February 15, 2012

The Time of His Life: Reading Between Clark Terry’s Lines

Clark: The Autobiography of Clark Terry (University of California Press $34.95) has an abundance of memorable moments, some shocking, some joyful, some sad, some funny. The ninety-one-year-old jazz legend had help pulling it all together from his wife of 22 years, Gwen Terry, who not only saw him through this project but stood by him during a perfect storm of medical challenges that intruded on but never fully thwarted his busy life as a performer, teacher, and goodwill ambassador.

Out of Nowhere

I shared a moment with Clark Terry nine years ago. It began with a telephone call. I was writing a piece about a November 1950 recording session by the Count Basie small group on which Clark played trumpet. After finding “C Terry” in the Englewood N.J. phone book, I had to work up the nerve to dial the number, being, after all, a stranger calling out of nowhere about a three-minute performance he’d been part of more than 50 years before. Half-expecting to encounter an answering machine or a protective spouse, I was startled when the man himself answered the phone. At first he sounded tired and groggy, having just returned, he told me, from L.A, where he’d played a concert at the Hollywood Bowl. He perked up when he heard that the focus of my article was the song “Little White Lies” and the solo played by the brilliant tenor saxophonist Wardell Gray, who was born this week, February 13, 1921, and died an ugly, drug-related death in May 1955. Gray’s widow, Dorothy, had called me from California after reading “Song of the Thin Man,” a piece I’d written for the Village Voice. My enthusiasm for her husband’s playing with Basie had prompted her to suggest that I talk with Clark. “They were very close in those days,” she said. “He was best man at our wedding.”

“A Beautiful Time”

Holding the phone to the speaker, I played Clark both takes of “Little White Lies” while for the first time in half a century, he listened to his performance as the sweet-talking liar while Wardell played, with naked feeling, the heartsick victim. When he asked to hear the music over again, it was as if Wardell had come back to life again long enough to formally introduce us.

I mailed Clark my CD of the “Little White Lies” session along with a note and some questions, and with true jazz-life timing, he called me at 2:30 in the morning and talked well past three about “the beautiful time” he and Wardell Gray had with the Basie small group, the road trips, sharing a room in Philadelphia, the food (“Beans smeans!”), baseball and haircuts and the secret language they shared, esoteric phrases like “Put the cuffs on him, Sam!” borrowed from some show they’d seen. After Clark left Basie to join Duke Ellington, they kept in touch, corresponding “religiously” until drugs came between them. “I couldn’t believe it when I heard he was using. He was such a conscientious person. And when I read about his death in the paper, I jumped up and screamed. I couldn’t believe it, you know. I really loved him.”

“It Broke My Heart”

For reasons most likely having to do with space and name recognition, Wardell Gray receives only a passing mention in Clark Terry’s memoir. But he’s there, between the lines, when reference is made to the “camaraderie” of the Basie group, and if you’ve heard Clark lament what happened on that May night in Las Vegas, you know that his old friend’s death haunts the chapter where for the first time in the book he directly confronts the plague of drugs. “It was an overdose,” he told me during that late-night call. They “thought he was dead so they put him in a car, drove into the desert and dumped him out but he wasn’t dead yet. It was the rocks in the desert that broke his neck. Dorothy showed me the death certificate.” The pained disbelief was still in his voice five decades later. “I couldn’t understand it. He had everything going for him.”

In the chapter focused on the issue of drugs, Clark recalls the time, “around 1953,” when he was on his way to a restaurant in the Times Square area and saw “this bulk lying in the gutter on Broadway. I walked closer and looked and discovered that it was a person. I rolled him over with my foot and I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was Miles Davis!”

Thinking back to that stunning moment, Clark surely flashed on the fate of Wardell Gray. With Miles, who would survive to have a spectacular career, Clark could at least do something about it, so he helped him up, took him into a restaurant, bought him some breakfast, walked him back to his own hotel, and put him to bed before going out for a couple of hours. When he came back, the door to the room was open, Miles was gone, and so were Clark’s clothes, trumpet, and radio.

Clark’s coda to that scene: “So many of the cats were on dope. It broke my heart, but there was nothing I could do.”

In fact, Clark Terry went on to do a great deal, setting an example by abstaining, even when users tried to force it on him, and by helping enrich the future of jazz through teaching and working with generations of young musicians.

