Obituaries

Clark Terry, at 94; one of jazz’s top trumpet players, personalities

BERT MATTSSON/AFP/Getty Images/file 1980

Clark Terry, whose virtuosity on trumpet and flugelhorn was matched by a jubilant presence that helped make him one of the great jazz personalities, has died. He was 94.

Mr. Terry received a renewed burst of fame in 2014 with the release of a critically acclaimed documentary about him, “Keep on Keepin’ On.” Alan Hicks, who directed the documentary, told NPR that Mr. Terry died Saturday in Pine Bluff, Ark., which was the musician’s home, according to Mr. Terry’s website.

No one held a higher opinion of Mr. Terry than other trumpeters. “My idol on the instrument,” Miles Davis called him. “The quintessential trumpet player,” Dizzy Gillespie once said. “He can swing. He can bop. He can do anything he wants to do with a horn.”

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Gillespie really did mean anything. Mr. Terry could play on just his mouthpiece, as demonstrated on his 1957 recording “Trumpet Mouthpiece Blues.” He would delight audiences by dueting with himself on his two instruments, alternating between a trumpet held in one hand and a flugelhorn in the other. And his uniquely gargled version of scat-singing, immortalized on his 1964 recording “Mumbles,” became one of the most celebrated (and hilarious) bits in jazz.

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Naming him “Jazzman of the Year” in 2002, Village Voice critic Gary Giddins hailed Mr. Terry’s “gleaming ingenuity” and “distinctive, chortling style.” His “every note [is] robust, beaming, and shadowed with impish resolve and irony.” Describing Mr. Terry’s playing, Giddins spoke of “the characteristic feints, the dramatically launched high notes, the terse, bent notes that round the corner from one note to the next like a motorcycle zooming around a curve.”

Mr. Terry also had a notable career as a teacher. The National Association for Jazz Education once called him “the world’s busiest jazz clinician.” Mr. Terry taught widely at high schools, colleges, and his annual Big Bad Band Camp in LeMars, Iowa. Starting in 1974, he annually participated in the Clark Terry UNH Jazz Festival at the University of New Hampshire.

In 1978, UNH was the first of more than a dozen colleges to award Mr. Terry an honorary doctorate, followed a decade later by the Berklee College of Music and in 1997 by New England Conservatory. UNH appointed him adjunct professor of music in 1988.

“He left a real lasting impact on kids,” David Seiler, director of jazz studies at UNH, said of Mr. Terry’s many visits to the university. “I’ve had all kinds of people here doing clinics, but nobody tops him. He inspired kids so readily.”

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Seiler, a professor of music, added that Mr. Terry “exuded joy through his instrument” and that when he taught young musicians, “he’d say, ‘The purpose of the clinic is the perpetuation of the jazz language.’ He always said that. Even in his 90s he was inspiring people.”

Mr. Terry’s versatility was such that Duke Ellington’s standard introduction for him was “Clark Terry! Beyond Category!” Indeed, Mr. Terry played with a musical who’s who that transcended categorization: Bud Powell, Dinah Washington, Rosemary Clooney, Mahalia Jackson, Sarah Vaughan, Gerry Mulligan, Dexter Gordon, Charles Mingus, and Cecil Taylor. From the beginning of the 1960s into the early ’70s, he was a featured player in the “Tonight” show orchestra.

Mr. Terry, who was affectionately known as “Mumbles,” enjoyed the rare distinction of having played in the orchestras of both Count Basie (1948-51) and Ellington (1951-58). Ellington memorably acknowledged Mr. Terry’s playfulness, assigning his trumpet the role of Puck on “Such Sweet Thunder,” Ellington’s jazz evocation of Shakespeare.

“Such Sweet Thunder” was one of a number of classic recordings Mr. Terry performed on. Others include “Ellington Uptown,” Thelonious Monk’s “Brilliant Corners,” “Oscar Peterson Trio + One,” and Ray Charles’s “Genius+Soul = Jazz.” Among Mr. Terry’s best-known sessions as leader are “Everything’s Mellow,” “The Happy Horns of Clark Terry,” and, with Max Roach, “Friendship.”

Mr. Terry was born on Dec. 14, 1920, in St. Louis, the seventh of 11 children — eight girls and three boys — he wrote in “Clark: The Autobiography of Clark Terry,” published in 2011. “Jazz was everywhere in my hometown,” he recalled, adding, “On Friday nights, I heard it echoing off the waters of the Mississippi.”

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His parents, Mary and Clark Virgil Terry, were unable to afford music lessons for him. “I was wearing my sister’s hand-me-down bloomers,” Mr. Terry told the Chicago Tribune in 1994.

‘The quintessential trumpet player. He can swing. He can bop. He can do anything he wants to do with a horn.’

In the autobiography, written with his wife, Gwen, Mr. Terry said that his mother died when he was 6 or 7, and he recalled that his father “was the only person I knew who didn’t love jazz . . . He liked country music.”

Clark Terry, who had no middle name, made his own first instrument after hearing Ellington’s band on a neighbor’s Graphophone. Mr. Terry tucked a scrap of lead pipe in a garden hose for a mouthpiece and a funnel on the other end for a bell. “The sound you could get from blowing into that thing was amazing,” he said in a 1991 Newsday interview.

Mr. Terry graduated to trumpet at 12 and as a teenager began performing with local bands. He played in a Navy band during World War II. He practiced using a clarinet book, which he later credited for his remarkable fluidity on the trumpet.

After the war, Mr. Terry played with the bands of Lionel Hampton, Charlie Barnet, and Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson before joining Basie. During his time with Ellington, Mr. Terry picked up the flugelhorn, a larger version of the trumpet, with a warmer, more muted tone. His playing helped popularize the instrument among jazz musicians.

In 1960, Mr. Terry became the first African-American staff musician at NBC, which led to his “Tonight” show stint. He moonlighted while with “Tonight” as leader of a quintet with the valve trombonist Bob Brookmeyer. Quitting the show when it moved to California, Mr. Terry assembled an 18-piece orchestra, his Big B-A-D Band.

It was during the 1970s that Mr. Terry’s teaching career took off, and he achieved the status of jazz elder statesman he would retain the rest of his life. “I’m doing so many things,” he said in a 1993 Globe interview. “Clinics, concerts, festivals. I don’t have one bag, I have many bags.”

Mr. Terry leaves his wife, Gwen. Information was not immediately available about other immediate survivors or about a memorial service.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com. Bryan Marquard of the Globe staff contributed to this report.