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The Autobiography of Clark Terry
By Clark Terry, Gwen Terry
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2011 Clark Terry and Gwen Terry
All rights reserved.
I made my first trumpet with scraps from a junkyard. My friend Shitty helped me find the pieces on a blazing hot summer day in 1931. I coiled up an old garden hose into the shape of a trumpet and bound it in three places with wire to make it look like it had valves. Topped those with used chewing gum for valve tips. Stuck a piece of lead pipe in one end of the hose for a mouthpiece. And for the bell on the other end, I found a not-too-rusty kerosene funnel. I was a ten-year-old kid, blowing on that thing until my lips were bleeding, but I was trying to play jazz! It may have sounded like a honking goose, but it was music to my ears.
Jazz was everywhere in my hometown, St. Louis, Missouri. My brother-in-law played it in a band; I heard it on the radio, in parades, in the parks, in my neighborhood at block parties and the Friday night fish fries, and from the riverboats that I watched from the banks of the Mississippi River.
That junkyard trumpet, I made it right after I heard Duke Ellington's band play on a neighbor's graphophone (a predecessor to the gramophone) at a fish fry. I wanted to be involved with music like that.
Duke's band was different from any other band I'd ever heard! The sound. Those horns. That rhythm. It was powerful, like a freight train. Everybody knew about Duke's band. I had heard about him—heard that he was the most respected band leader anywhere. And that night, I heard why.
Nobody's band moved me like that. Nobody's. It blew my mind! Stopped me dead in my tracks. I couldn't do anything but listen to that music. It was like the whole world disappeared. Nobody was left but me and that band. I wanted to learn how Duke did it.
Twenty years later, I was fortunate enough to be hired by Duke. I was thirty years old. It was Armistice Day, November 11, 1951, at the Kiel Auditorium in St. Louis. Huge place. All the latest sound and lighting. Believe me, I'd paid a lot of dues before then. Lots of acid tests, situations that seemed impossible—but nothing like the changes I had to go through that night in Duke's band. Back in '47, when I first joined Charlie Barnet's band, what he came up with for an acid test didn't compare. The way that Basie made me prove myself in front of his band in '48 was hard as hell! But even that couldn't touch what Duke whipped on me. That was the lay of the land: put the new kid on the spot. You either passed the test or got the ax!
Many of my dreams have come true, but what I've learned is that dreams change. New dreams come into play. What I thought I wanted most of my life changed, too.
I'd always thought that the most important thing was to play my horn—to get into this band or that band or Duke's band, to have my own band, to perform, record. And I did enjoy these things. Worked hard to achieve them. But later on, I had a new dream: helping young musicians to make their dreams come true. That became my supreme joy and my greatest aspiration.CHAPTER 2
The only person I knew who didn't love jazz was my old man. He liked country music. He was a short man, just over five feet tall—"Five foot two," he always said, smoking or chewing on a handmade Hauptmann cigar. He was a strong man. Didn't take crap from anybody! I remember when his union was trying to get the workers to go on strike at his job. He worked for Laclede Gas and Light Company, and the union wanted better wages, but Pop wouldn't cooperate. He said, "I got too many mouths to feed to play a white man's game." So some white union guys came to our flat after work. They were shouting from the street up to our front window. Calling him by the name he hated.
"Shorty! Come on down!"
Pop sent my sisters down the back stairs, so they could slip out to our Aunt Gert's place next door to the flat below ours. Then he armed my brothers with pistols, knocked out our window pane, aimed his shotgun, and let his bullets do his talking. The men below were armed with pistols, baseball bats, crowbars, and chains. When they heard Pop's shotgun blasts, they took off like chickens running from a cook.
Everybody respected him. He wore nice clothes and hats. His name was Clark Virgil Terry, and we called him Pop, but everybody else called him Mr. Son, because his nickname was Son Terry. All my friends were scared of him, and I was, too. He'd beat me at the drop of a dime. None of my brothers and sisters. Just me. Except one time he beat my oldest sister, Ada Mae, when she stood up for me and begged him not to whip me after I broke the limb off a neighbor's tree while I was swinging on a rope.
When I told him that I wanted to play a trumpet, he said, "Rotten on that shit, Boy!" He had a weird way of cussing, but I knew what it meant. He said, "Remember your cousin Otis Berry? Always walking up and down the streets on his paper route, playing that damn horn! He got consumption and died! So, I'd better not hear tell of you playing no damn trumpet, or I'll beat your ass till you won't see the light of day again!"
That wasn't gonna stop me. I didn't believe that I'd get consumption. (That's what they called tuberculosis.) I'd wanted to play a trumpet in the worst way ever since I was five and watching those trumpets in the neighborhood parades. I loved the trumpet, because it was the loudest and it led the melody. And after I'd heard Duke's band at that fish fry, I had to play some jazz on a trumpet and I had to have a band, too. No matter what Pop said.
