February 24, 2015


The Sound of Musical Joy: Clark Terry's Trumpet (TAYLOR HO BYNUM, 2/24/15, The New Yorker)

Master improvisers have a personality in their playing, a singularity to their sound. They have the ability to adapt to any musical context while maintaining a sense of personal identity, displaying distinct individuality while always contributing to the needs of the collective. One of the greatest practitioners of this humanistic art died on Saturday: the ebullient, effervescent, irreplaceable, irrepressible trumpet virtuoso Clark Terry.

Born into a poor family in St. Louis in 1920, Terry would often tell the story of building a horn out of junkyard parts--a garden hose attached to a funnel--since his family couldn't afford an instrument when he was a child. Even at the height of his fame and technical expertise, he still played with the imagination and abandon of that ten-year-old on a homemade creation; there have been few musicians who so embodied the sound of musical joy, of playful engagement and exploration. He was well cast as Puck in Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn's 1957 Shakespearean suite "Such Sweet Thunder"--his playing glowed with trickster energy and elfish glee.

The trumpet (or the flugelhorn, a related instrument with a darker, fatter sound that Terry single-handedly popularized among jazz brass players) is a notoriously difficult instrument to play, but Terry made it dance. He pioneered a kind of "doodle-tonguing" articulation, which allowed notes to spill out of his horn without ever sounding rushed or frantic. His tone was a wonder of flexibility and range, a warmer, more liquid timbre than Miles Davis's icy cool or Dizzy Gillespie's bright attack. (And if I were forced to name a triumvirate of post-Armstrong trumpet innovators, those would be the three.) He employed a compendium of jazz styles--from the growling plunger mutes of early big bands to the lightning runs of bebop--while wholly transcending category. He was also an entertainer, a witty man on the bandstand where his "Mumbles" scat-singing routine was a big hit, but don't let the comedy obscure the music--Terry was a genius.

Posted by at February 24, 2015 6:17 PM

blog comments powered by Disqus