Yesterday’s concert was without question the best gig we have played this year. When we discovered one of our venues was in Fayetteville, Arkansas, only four hours away from Pine Bluff, plans began taking shape to transport the JLCO, equipment and staff to play an unscheduled, unpaid gig on our day off, and then drive four hours back to Fayetteville.
There is only one thing that would cause twenty or so people to go through this much trouble: love. Our audience: Clark Terry.
For so many people, Clark, as player, teacher, mentor and human being has been a constant inspiration. Without question one of the greatest trumpet players, he also happens to be one or the most giving, loving and funny people to ever grace this earth.
Clark is 94, and his health has seen better days. His recent life was captured poignantly in the documentary “Keep On Keepin’ On” which was just nominated for an Academy Award.
My personal association with Clark Terry started in 1975 when he was the guest soloist with the Monterey Jazz Festival all star band. I was fifteen, playing lead alto in the band. Before this I had only really known him from the Tonight Show, where Johnny Carson would occasionally let Doc Severinsen feature him on a number.
One of the pieces we played at Monterey was a blues, a composition by Clark, and it featured Clark and me. I came out front to join him, getting a better look at the crowd of at least five thousand jazz fans. At the end of the piece Clark grabbed the mic and announced enthusiastically “Ted Nash!” Standing out there playing and hanging with Clark was one of those experiences you will never forget.
(I'm the one with blond hair, just below Benny Golson's left arm)
One year later later my family traveled to New York on vacation. We noticed in the paper Clark was playing with his quintet at the Village Vanguard. Dad and I grabbed out horns and headed to the gig. Clark was, of course, embracing and invited us to sit in. I got my alto out of the case and glanced around at the expectant audience, “Let’s see” written all over their faces. “What would you like to play? A blues?” Clark offered. I immediately snapped back “Cherokee.” When you are sixteen you are brave (i.e. stupid). But I got through it. Clark was as sweet as can be.
So here we are 38 years later (and I am still trying to play Cherokee), on our way to Pine Bluff, Arkansas in four vehicles: two tour buses, equipment truck, and Wynton’s car. Victor Goines was in constant contact with Clark’s wife Gwen, getting updates about Clark’s condition. He and our tour manager, Boss Murphy, worked overtime getting things organized. We pulled up to the hospital where Clark has been under care for the past couple days. The band single-filed down and around a long hallway, arriving at a large multi-purpose room where the hospital, aware of our pending arrival, had organized music stands and chairs.
There was an air of anticipation as the band quickly set up, pulling instruments out, warming up. Wynton called a short set, including some transcriptions Chris Crenshaw did specifically for this performance, songs from a couple of Clark’s recordings.
Someone entered the room announcing “Clark is being wheeled in now.” I felt the emotion well up in me as his hospital bed found its way into the space. We started swinging on Duke’s arrangement of a movement from the Nutcracker Suite. The band was not joking. When there is this kind of emotion and energy in the air the music takes on another dimension of feeling.
They parked Clark in front of the band. His eyes had stopped working a while back, but it was very clear by the smile on his face his ears were just fine. It was a good thing I was quite familiar with the chart because I was having difficulty seeing the notes through my tears.
After we finished the first piece we each took a turn holding Clark’s hand and giving him some love. He was smiling ear to ear with each little visit. “Who is this? Oh yeah, man. Yeah. Love you. God bless you.”
We returned to out chairs and played a blues featuring our vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant, who stood right next to Clark and sang her heart out. Cécile told me later she had to do everything in her power to not break down.
We played a couple more tunes, and brought out a birthday cake (his birthday is next week), visited a little more before they needed to get him back to his room. Just before they wheeled him away Clark again expressed his love and blessings.
We headed over to Clark and Gwen’s home and ate catfish, succotash and coleslaw. Adorning the walls of house was evidence of the great appreciation for this man: record covers, awards and photos. One picture depicted Clark and Harry “Sweets” Edison playing a concert together. Wynton laughed and said when Sweets died he gave all his suits to Clark. Clark told Wynton a while back to come and get some of them, but Wynton, knowing they had no chance on fitting him, never did.
On the ride back to Fayetteville we watched the documentary “Keep On Keepin’ On,” a copy of which had been giving to us at Clark’s home by the director, Al Hicks, who was in attendance. If you haven’t seen this film, you must.
On our way to Texas...