"Imitate. Assimilate. Innovate."
I came to read Clark Terry’s autobiography - simply titled Clark - hot on the heels of seeing Keep On Keepin’ On, the (rightfully so) acclaimed documentary about Terry & a student of his, Justin Kauflin. After seeing that incredible documentary in December, I realized that I hadn’t read Terry’s autobiography (written with his wife Gwen and published in 2011), so I picked up a copy and read it as soon as I could. It was a good decision, not only for the stories and history in the book, but also for the joy and good spirit that practically jumped off the page and edged its way into my life.
Clark Terry has been a major force in jazz and jazz education for most of his life, yet he doesn’t have that “household name” status like many other names in jazz: Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Miles Davis. But those who follow jazz know. And hopefully the reach of his autobiography and Keep On Keepin’ On spreads his name even further. Terry is a genuine soul. That’s apparent when you hear him play, see him speak, or read his autobiography. There aren’t many people like Terry in the jazz world, much less in the “real” world, and that alone is a reason to read his memoirs.
Jazz memoirs have a unique legacy in jazz history. They are frequently oral autobiographies, stories told to a co-author, who helps write them down and combine them in a readable way. Jazz memoirs pass down stories about the giants of jazz. And jazz has so many stories!! So many stories heard today are impossible to verify. The lore of jazz is dense enough to fill entire volumes. And some of that lore is passed down through jazz musicians’ autobiographies. Unlike the autobiographies of Miles Davis and Charles Mingus, though, reading CT’s memoirs you are not struck with the notion that some of the stories are utter BS, that they’re just furthering the apocryphal tales that are part of jazz legend and lore. CT’s stories are heartfelt and honest. His earthy humor is never far from the surface, bubbling up in characteristic phrases: “Stayed busier than a one-armed paper hanger with crabs!” “It’s a poor mouse that doesn’t have but one hole. If you can’t go one way, find another. That’s what improvisation is all about.” “Keep on keepin’ on.” “Never put your shovel where there ain't no shit!” “Imitate, assimilate, innovate.” “There’s always something new to learn about anything old.”
There is no question in my mind that CT is one of the giants of jazz music. He was there from its beginning, starting to play and tour by the 1940s just as the Big Band Era was winding down and the Bebop era was starting up. Clark is the only person to have played with both Count Basie’s and Duke Ellington’s bands. His first student, Quincy Jones, went on to become a living legend in the music industry, and countless other students of Terry’s have been successful, in music fields and in other fields. He has incredible stories about all of this.
The list of accolades could easily continue: the first African-American musician hired by NBC, later playing in the Tonight Show band; Grammy lifetime achievement award in 2010; playing on almost 400 recordings as a leader or a sideman; 15 honorary doctorate degrees; a legion of students who continue to teach others across the globe.
And his music. The music! I first heard Terry as a young jazz student, in 9th grade or so, on Dave Grusin’s record Homage to Duke. Terry has some classic solos on that album, demonstrating his versatility as a musician. On “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be” he does a great “Mumbles” routine (check out the original recording with the Oscar Peterson Trio, a "real funky blues"). On “C Jam Blues” he trades 4s with himself, between his flugelhorn and his muted trumpet. And he laments on “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo,” in a recording that, to my ears, is better than the original Duke recording.
I can’t name a favorite CT recording, though. His solo on "Perdido" (on Festival Session) is genius, as is the boppish take on the head of the same tune from Cosmic Scene. His album with the Oscar Peterson Trio is classic. Serenade to a Bus Seat. Gil Evans's version of Porgy & Bess. And on and on and on. Reading his autobiography is almost as enjoyable as listening to the swing and groove of “Launching Pad.” It makes you feel warm in your soul and puts a smile on your face.
Much as I felt that Keep On Keepin' On was like taking a 90 minute lesson with CT, his autobiography is the same. It’s as if you’re sitting down with Mr Terry and listening to him tell all the great stories from his life. CT is honest and funny throughout, but most important, he is grateful. He never let’s a moment pass without reminded himself - and us, the reader - how happy he is with the paths he took in life, how grateful he is for all that he accomplished. If only we could all be so grateful and honest in our approach to music and to life.
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.
Contrast this with JK Simmons's character in the recent movie Whiplash. Simmons is a brutal jazz instructor who see no problems with physically or verbally abusing his students. He views jazz music as a competition, as a way to exert dominance over others. That comes across in the music he chooses to perform with his ensemble: fast multi-meter music that requires stamina and technique above anything else.
And then we hear Terry’s style of swing, his mellifluous flugelhorn sound and smooth bebop licks, and his encouraging approach to teaching: the complete antithesis (and the remedy) to JK Simmons's character. CT is so grateful of his students that he thanks them throughout his autobiography, starting at the beginning - "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." - all the way up to the end, writing in the acknowledgements, “I especially want to thank all of my beautiful students everywhere.” In many places in his book, Terry writes about the the challenges he fought against racism and what he did to help out, including playing at benefits and supporting equality groups. He wrote: “I wished that things could be like they were on the bandstands and in the studios. Jazz was the common denominator at the gigs. We all loved the music. Even when I went overseas and played with cats who didn’t speak the same language, we communicated through music. There was no problem. Just jazz and the freedom of expression.”
I’m a firm believer in the idea that if you surround yourself with good people, you will also be a good person. Spending time with Mr Terry through this book or the documentary is as good a proxy as we can get; if only we could all spend a few minutes talking with Mr Terry. His enthusiasm and outlook on life are infectious. Do yourself the favor and read his autobiography and watch Keep On Keepin' On. You’ll be grateful that you did.