Words and Music

One of the core lessons Clark Terry teaches his students is the importance of translating the lyric of a song (like “Little White Lies”) into “the language of jazz” (his italics), “how to bend a note, slur it, ghost it,” how to say “I love you” to “a lovely lady.” As a writer, he turns the lesson around, finding ways to translate the Terry sound into English. What enlivens his writing is the element Gary Giddins has singled out in his playing, his “personality,” that distinctive “comic esprit” — “every note robust, beaming, and shadowed with impish resolve and irony.”

Clark’s personality shines forth throughout the book, but most vividly during his early years on the road. After describing Ida Cox, whose voice “could have knocked a fly off the back wall,” Clark sketches another performer in her troupe, “a peg-legged guy” whose skin color was “coffee with a dash of cream” and whose “slicked back conk was so oily that a flea would have broken his neck trying to land.” Clark nicknamed him “A Track and a Dot,” because “when he’d walked in the snow he’d made a footstep and a hole.”

Clark had names for just about everyone. Tall, thin Wardell was “Bones” and his stylish wife, Dorothy, was “Vogue.” His nicknaming skills get mightily exercised in one of the numerous early road life anecdotes, where he and his bandmates endure a 750-mile ride in the back of a truck full of monkeys he names “Twitchy,” “Chatty,” “Snags,” “No-Tail,” “Old Man Mose,” “Lips,” “Bubble Eyes,” “Ribs,” and “the Warden” (who “fought a lot”). The monkeys “became tolerable after a few hours and it seemed like they didn’t want to be bothered with us any more than we wanted to be bothered with them. So the trip wasn’t too bad, other than the smell and the noise. But we did have to turn our back and sneak bites from the food.”

Food also provides material for several Terryesque zingers. To describe rapport with a buddy, he writes, “We hit it off like biscuits and molasses.” Playing a gig in the rain, many pages and years later: “We were all as wet as biscuits in the river.” Clark’s “repertoire was getting fatter than a liver-fed cat.” Some product placement from early days with a band: “We were dressed sharper than Gillette razors.” Having never finished high school, he was daunted by teaching a clinic at a real college: “I felt like a young mouse on a cat farm.”

One of Clark’s most curious similes — “I felt like a small dot on a huge manuscript” — comes when he abandons Basie for Ellington, his guilt compounded by a not so little white lie he had to tell in order to make the move. When he runs into Basie years later: “Seeing the smile on his face and knowing that I’d lied to him made me feel as small as a cork in the ocean.”

Among the book’s strongest chapters are those covering his years with Ellington. Describing the way Duke handled his musicians (“all these very different attitudes and egotudes”), Clark writes, “He knew exactly how to use each man’s sound to create the most amazing voicings. The sounds of trains, whistles, birds, footsteps, climaxes, cries. Rhythms that vibrated the floor. Harmonies with ebbs and flows that almost lifted me right out of my chair.” Clark imagines the eyes of the audience “glued to us like we were the fountain of life. The music was so powerful and electric, if I’d had a big plug I could have stuck it in the air and lit up the whole world.”

Lighting Up YouTube

You can see Clark Terry lighting up YouTube’s vision of jazz heaven, whether he’s making love to the trumpet or the flugelhorn, or creating his own foxy language with “Mumbles,” the ultimate in word jazz, on the Tonight Show, or in what may be his earliest filmed appearance, the Snader transcript of the Basie small group’s “Bass Conversation.” In the parallel universe of YouTube, Clark is forever 30 and Wardell is 29, they’re always on the bandstand, moving shoulder to shoulder, swaying, jiving to the beat laid down by the Basie rhythm section, the Count mugging outrageously at the piano, steady Freddie Greene strumming, Jimmy Lewis “playing the hell out of the bass” (as Clark would put it), smiling Gus Johnson dealing with the drums. After clarinetist Buddy DeFranco takes the first solo, it’s Wardell’s turn, quoting “Swinging On a Star” before cutting loose, one on one with Jimmy Lewis. But it’s Clark who delivers the show stopper, making his trumpet talk, sassing the Count and then riding out in style as the ensemble kicks in and all is as it should be in the best of all possible worlds.