Clark Terry, apprentice and mentor

Trumpet and flugelhorn virtuoso Clark Terry has first-hand experience in many notable chapters in jazz history. His lifelong devotion to jazz’s development exemplifies the spirit of the Smithsonian’s Jazz Appreciation Month.

Clark Terry PointingClark Terry Laughing
Clark Terry with the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra in 1999. Photographs by Hugh Talman.

Jazz Roots

Born in St. Louis in 1920, Terry frequented local riverboat rides along the Mississippi River to hear live entertainment. A local bandleader named Dewey Jackson kick-started Terry’s musical interests, as Terry explains in his Smithsonian Jazz Oral History:

Dewey Jackson was a trumpet player himself… And they used to say that he was the loudest player – cat that ever came down the Mississippi River… [his band was] playing jazz. That’s how I got involved [in jazz].

Terry started on homemade instruments and eventually bought his first trumpet for $12.50 from a pawn shop and began his journey in jazz.

Basie Bands

While in New York City in 1948, Terry received an invitation to audition for Count Basie’s orchestra. Intent on seizing the opportunity, Terry stretched his playing beyond his usual limits:

LISTEN: Terry describes his audition for Count Basie

When Basie dismantled his orchestra in 1950 due to financial difficulties, he kept Terry as his sole trumpeter in a newly-formed small group. Alongside clarinetist Buddy DeFranco and saxophonist Wardell Gray, Terry was a key soloist and personality in Basie’s performances:

WATCH: Terry “talks” to Count Basie on Rhythm and Blues Review

“University of Ellingtonia”

By 1951, Terry’s talent drew the attention of Duke Ellington. In fact, Ellington wanted Terry in his band so much he ignored Terry’s rudeness the first time they spoke:

LISTEN: Terry describes accidentally insulting Duke Ellington

Terry played with Ellington for nearly a decade, and he acknowledges the importance of that experience:

I refer to my stint with the Ellington band as the period during which I attended the University of Ellingtonia…I refer to my stint with the Basie band as the period during which I attended the prep school in preparation for enrollment at the University of Ellingtonia. So both those schools were – both bands were very, very important to me.

With the wealth of talent Ellington employed, breaking into the ranks of the orchestra proved challenging for Terry. However, Terry’s talent shone through time and again, and Ellington and Billy Strayhorn would write features for Terry, such as “Hey, Buddy Bolden” from A Drum Is A Woman and “Up and Down, Up and Down” from Such Sweet Thunder.

Educating the Youth

Terry has mentored generation after generation of jazz greats, including Miles Davis, Quincy Jones and Wynton Marsalis. Terry’s willingness to teach is a reaction to his youth, when older musicians seldom taught aspiring musicians for fear of losing work. In contrast, he has always felt it is important to pass knowledge to younger generations so the music may continue to grow.

Clark Terry and Billy Strayhorn
(Left to Right) Terry, Kevin Mahogany, Billy Taylor, Dianne Reeves and Frank Wess.

Smithsonian Jazz

Clark Terry embodies the education mission of Smithsonian Jazz. In 1999, the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra was proud to feature Terry in the concert Duke Ellington One-Hundredth-Birthday Celebration. For further information on the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra, please contact Executive Director Ken Kimery at Terry’s contribution to jazz is too vast to cover in this post, but please read his Jazz Oral History, part of the Smithsonian Jazz Oral History Program, funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. entire Jazz Oral History Program is located in the museum’s Archives Center, and a portion are available on Smithsonian Jazz’s website.

Want to learn more about the American experience through the transformative power of jazz? The museum’s Smithsonian Jazz team strongly recommends you check out their website to explore our jazz oral history collection, get tickets to performances by the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra, celebrate Jazz Appreciation Month, and more. Or sign up to receive a monthly jazz e-newsletter from the museum for regular reminders.

Matt Lodato is an intern with Smithsonian Jazz at the National Museum of American History.