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Trumpeter Clark Terry, Who Played in ‘Tonight Show’ Band, Dies at 94

Trumpeter Clark Terry, who excelled as a leader and sideman in big bands and small combos during his seven-decade career in jazz, has died at 94.

Terry, a 2010 Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award honoree, entered hospice care on Feb. 13, suffering from the effects of advanced diabetes.

“He left us peacefully, surrounded by his family, students and friends,” his wife Gwen wrote on his Facebook page Saturday.

Among the most prolific and widely admired instrumentalists in jazz, Terry led or co-led more than 80 recording dates and played on more than 900 sessions by the time of his last session in 2004.

Also proficient on flugelhorn, Terry was best known to the general public as a longtime featured soloist in the house band of NBC’s “The Tonight Show.” In 1960, he became the first African-American staff musician with the network.

Born in St. Louis, Terry began playing in high school, and he played in the U.S. Navy band during World War II. After the war, he began his recording career with R&B saxophonist-singer Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson’s combo and saxophonist Charlie Barnet’s big band (alongside trumpeter Doc Severinsen, later the leader of the “Tonight Show” band).

During the late ’40s and through the ’50s, he held back-to-back gigs with the two most prestigious big bands in jazz: the Count Basie and Duke Ellington orchestras. (In 1959, he was part of the group that performed Ellington’s score for director Otto Preminger’s feature “Anatomy of a Murder.”)

Comfortable in both swing and bebop formats, he also worked during this period as a sideman with Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington, Stan Getz, Johnny Hodges, Gerald Wilson, Thelonious Monk, Billy Strayhorn, Sonny Rollins, Bud Powell and Ray Charles. He also worked in the big band of leader-composer-arranger Quincy Jones, for whom he served as an early mentor (as he did with another celebrated trumpeter, Miles Davis).

During the ’60s, he continued to record as a leader while doing sideman duty with Louis Armstrong, Charles Mingus, Johnny Griffin, Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, Yusef Lateef, Dizzy Gillespie, Oliver Nelson, Wes Montgomery, J.J. Johnson, the Modern Jazz Quartet and Cannonball Adderley, among many others. He appeared on several albums toplined by “Tonight Show” bandleaders Severinsen and Skitch Henderson. He began a fruitful collaboration with trombonist Bob Brookmeyer’s big band in 1961.

In 1964, Terry – known for his sly humor and his trumpet-and-vocal conversations on the bandstand – actually scored something like a pop hit, when he scatted on his composition “Mumbles,” featured on “The Oscar Peterson Trio Plus One” (with Terry the titular “plus one”). The novel collaboration with Canadian pianist Peterson’s group propelled the album to No. 81 on the U.S. album chart.

From the ’70s onward, Terry continued to record but increasingly concentrated on touring, with Peterson and his own Big B-A-D Band. He began mounting his own branded jazz festivals in 2000.

He focused his energy on musical education in later years. A Harlem youth band he founded ultimately helped germinate New York’s celebrated “Jazz Mobile” program for youngsters. He also taught and lectured at a number of high schools, colleges and music camps.

A National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master, he – like Louis Armstrong and others before him – served as a Jazz Ambassador for the U.S. State Department, touring the Middle East and Africa.

Terry published his autobiography “Clark” in 2011. He was featured in the 2014 documentary “Keep on Keepin’ On,” about his relationship with a blind 23-year-old pianist.

Survivors include his wife.

 

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