Democrat & Chronicle: Features (Arts)
Jazz legend took the wiggling to heart Jazz
Staff music critic
(February 20, 2005) — Jazz great Clark Terry is known as a fervent supporter of music education, and given his early musical experiences it's easy to understand why.
Growing up poor as one of 10 children in St. Louis, Terry didn't have the money to go college. So he was forced to seek lessons from older musicians in town, and none of them really wanted to help out a young player who might one day surpass them.
"I was just a kid looking to play, so I went up to this old-timer and asked, 'Hey man, how do I improve my tone?'" Terry recalls. "He says, 'Go home, sit in a straight-back chair, and blow your horn in front of a mirror while wiggling your left ear.' I was stupid enough to believe him, so the next time I gave a concert, I heard these old ladies saying, 'Did you see that boy wiggling his ear?'"
Terry, who is now 84 and one of the world's great trumpeters, says he'll keep his ears still this Friday when he joins the Eastman Jazz Ensemble and its conductor, Bill Dobbins, for a concert at the Eastman Theatre. The event will offer the ensemble's bright young players the chance to study and perform with a master. It also promises to expose them (and the rest of us, for that matter) to one of the most expressive and recognizable sounds in jazz.
Terry has appeared on nearly 900 albums over the past 60 years, and it's hard to think of any 20th-century jazz musician who hasn't benefited from knowing and playing with him.
Born on Dec. 20, 1920, Terry grew up listening to jazz. His older sister was married to a musician in a group called the Musical Ambassadors, and one day the band's trumpet player heard 13-year-old Terry (who had never had a lesson) blowing on his horn. According to Terry, the astonished musician exclaimed, "Boy you're going to be a horn player one day."
"I was stupid enough to believe him," Terry says.
Actually, everyone else who heard him believed it, too. Lionel Hampton loved the Terry sound and hired him in 1945 (that was the trumpeter's first big break).
Terry then played with Count Basie, and in the 1950s joined Duke Ellington's band — he was with Ellington at the now legendary 1956 Newport Jazz Festival concert.
But Terry will likely always be remembered for his stint with The Tonight Show band in the 1960s.
"Those weren't the best days for big bands, but (Johnny) Carson kept the music alive," Terry says. "It was sweet and was the best time of my life."
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