Terry was a true NEA Jazz Master, bandleader and educator. He worked as a sideman in both the Count Basie and Duke Ellington Orchestras at varying times. In the 1960s, he became the first black staff musician at NBC, playing for 12 years in The Tonight Show band. And he was a humorist, best known for his creative and hilarious "Mumbles" versions of scat singing.
I remember another side of his humor, a moment in which he described what we might call his earliest encounter with "ear training." Educators use the term to refer to the way musicians - solely by hearing - learn to identify the pitches, intervals, melody, chords and rhythms that are part of music. Clark Terry was talking about something quite different as he described growing up in the St. Louis music scene.
Clark said he asked an old gentleman once how to improve his tone in the lower register. “He told me to grit my teeth and wiggle my left ear. And being a young, naive little brat, I didn’t know any different. I practiced that diligently and reached a point where I could wiggle my ear while gritting my teeth and attempting to play a bigger, lower note. It didn’t make a bigger note… but I got a lot of attention wiggling my ear and gritting my teeth.”
No matter how you remember him, the legacy of Clark Terry (December 14, 1920 - February 21, 1915) is an indelible part of the jazz world. As it should be.