Clark Terry Reminisces about Duke

I Remember Duke…
Clark Terry Reminisces
by T.C. Brautigam

It’s a few minutes before show time at the duMaurier Downtown Jazz Festival in Toronto and Clark Terry is fidgeting with the valves on his personally-engraved flugelhorn backstage. Decked out in a three-piece biege suit, Terry exudes professionalism. But beneath the suit and horn, Terry, affectionately known as Mumbles, emits a child-like enthusiasm as though this is his first gig.

This same enthusiasm grows when he reminisces about Duke Ellington.

“I usually refer to my stint with the Ellington band as the period during which I attended the University of Ellingtonia,” says Terry, who played with Duke for eight years. “So much would just rub off on you just through the process of osmosis.” Song selection was perhaps one of those things.

“He could read an audience and tell what not to play for them and what to play for them,” Terry recalls.

Another lesson Mumbles learned from Ellington was how to tactfully steal star musicians from another band leader. In 1951, after three years with the Count Basie Orchestra, Terry was asked to play horn for Ellington’s band.

“Duke had the way of scouting people and putting them on call … (he would) surround himself with people that he’s chosen over the years,” murmurs the 78-year-old St. Louis native. “It was not proper protocol to snatch one’s key player out of one’s best buddy’s band, so he had to make it appear to Basie that I was ill and had to go home and rest.”

“He said, ‘We’ll just happen to be coming through St. Louis, so (we will) stay until eleven and by then you may be feeling well enough to come out and try your chops again.’ And to cap it off he said, ‘Meanwhile, I’ll put you on salary,'” says Terry. “That did it … I said, ‘Bye Basie.'”

It was during this time that Mumbles got to know Ellington well. Terry remembers the Duke as an extremely superstitious individual, especially before a performance.

“He didn’t like peanuts in the dressing room. He didn’t like whistling in the dressing room,” recollects Terry, adding that Ellington detested the color yellow because he felt it brought bad luck.

Looking at Terry preparing for his performance, still fidgeting with his horn, it is apparent that superstition is something he also picked up from the Duke through osmosis. There are no peanuts. He doesn’t whistle, but you may hear the occasional mumble.