Clark Terry, trumpeter who spanned jazz era, dies at 94

NEW YORK (AFP) - Jazz trumpeter Clark Terry, the playful soloist and teacher whose seven-decade career spanned a golden era of jazz, has died at 94, his wife announced on Sunday.

"Our beloved Clark Terry has joined the big band in heaven where he'll be singing and playing with the angels," his wife Gwen said on his Facebook page. "He left us peacefully, surrounded by his family, students and friends."

Terry was one of the most recorded artists in jazz and played with a who's who of greats. But he also found a vocation in the education of younger musicians and, unlike many acclaimed artists, was famous for not always taking himself seriously on stage.

He reached a broader audience in 1960 when he joined The Tonight Show, becoming the first African American to become a regular in a band on a major US television network.

Terry said that network NBC had been facing calls to be more inclusive and contacted him while he was performing in Paris in a show that was on the ropes.

"We had to be models, because I knew we were in a test... We couldn't have a speck on our trousers. We couldn't have a wrinkle in the clothes. We couldn't have a dirty shirt," Terry later said in an interview for an oral history archive for the Smithsonian museums.

Terry, in the same interview, said that jazz solos for him were like painting and that he subconsciously imagined colours.

"Different tones on the instrument have a connotation of tones of colours to me. I always like to think of my favourite colours, which is blue and white and red," Terry said.

Terry late in his career also took up the paintbrush, saying: "Almost invariably, if you are a good creator of a solo, you can create a painting."

Terry grew up in segregated St. Louis, where he recalled being "relegated to second-class citizenship". He discovered music through his brother-in-law, who played tuba on a Mississippi River steamboat.

In St. Louis, he mentored a young Miles Davis. Terry also gave lessons to Quincy Jones, who later became one of music's most successful producers and would call up his former teacher for recording sessions.

Terry played in US Navy bands during World War II and later was a rare musician to join both the Count Basie and Duke Ellington orchestras. He was part of the group that performed Ellington's score for Otto Preminger's Anatomy of a Murder in 1959.

Terry performed with Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington, Stan Getz, Thelonious Monk, Billy Strayhorn, Louis Armstrong, Yusef Lateef, Dizzy Gillespie and many others. He also pioneered the flugelhorn for jazz.

But despite hundreds of recording sessions, largely in New York, Terry was known for his humorous, even frivolous, approach on stage. His signature tune was "Mumbles," a light-hearted work of incoherent scat singing.

Named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts, he toured the Middle East and Africa as a cultural ambassador for the US State Department.

Terry also put a heavy emphasis on education, running clinics both for high school and university students and teaching at William Paterson University in New Jersey.

Terry, who kept on teaching after losing his legs due to complications from diabetes in 2012, recalled that jazz legend Louis Armstrong used to keep a handkerchief over his fingers so that other musicians would not steal his work.

"Fortunately that attitude is really the opposite of the situation today," he said in a 1985 interview published by the Jazz Institute of Chicago.

"Those of us who are involved in jazz education feel that it's a very important thing to impart knowledge to young people. Many of the things that are involved can't possibly be documented and if we go down with them so go down most of the secrets."

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