I was born on December 14, 1920, in St. Louis, the seventh of eleven children. Eight girls and three boys. Ada Mae, Margueritte, Virgil Otto (we called him "Bus"), Charles Edward (we called him Ed), Lillian, Mable (her nickname was "Sugar Lump," and they told me that she only lived for six months). Then there was me, Juanita, Marie and Mattie—the twins—and my baby sister, Odessa. All my sisters looked like little brown dolls. Ed was about my father's height, Bus was tall, and I was medium height.
Before I was born, my brothers and sisters said they begged Pop to name me John. He named me Clark Terry with no middle name. But everybody called me John, including Pop.
My mother's name was Mary. She died when I was around six or seven. I don't remember too much about her because she was always gone. Working, they said. Ada Mae told me that Momma was from Crystal City, Missouri, and Pop was from Fort Scott, Kansas. They were both born in 1888. I don't know how they met, and I don't know anything about my grandparents.
As far as I was concerned, Ada Mae was my mother. When she married Sy McField and moved out, my next-oldest sister, Margueritte, became my mother. When Margueritte married Johnny Pops and moved out I tried to be happy for her, but I missed her. My mother's sister, Aunt Gert, was kind of like a mother after Margueritte left. But I always wondered why she wouldn't take up for me, knowing how Pop beat me. She was a short, dark-skinned woman who loved to cook special things for me. Still, whenever I played "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child" later on in my career, I felt every note.
We lived in a neighborhood called Carondelet, about a half mile from the Mississippi River, where trains went back and forth all day. Clackalacka, Clackalacka. Whoo! Whoo! And kids wore Buster Brown shoes with a knife pocket on the side. My knife was in my pants pocket because I couldn't afford Buster Browns. From our backyard, St. Louis seemed like it was way up high on a big mound and we lived down low near the river bottom. I dreamed of growing up and getting away from there. Away from the chickens in the backyard, the rats running around, the roaches, and the bedbugs that my brothers and I used to burn off of the bedsprings each Saturday.
Our pastor, Reverend Sommerville, instilled a lot of hope inside me. I loved him and admired the way he spoke—very clearly and with a lot of authority. He said, "The only way to get out of this ghetto is to get your education. And remember, in this enigma called life, we must hold on to God's unchanging hand!" He was a short, robust man with thick curly hair. Always dressed to the nines—double-breasted suits, fancy ties. And he had an impressive vocabulary. I wanted to learn some fancy words like he used.
He was the pastor of our small church, Corinthian Baptist. Each Sunday, my brother Ed, a few of my sisters, and I would head out to church dressed in our "Sunday-go-to-meeting-clothes." The best we had. We'd walk for a few miles west up Bowen Street from our flat to the "hinkty" people's neighborhood, where our church was located. We'd say, "They think they're better than us. Bourgeois. With their hot water and electricity." Still, there was a lot of love there at Corinthian. Lots of friends and pretty girls.
After church at Corinthian, on Sunday afternoon, I'd meet up with a few friends and sneak over to the Church of God and Christ at Broadway and Iron Street. Now, I knew Pop would beat me if he knew that I went over there, but I didn't care. I dug the polyrhythms of that church. Those powerful beats, the tambourines, the foot-stomping and the hand-clapping. The way they sang—multiple harmonies. Lots of spirit. We were too scared to go inside, since we had peeked through the window many times and seen the folks shouting and running and jumping and talking strange. "Speaking in tongues" is what they called it. So we sat on a nearby corner, within earshot.
But the love of my life was jazz! On Friday nights, I heard it echoing off the waters of the Mississippi. From our front window facing the river, I could see the corner of Broadway and Bowen. Men who were the lamplighters used to come walking with a long pole to light a small pilot inside the lantern on that corner. They called it a streetlight, but it was pitiful. Barely lit the area in front of the long two-story corner building that was jammed next to ours.
Our neighborhood looked like a row of two-story buildings with a few walkways here and there. We called them "gangways." Not much grass anywhere, just a few trees and mostly dirt in the front, back, and between. Eight of us kids and Pop lived in a three-room flat upstairs at 6207-A South Broadway, with no electricity and no hot water. We had one front window and a solid wood back door. Everything was heated and cooked with kindling and coal, which meant a lot of ashes for me to take down to the ash pit out back. There were some extremely uncomfortable moments in our little flat because we ate a lot of beans. The saying was, "Everybody knows you can't eat beans and keep it a secret."
Lots of families lived in those two-story buildings, with the doors and stairs to all flats in the back where the water pumps, woodsheds, and chicken coops were. There was a big, dusty vacant lot nearby where most of the kids hung out and played games like tin-can soccer. We didn't have a ball, but we had just as much fun with that can. I played goalie, and I had scars all up and down my legs. I guess the reason we didn't play football was that Carondelet had a lot of Germans living there, and they were into soccer.
There was an alley lined with ash pits that separated us from our white neighbors. That was the line that divided us from them. They were an alley away from the ghetto, but they were cool. My brothers and I used to make money hauling ashes for them.
