St. Louis musicians rarely are described as such when tributes are written. Anecdotes of their life growing up in the city are sometimes left out and especially if the artist wasn't living in St. Louis when he passed. But Clark Terry always spoke highly of his hometown and had wonderful stories and lots of pride for St. Louis and its arts. As a memorial to Clark Terry who passed away yesterday, Devil At The Confluence presents Terry's words and stories of St. Louis.
Born on South Broadway in 1920, Terry recalled when he heard St Louis' legendary Dewey Jackson band at Sauter's Park where the Skatium is today. Jackson's dynamic trumpet playing convinced Terry to become a musician. And Terry was influenced as well by the music in a sanctified church on Iron Street in Carondelet. He didn't attend the services, but he would sit out on the sidewalk and listen to the singing and shouting coming from inside. He began playing music with some friends in a street corner kazoo band and when he was sixteen he joined the Drum and Bugle Corps of the Tom Powell Post on Enright Avenue.
The popular Jeter-Pillar's band was at the Club Plantation and Terry was looking for his break into show business. St. Louis' Sykes Smith gave him his shot by sneaking him in,
"He'd have me come up the back stairs of the Club Plantation. He’d put a chair in the corner and I’d sit there, and when he had a solo he’d point to me, and he let me take his solos."
Terry was also in George Hudson's band that replaced the Jeter-Pillars group at the Club Plantation. Hudson's group was well-known to the big stars touring across the country. Terry remembered when one of the biggest stars of the time, Ella Fitzgerald came to the Plantation. At six in the morning, after playing all night, Terry and his bandmates would play a game of softball. Fitzgerald tagged along.
"She had a great voice and a great arm. She could throw your butt out at home plate from the outfield," recalled Terry.
Dollar Bill and his Small Change was a legendary group in St. Louis jazz history, although they were never recorded. As a young trumpet player on his way up in the scene, Terry worked with Dollar Bill.
"He was an old piano player, one of the old pros. He smoked and chewed on long cigars all the time. His slogan was, “I’m Dollar Bill from Compton Hill. I never worked, and I never will.”
One of Terry's greatest numbers is Mumbles, his impersonation of a legendary St. Louis blues singer he knew back home.
Miles Davis was just a boy when Terry was a professional at clubs like Birdlong's, the Tune Town Ballroom, the Elks Club and the Barrel where Jimmy Forrest played. Davis always remembered the time he worked up the courage to approach Terry while on break, but Terry was more interested in the ladies on the dance floor and paid little attention to the pestering kid. It became a favorite gag for both of them to tell later in life.
And when Terry told this story he confessed that it was what made him determined to teach and to make time for every student. In Seattle, Washington, while playing at the Palomar Theater with Count Basie, another young man approached Terry to learn from him and Terry kindly obliged. That first student was Quincy Jones. Mentoring became his focus and his pride. A Kennedy Center concert was delayed when Terry was missing from backstage at showtime. Stagehands were sent scurrying to find him. Someone heard trumpet playing in a stairwell and found Terry giving a quick scales lesson to a student who had asked him a question.
Lionel Hampton, Count Basie and Duke Ellington took Terry away from St. Louis and eventually he was in the NBC band and on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.
Terry enjoyed returning to St. Louis, and spoke highly of his hometown and the local music that inspired him. He was very proud of his star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame at Blueberry Hill in the University City loop.
Clark Terry's unique artistry, like his hometown's music legacy, are both largely under-appreciated. And this inadequate understanding of the city, its arts and the music that was born here is made obvious in an interview with Terry by the National Endowment for the Arts - Smithsonian Jazz Oral History Program. Knowing only what he had read in books, the interviewer began talking about King Oliver and Louis Armstrong coming up the river on boats from New Orleans to bring jazz to St. Louis, but Terry interrupted him saying,
"No, we had our own."
"Charlie Creath, King of Cornet. Now he could play, man. He could swing. He could swing you into bad health, and all the cats wanted to swing like Charlie Creath. This is why all of the trumpet players, if you trace all the way down the line, who hung around there, had anything to do with that, like Joe Thomas, Ham Davis, Sweets Edison, Vertna Saunders, Harold Baker, Dewey Jackson, Sleepy Tomlin, Miles Davis. All of these cats had something that hinged back to Charlie Creath."
Rest in peace, Mr. Terry.
St. Louis is proud of you too.