States and the world as part of the Norman Granz Jazz at the Philharmonic and became a jazz ambassador for the U.S. State Department in the 1970s. At some point, Terry began experimenting with the flugelhorn and consulting with industry experts on modifying the construction of the instrument’s anatomy to resurrect its fading reputation and to re-introduce it as a jazz instrument. Then Terry made the flugelhorn his principal instrument, a bold and innovative choice that led to double pay when he was booked to play both the flugelhorn and the trumpet on the same show.

Terry performed at Carnegie Hall, Town Hall and Lincoln Center, and toured with the Newport Jazz All Stars, Jazz at the Philharmonic and the New York Pops. He made several recordings with major groups, including the London Symphony Orchestra, Dutch Metropole Orchestra, Duke Ellington Orchestra, Chicago Jazz Orchestra, Clark Terry’s Big Bad Band and Clark Terry’s Young Titans of Jazz.

Texts, in which Terry wrote about the trumpet and jazz as a form of music, are used worldwide. Host of the Clark Terry Jazz Festivals since 2000, he also directs the Clark Terry International Institute of Jazz Studies at Westmar University, conducts his own Big Band Summer Jazz Camp and advises the International Association of Jazz Educators. A bronze statue of Clark Terry adorns the St. Louis Walk of Fame along with statues of other musicians, including Chuck Berry, Scott Joplin, Miles Davis, Tina Turner and hip-hop star Nelly.

Winner of Grammy Awards and a lifetime achievement award by the Recording Academy, Clark Terry was inducted into the National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Hall of Fame in 1991. Much of Terry’s benevolence in assisting young horn players to obtain instruments may have been born from his own family’s financial inability to purchase an instrument when he was a boy eager to learn to play.

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