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Clark Terry, master of jazz trumpet, mainstay of Ellington, ‘Tonight’ bands

Dec. 14, 1920 – Feb. 21, 2015

WASHINGTON – Clark Terry, a trumpet and fluegelhorn virtuoso who was an ebullient mainstay in the Duke Ellington and “Tonight Show” big bands and who became a mentor to generations of jazz players, including Miles Davis and Wynton Marsalis, has died at 94.

His wife, Gwen, announced the death Saturday on the musician’s Web page.

Mr. Terry was barely out of his teens when he came roaring out of St. Louis with a reputation for technical refinement, melodic expressiveness and hard-swinging vitality. Over the next six decades, he remained a vibrant fixture of entertainment and music education despite increasing physical frailty, including diabetes and low vision. In 2010, he won a Grammy Award for lifetime achievement.

As a band leader, studio musician and accompanist, Mr. Terry was in such constant demand that he joked of needing a suitcase just to cart around his W-2 tax forms.

In addition to his membership in the “Tonight Show” band from 1960 to 1972 – he was the orchestra’s first black member – he played with jazz powerhouses such as Count Basie, Quincy Jones, Gerry Mulligan, Ornette Coleman, Thelonious Monk, Cecil Taylor and Bob Brookmeyer.

After serving in a Navy band during World War II, Mr. Terry advanced through some of the most popular orchestras of the era, including those of Lionel Hampton, Charlie Barnet and Basie. Working with Basie from 1948 to 1951 was a formative period in his career. He likened it to a “prep school” in which he soaked in the band leader’s understated but compelling swing style.

Ellington had a trumpet seat free in 1951 and poached Mr. Terry from Basie.

“The first time I ever heard about Clark Terry was when Charlie Barnet told me about him,” Ellington wrote in his autobiography, “Music Is My Mistress.” “Charlie was raving: ‘Clark Terry is the greatest trumpet player in the world. You wait and see. Or better still, go get him for your band, but hurry, because soon everybody is going to be trying to get him.’ I considered myself lucky indeed to get him in 1951.”

While with the Ellington organization – one of the most inventive and acclaimed bands in the country – Mr. Terry was seeking ways to achieve a more intimate sound on his horn. Mr. Terry turned his focus to the fluegelhorn, a trumpetlike instrument whose configuration permits a softer tone and had been used intermittently in jazz.

Mr. Terry’s warmly exquisite playing helped revive the fluegelhorn as a respected instrument in jazz. Mr. Terry was in the Ellington band during its spirited appearance at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island and was a featured soloist in Ellington recordings such as “Such Sweet Thunder.”

Jazz scholar Dan Morgenstern said he “ranks with the great trumpet players in jazz because he was such an original voice and because he was so adaptable – in big bands and small groups. He was wonderful with singers. He was an all-around musician. And he was an enthusiastic and inspiring leader. When he start a song, he’d tell his band, ‘One, two, you know what to do.’ ”

Davis, who died in 1991, admired Mr. Terry’s “big, round, warm sound.” When Davis bought a new trumpet, he gave it to Mr. Terry for refinement. “Man, Clark had a way of twisting and lightening the spring action of the pumps of the trumpet … that would make your horn sound altogether different,” Davis wrote in his 1990 memoir. “It made your horn sound like magic, man.”

– Washington Post

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