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(Above: A somewhat recent performance of Clark Terry’s signature song, “Mumbles.”)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Perhaps only baseball reveres its heroes of the past as much as jazz. Each year, Stan Musial, Ted Williams or another bygone star is paraded around the field before the All-Star Game. Likewise, the songbooks passed down from Miles, Duke, Satchmo, Monk and others are considered sacrosanct.

Unlike baseball fans, however, jazz traditionalists are loathe to replace their legends with up-and-comers. This makes it frustratingly inconvenient when the links to that halcyon era keep dying.

Fortunately, Clark Terry was up to the task Friday night at the Gem Theater for the American Jazz Museum’s Duke Ellington celebration. The 89-year-old trumpet master played with Ellington for 10 years, led Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show band, and recorded with Oscar Peterson, J.J. Johnson, Thelonious Monk and scores of others throughout his eight-decade career.

Fellow Ellington orchestra alum Barrie Hall, Jr. introduced Terry by reminiscing when he was able to record with his hero on the soundtrack of the “Fabulous Baker Boys.” Stationed in a wheelchair, Terry appears from the backstage recesses of stage right, hidden in the wings.

As the applause built, Terry’s son, standing behind the chair, frantically waves his arms, as if to call the celebration off. The museum’s two-day tribute to Ellington has been building to this moment. Has something gone wrong? Will Terry not be able to appear after all? Killing time, Hall nervously sings a few stanzas of “Do Nothing ‘Till You Hear From Me.”

Clark Terry recieves the American Jazz Museum lifetime achievement award from museum CEO Greg Carroll in Kansas City, Mo. on April 30, 2010.

Finally, Terry emerged, slumped in his chair, wearing a dark suit and white yachting cap reminiscent of Count Basie’s favorite headwear. A clear tube of oxygen runs beneath his nose, resting atop his albino moustache. A trumpet case is tantalizingly set next to Terry’s wheelchair, but it’s obvious he won’t be able to play even before the announcement is made.

As the band, led by Hall, kicks into “Full Moon at Midnight,” Terry rests his hands on the cane that stands between his knees. He takes in the saxophone solo by Ahmed Alaadeen. The esteemed Kansas City jazz fixture is another Ellington alumnus who received the museum’s lifetime achievement award earlier that evening.

When the song ended it was time for Terry to receive his own lifetime achievement award. His son pushes the wheelchair near the podium. As chief executive officer Greg Carroll reads a biography, Terry fiddles with his wristwatch, seemingly unsure of where he is. When the award is presented, he looks at the miniature bust of Charlie Parker in wonder as Carroll holds it up. Terry’s grip is too weak to clutch the statue.

While the camera flashes fade, Carroll looks at Terry and suggests a song. Terry looks so frail It seems an imposition to ask this much, but he graciously accepts the mic that has to be placed in his right hand. The band launches into “Squeeze Me,” one of Terry’s signature numbers with the Ellington orchestra. His warm voice starts out thin and strained, but grows stronger with each verse. The years fall away as he starts scatting the final verse, his left knee rocking up and down.

The applause is still strong when Hall looks at the band and blasts the intro to “Mumbles.” Terry joins right in and his nonsense spoof of blue singers brings laughter from the audience. He’s into it now, rocking back and forth and even backing his chair up so he can look Hall in the face as he supplies fills on his trumpet. Hall and Terry trade riffs back and forth from voice to horn and back like a jazz version of an Abbot and Costello routine.

The audience jumps to its feet with the final note, and a broad smile beams from Terry’s face. Wheelchair or not, it is obvious that when Terry is put onstage and given the mic he still knows exactly what to do. He has no difficulty conjuring smiles and making everyone happy. As his son wheels him offstage, Terry blows kisses and doffs his hat. A few songs later, Terry’s son and a nurse escort him quietly out of the building.

(Below: Clark Terry blows his horn on the Tonight Show in 1980.)

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