Miss Liza was our next-door neighbor. She was a short, dark-brown-skinned woman who usually sucked on a chicken bone and spied on us through a hole in her window shade. I didn't like her. She caused me to get an ass-whipping when she told Pop about me kicking a soccer can through Mr. Butt's window a few doors down. (His name was Mr. Robinson, but I nicknamed him that after our gang peeked inside his window one night and saw him screwing his old lady, and all we could see was his big black butt moving around.)
My friend Shitty lived right below us. It was his grandmother's flat, and she took care of him and his sister, Elnora—a foxy, brown-skinned cutie. I had played "stink finger" with her a few times. Shitty was the color of molasses, with sleepy eyes and dark pointed lips. His real name was Robbie Pyles, but since he was always taking dumps in his pants, I nicknamed him "Shitty." He was cool with that.
When Pop went to work, he told me to stay at home. I didn't listen to that. I'd sneak about four blocks away to Didley's house with Shitty so we could listen to jazz on Didley's crystal radio. It had terrible sound. We strained to hear the music. But when we put that radio inside of one of his mother's mixing bowls, the sound was a little better.
Didley was a smiling cat with two big buckteeth. He walked with a little limp because he'd been hit by a car when he was a little kid. We listened to broadcasts by the Coon-Sanders Original Nighthawks Orchestra and Jan Savitt—all-white bands. But Jan had a black singer, a rare thing during that time. The singer was a scat singer named Bon Bon Tunnell. Then there was Larry Clinton's band, playing things like "The Dipsy Doodle":
Dipsy Doodle is a thing to beware,
Dipsy Doodle will get in yo' hair.
But no matter who I heard, I just couldn't get Duke Ellington's band out of my head. I wanted a band like that. Had to have one. So I talked some of the gang into getting a little street band together. I told them, "Don't worry about Pop, because he goes to his girlfriend's house all day on Saturday. So we can play on a corner right after the parade and make a little money."
We made some instruments from some scraps at the local junkyard, about a block away. I made a kazoo, which was actually a comb wrapped in tissue paper left over from gift-wrappings.
My brother Ed played drums, which we made with a worn-out ice pan turned upside down on top of a tall bushel basket. His sticks were rungs from a chair. I had another friend, Charlie Jones—we called him "Bones." He played "tuba," which I made with a big tin beer cup for the bell, stuck in one end of a vacuum hose that was wrapped around his neck. Charlie was a cool dude who was known for writing "Merry Christmas" in the snow with pee. Bones' chubby little brother, Pig, held the kitty, which was a cardboard cigar box tacked shut. It had a small slit in the top for donations.
Shitty played "bass," which was a broomstick with a taut rope tied to the top of the stick and attached to an old galvanized washtub turned upside down. He also agreed to be our "buck dancer," which was a kind of tap dance.
After the Labor Day Parade in '31, we hurried up and started playing on a corner before the folks walked away. I was blowing hard on that thing, and moving that paper around when the spit got it wet, while we played our version of "Tiger Rag."
Excerpted from Clark by Clark Terry, Gwen Terry. Copyright © 2011 Clark Terry and Gwen Terry. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of ContentsPreface by Quincy Jones
Foreword by Bill Cosby
Introduction by David Demsey
1. Big Dreams
2. First Instruments
3. Kicked Out
4. The Vashon High Swingsters
5. First Road Gig
7. Ida Cox
9. Lincoln Inn
10. On the Road Again
11. Tennis Shoe Pimp
13. Len Bowden
14. Navy Days
15. Gray Clouds
16. The Big Apple
17. George Hudson
18. The Club Plantation
19. Galloping Dominoes
20. Tempting Offers
21. Lionel Hampton
22. Road Lessons
24. Charlie Barnet
25. Count Basie
26. Big Debt
27. Duke Ellington
28. Leaving Basie
29. The University of Ellingtonia
30. Working with Duke
31. Duke’s Team
32. Duke’s Management Arts
33. Miles and Bird
34. Billy Strayhorn
38. Norman Granz
39. Norman’s Battles
42. Jim and Andy’s
43. Johnny and Ed
45. First House
46. Big Bad Band
47. Carnegie Hall
49. Jazz Education Arena
50. Those NBC Years
52. Black Clouds
53. Keep on Keepin’ On
54. New Love
56. Through the Storm
57. Second Chance
58. The Biggest Surprise
Honors and Awards
Photographs follow page 186
What People are Saying About This
"'Clark' chronicles, in endearing prose, Terry's personal and professional journey. . . . Onstage and in the backroom, Terry and his trumpet shared a front-row seat to jazz history. "Clark" is nothing short of that remarkable story."San Francisco Chronicle
"Terry's wonderful book is a true labor of love."Jazzwise
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Autobiography of a jazz musician who has played with Ellington, Basie, Monk, Rollins, The Tonight Show Orchestra, Bob Brookmeyer, and many more. Many albums under his own name. Full of great anecdotes from a beloved jazzman . Clark is now 94, and his history is a large part of the history of jazz. Great Read!
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