At a time in life when most musicians would be cutting back and enjoying elder statesman status, there seems to be no stopping trumpet and flugelhorn giant Clark Terry. He helped celebrate the Newport Jazz Festival's 50th anniversary in August, and followed that up last month with a week at the Blue Note in New York with guest vocalist Jon Hendricks. Following that, it was off to Washington, D.C. for the Thelonious Monk Institute's vocal competition. Not bad for someone who turns 84 in December.
On top of that, Terry's already noteworthy recording career continues unabated, most recently with a revisiting of the Gil Evans-Miles Davis collaboration on the Gershwin brothers' Porgy & Bess
(A440 Music), done with the Chicago Jazz Orchestra conducted by Jeff Lindberg.
Terry's playing over the Lindberg transcriptions of the Evans charts amounts to a tour de force for the venerable hornman, ironically tackling a piece that was performed by Davis, a onetime protégé, some 45 years ago. As good as the new recording sounds, it was not without its pitfalls, Terry pointed out last month between sets at the Blue Note. For one thing, his wife Gwen and the conductor Jeff Lindberg had to talk him into re-exploring the classic Evans-Davis recording.
"It took my wife a whole lot of convincing, because my eyesight is very, very bad. After cancer, I can't see very much," Terry said. " So they brought the music into my house and I looked at it and I said, 'I can't see this.' So she said, 'I will teach you.' She's a good musician. So she spoon-fed me through some of the parts from Miles' and Gil's record. I learned to like it after digging it every day and trying to get with it. So I said, 'OK, I'll give it a crack.'"
Even after that, though, there were problems. While Terry was willing to tackle the work, his eyesight still had other ideas.
"So we went out to Chicago to do the first performance with the Chicago Jazz Orchestra and of course, I couldn't see. I had hired my good buddy [trumpeter] Art Hoyle to go through with me on the reading part of it and so forth," he recalled. "We walked through the rehearsal and he read the parts because I couldn't see them. We got a couple of things done that were a little bit visible for me. When we got through it, I wanted him to play a duo with me, so that's on it. 'Gone'."
The Chicago recording session produced just three takes with Terry and the orchestra when Lindberg devised an alternate plan, he said.
"Jeff Lindberg said, 'I have an idea...' He had it [the music] put on huge placards, but like two feet wide, two feet, three feet high. The quarter notes were bigger than my fists. I had a better opportunity to see it. We did about two or three dates here in New York with the cans on and went through that way and it turned out beautiful," Terry said.
"It turned out Jeff was happy and I was pretty well satisfied with it. I was proud that I had managed to do something with this historical thing, Porgy and Bess, and the record is a tribute to my little buddy Miles," he added.
Was it daunting to tackle a work that already had obtained the status of jazz classic?
"It has nothing to do with it," Terry said. "It feels good. The idea is that the music is here to stay. It's great compositions, great music by [George] Gershwin. All the tunes are great compositions by Gershwin. Gil Evans is such a fantastic writer. So the combination of Gershwin's music, Gil Evans' arrangements and Miles Davis' performance made it a classic, a thing that's here forever... It was his [Jeff Lindberg] idea to do the piece again."
The Terry-Davis relationship goes back years before the classic recording, he pointed out.
"Miles was practically like a student of mine. His teacher, Elwood Buchanan, one of my beer-drinkin' buddies, used to say to me, 'Man, you've go to come over to the school' - he taught over in East St. Louis - 'and hear Dewey Davis.'
"I went over to see this little dude that was about as big as this cane. If he'd had turned sideways, they'd have marked him absent," he said.
Terry said Buchanan had one complaint about young Davis. "He said: 'The only thing I hate about him - we all like Harry James, and he loves Harry James - he tries to play everything with Harry James vibrato.'"
"Buch' had a big ruler... and every time he shakes a note, he'd hit him on the knuckles with it and say: 'Stop shakin' that note. You're going to shake enough when you get old,'" Terry said.
Filling out Terry's already busy schedule is his work as a clinician, teaching youngsters around the country. An upcoming Chiaroscuro CD will feature a youth big band featuring past and present students.
Terry said he enjoys teaching youngsters because "they're very sincere about doing what they want to do," something that wasn't always true.
Once, he said, "the majority of them used to couldn't care less about what happened in the past, but now we've gotten them to realize that they don't know what happened in the past and they need to know. It's like putting up a building: in order to go up high, you have to dig deep. The more they learn about what's going on in the profession, then the better it is."
Lost in all of his activities is the fact that Terry has one of the longest working regular small groups in jazz, the newest member being with the quintet some nine years, the longest-serving about 40 years.
"We've got one person, [pianist] Don Friedman; we've been together for 40 years off and on. [Bassist] Marcus [McLaurine] and I have been together 27 years. The drummer [Sylvia Cuenca] came in about... 15 years ago and sat in with us one night at the Village Vanguard. She's been there ever since. The new guy in the band, [saxophonist] David Glasser, he's only been with the band [about] ten years."
The band may not be constantly touring, but its members always seem to be available for Terry.
"When you treat people like human beings, as you yourself would like to be treated, you command a lot of respect that way. They give preference. The priorities are there, whenever there's a choice, even if it's a matter of a little less money, they prefer to go with your group," he said. "They're very compatible. We love each other and we love to play together."
Working with Terry "is an amazing experience," said Cuenca. "I feel really honored to be sharing the bandstand with a master like Clark. I'm very lucky to get that experience. He's an innovator and master of the music.
"He's so consistent every night. Seeing a master like him always on a certain level. He's great to be around. It's inspiring," she said. "Playing with Clark all these years, I've got to meet a lot of great musicians that have been around for years and it's really a valuable experience.
I just feel happy for the opportunity. Very happy. I've learned a lot. I'm still learning," she added.
"My first gig was actually here at the Blue Note back in 1981," McLaurine recalled. "He kept calling me back, so I figured I certainly had a shot in the band. So here I sit, 23 years later. There was no audition at all. The audition was like the first night that I played. I was very nervous. I was very green.
"He was very patient and was very in terms of helping me, in terms of developing my sound and my feeling. That's one thing that's good about Clark. He's very helpful with young players. If he sees sincerity in your playing and your attitude, then he's very open in terms of trying to help you develop. That's one of his real gifts," McLaurine said.
"It's a spontaneous music. Clark sets the thing up and we can play what we feel like playing," said Friedman, who estimated he has been playing with Terry in various settings from small group to big band about 40 years. "The music always swings and Clark's a great player. It really feels like you're playing with one of the greatest players in jazz.
"He's a great leader because he... doesn't tell you how to play or anything like that. He just leads by example. That's the best way to teach or lead or something like that, rather than try to explain something," Friedman said. "We've never really talked about how to play or what to play. You just do it. You just feel it and you do it. That's jazz."
With all this work, are there any mornings Terry wakes up tired? "Almost every morning - evening, actually," he said with his characteristic laugh.
"You have to be determined that you're going to keep at it and keep doing it 'til you get it right. And it takes a long time to get it right," he said. "So, I'm still trying to get it right." Six reviews
of Porgy & Bess
– Clark Terry - Clark Terry (Emarcy-Polygram/Verve, 1954)
– Clark Terry (with Thelonious Monk) - In Orbit (Riverside-OJC, 1958)
– Clark Terry - Color Changes (Candid, 1960)
– Oscar Peterson & Clark Terry (Pablo-OJC, 1975)
– Clark Terry - One on One (Chesky, 1999)
– Clark Terry & Max Roach - Friendship (Eighty Eight's-Columbia, 2003)