Who Owns Jazz?

Clark Terry, a vital presence for so much of jazz history, is one of the most unswervingly honest and truly democratic persons I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing—in and outside of jazz. There is a story he tells that illuminates his continuous involvement as an educator, in and out of the classroom, in helping to form new generations of jazz musicians.

For Clark’s story, I am indebted to Hank O’Neal –another multiple influence on the jazz scene as record producer at Chiaroscuro, photographer, educator and historian. In 1997, the French publisher Editions Filipacchi released O’Neal’s book The Ghosts of Harlem. An English edition will eventually be available, but O’Neal was kind enough to give me the following quotes from Clark.

In the 1970s, Terry worked in Harlem with his own 17-piece band at the Club Baron. “It just so happens that it was about half and half, blacks and whites,” Clark said. “One night, three black Mafia guys, Black Muslims with guns, come into the club, corner me and said, ‘What are you doing playing with all these whities in Harlem?’ I’m a little bit frightened, but I know I’ve got to be stern, so I say, ‘I think you’re aware of the fact that Harlem has always been responsible for great jazz, big-band jazz, individual jazz, and that’s been missing from the scene for a number of years. I feel it’s my duty to bring big bands back to Harlem. I just choose the best musicians I can find and I don’t listen with my eyes.’

The Black Muslims seemed to be getting the message. One of them said, “Well, we got a kid here, a little black kid, and he wants to play and we want to hear him play.”

Clark nodded and said, “That’s OK. I’ve spent half my life making it possible for young musicians to be heard, so we’ll bring him up at the beginning of the set and turn him loose.” Lew Soloff had the trumpet chair and Clark asked him to let the kid sit in. “I kicked it off with a medium-tempo tune by Chris Woods,” Clark continued. “A very simple tune, very easy to play on, nice changes.”

Immediately, the kid started to solo, but Clark stopped the music. “It’s when we get down to letter D is when you solo,” he told the kid. “Before that, you play with the rest of us. At letter D, you can play along.”

“I just wanted to express myself,” the youngster said. Terry kicked the music off again, and the kid came in wrong again. “Express your ass off my stage,” Clark told him.

“When we came off,” Terry said, “I went straight up to the cats with the three guns and said, ‘Now you see what you’ve done! You brought a dude up here and you stuck your necks out to represent this dude to do something that he’s not qualified to do. He’s not prepared. He didn’t do his homework. He can’t read music!’” One of the Black Muslims, in what Clark remembers as “a low grumbly voice,” said: “Well, the son of a bitch didn’t tell us that.”

Terry didn’t sweat off working with kids, however. “Before the Jazzmobile started uptown, I gathered a lot of little kids out of Harlem and took them to a rehearsal studio on 125th Street,” Clark said. “I bought some of these kids instruments and we rehearsed all the time. Then we got to use the facilities at Manhattan College, a real university atmosphere. When I couldn’t be there, Ernie Wilkins or Kenny Dorham would take my place. We’d hire whoever was competent, black or white, to teach the kids.

“One time when I’d been away for a while, I came back and the attendance was down to almost nothing. One of the students had persuaded all the others not to respond to help from Caucasians. I confronted the kids, and finally one of them said: ‘We don’t want whitey trying to teach us about our music.’

“I said, ‘You’ve got all the facilities of a college student here, and all the possibilities of learning anything you could learn in college—and you’d let bigotry come before that? OK, if that’s what you cats are about, you got it. See you later.’

“And that was the end of that. I just walked away from all of it. We’d had to teach a lot of those kids how to read music, but attitude, bigotry, killed it.”

But later Billy Taylor encouraged Terry to do clinics, and Clark obliged: “I became more and more involved, imparting knowledge, sometimes just relating my experiences.”

Once, in Seattle, playing with Count Basie’s small group, Clark was approached by a “little kid who came in, said he was learning to play trumpet and also wrote music, and asked if he could take some lessons from me. We worked it out so he could come in for a couple of hours—like 6 o’clock or so in the morning before he went to school—and before I went to bed.

“I couldn’t dare to say no to this kid. I shudder to think what would have happened if I had said no. I never would have forgiven myself. I gave him all kinds of lessons I knew how to give him. I worked with him on his writing, theory and harmony. The kid stayed involved. Look at him now.”

The kid was Quincy Jones. On the new Chiaroscuro CD Clark Terry and the Young Titans of Jazz, recorded at the 29th International Jazz Festival Berne in Switzerland, the band is composed of musicians (aged 17 to 44) from around the world, all of whom have been Clark’s students. The drummer, Marcus Gilmore, is Roy Haynes’ grandson. In the notes, Quincy Jones says: “Keep on keepin’ on, Cee Tee. There will never, ever be another you.”

Originally published in July/August 2005

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