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I sing the praises of one of the three (trumpet) kings

Clark Terry's skills are such he can play the trumpet holding it upside down

 Clark Terry: turns 80 I first came across Clark Terry soloing on trumpet (like many other things in jazz) during one of Willis Conover's VOA Jazz Hour programmes. Conover said, "Ray Nance [on trumpet] on the first chorus, but then featured on trumpet, Clark Terry." The number was Perdido, an Ellington hit composed around 1940, but this rendition was from the '50s, for most of which decade Terry was with the Ellington orchestra.

I listened in wonder to a purring sound, a very slowed down version of what is called vibrato, the throbbing effect of a very rapid variation in the volume of sound. Many jazz musicians are famous for their use of vibrato but Terry is unique for his purring version, which was only one reason why he was a star soloist with Ellington in the '50s.

The conventional view is that the Ellington orchestra was at its best in the early '40s, just before Ben Webster (tenor sax) and Cootie Williams (trumpet) left him and Jimmy Blanton (the first bass soloist) died. And before the be-bop revolution hit swing big bands. My own view is that with the induction of Terry and Paul Gonsalves (tenor sax) in the early '50s, Ellington was still at his best and in fact remained so till his death.

Terry recently told the story of another great performance of his on Perdido (found on the Columbia/ Sony CD Hi-fi Ellington Uptown from 1952) on the BBC World Service. Apparently he had turned up slightly late on the bandstand at Chicago, having drunk plenty of champagne on a Sunday afternoon. Duke, as was his wont in such situations, sobered him up fast by announcing the next number and its featured soloist, and then setting a faster pace than what was usual for the number in his piano intro. Terry played the whole piece with his left hand, holding the trumpet upside-down (with the keys pointing downward)!

This unusual technique came in handy in 1964, after Terry left the Ellington orchestra, when he played as a guest of the pianist Oscar Peterson on the recording Oscar Peterson Trio with Clark Terry. He played Jim on trumpet and flugelhorn, alternating right through on both instruments, one of them held upside down in the left hand. But that date might have been more famous for what gave Terry his middle (nick)name, "Mumbles". Since the whole recording was over early, he asked if he could continue to use the studio for some fun, and did a scat solo improvisation of the slurred diction of the blues singers of his home town, St Louis. That was called Mumbles and, together with another scat piece with the same tune called Incoherent blues, in which he parodies a hard-working cotton-picker and his wife in conversation when he comes home, it went into the album on the demand of the recording engineer rolling with hilarity on the floor as well as the Peterson trio trying to keep a straight face as they accompanied him.

I think it was a faster version of Mumbles that introduced me to Terry's scat work, once again on Conover's Jazz Hour. This was from a concert at Town Hall, New York, in 1971, with Zoot Sims (tenor sax), Milt Hinton (bass), Don Freedman (piano) and Grady Tate (drums). It also had one of my favourite versions of the jazz standard Stardust, featuring - what else? - Terry's purring trumpet sound.

Terry had left Ellington around 1960. Since then he's mostly worked as what's called a "session musician", i.e., a sort of freelance getting together with others (as with Sims et al) or guesting with a regular band for one-time dates whose output mostly goes under the name of other bandleaders. That's partly why this incomparable stylist isn't as famous as some others, but jazz buffs know his true value. Whether under the pioneer vibraphonist Lionel Hampton (then 84) in 1991 at the Blue Note in New York, under the bassist Charles Mingus at Town Hall, NY, or with the drummer Louie Bellson's big band in 1993, again in New York, or once again with Oscar Peterson's band (augmented to a quintet) in 1995 for the album The More I See You, Terry's unique sound has added so much to the quality of the band under the nominal leadership of another musician that he frequently gets billed as "special guest" for such sessions.

But I suppose for me the greatest such occasions number three. One is the New Orleans International Jazz Festival in 1969, when he sat in with Count Basie (whom he'd worked under for a couple of years before Ellington) and other Basie alumni for Basie's famous theme song, One O'clock jump.

The other two are jam sessions with Dizzy Gillespie and another trumpeter, one at Los Angeles, when the third trumpeter was Freddie Hubbard. Oscar Peterson was on that session, whose main feature was the distinctive sounds of the three different trumpeters. The other jam session was at Montreux in Switzerland in 1975, the third trumpeter this time being Roy Eldridge, to whom Gillespie always acknowledged a debt. Once again the distinctive sounds of the trumpeters, supplemented by scat improvisation on Blues for Norman, was the highlight of the concert, turned into a recording called The Trumpet Kings at Montreux. The ubiquitous Peterson was on hand with his reputed 22 fingers at the piano, as was the exciting Louie Bellson on drums. Gillespie may be my favourite trumpeter, but there is certainly enough in these sessions to justify my holding Terry next only to him in esteem.

Terry will be 80 on December 14. He was a mere stripling of 75 in the Oscar Peterson quintet in 1995 (in comparison with Benny Carter, who was 88 at the time and whose album A Gentleman and His Music I reviewed recently). In August last year he joined the BBC Big Band for a concert in honour of Ellington's centenary and he sounded in fine fettle. And why not, since he's a mere stripling in comparison with Hampton (93) and Carter (92) who're still going strong?


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