Clark Terry | Masterful Jazz Trumpet & Flugelhorn

Clark Terry was a master jazz trumpeter and flugelhorn player, an inspiration and direct influence on some of the greatest to ever players, as well as a talented educator who inspired countless children to pursue music. His ever present humour, both on the horn and with his mumbling scat vocals, brought a levity to the work that he did.

Clark Terry was born in 1920 in Saint Louis, Missouri, number seven of what would be 11 children. He fell in love with music when the tuba player Sy Mcfield married his older sister. Terry was so fascinated that he would do anything to play, despite the fact he had no money for instruments. He and his brother built instruments out of household objects, playing like a New Orleans spasm band.

Apparently the sound wasn’t great, because his neighbours passed the hat around and used the resulting funds to purchase the boys a trumpet from a pawn shop. Possibly one of the earliest examples of jazz crowdfunding?!

The music never stopped. In high school, Terry was playing for local clubs in the thriving Saint Louis jazz scene. It was there that he met another young trumpeter Miles Davis. He gave the younger Davis some tips, and the two played together frequently.

In 1942, he enlisted in the Navy, playing for the Naval Band when stationed in Chicago. There, he made contacts, and he returned to Chicago after his service ended.

Clark Terry’s Saint Louis Sounds

Terry was soon playing with many Chicago greats, like Lionel Hampton and Charlie Barnet. But his career really took off when he joined the Count Basie Sextet and played with Basie’s big bands. Under Basie, Terry honed a playful solo style, retaining many influences from his Saint Louis days. While touring with Basie to Seattle, Terry met a young Quincy Jones and gave Jones a few informal lessons.


Duke Ellington recruited Terry out from under Basie, and Ellington mentored Terry in both the ways of the creative process and business. The collaboration was fruitful, providing Terry a platform to demonstrate his skills.

In 1959, after leaving Ellington’s band, he worked with Quincy Jones who’d created a name for himself with his orchestra — coming a long way from the informal lessons with Terry years earlier.

Terry made history later that same year when The Tonight Show hired him for their house band, becoming the first African American staff musician for NBC. He stayed for 12 years, performing and recording in New York City at the same time. Terry would later discuss the pressures of representing his race on national television.

During this time, Terry developed a mumbling form of scat based loosely on the ageing blues singers of earlier generations. His song “Mumbles” proved a big commercial hit, with its hilarious, almost-but-not-quite-understandable vocals punctuating bars of lively jazz.

Clark Terry’s 900+ jazz records

The seventies saw Terry moving more and more to flugelhorn and jazz education. He also never stopped recording. All told, Terry appears on over 900 jazz recordings and composed over 200 pieces. His prolific output and pervasive presence for decades, along with his propensity to give advice to younger players who went on to be legends in their own right, earned Terry high status throughout the rest of the century.

He played Carnegie Hall and the Lincoln Center and performed several times for the BBC. He promoted jazz camps and festivals meant to inspire young people to get involved in music. He moved with his wife to Pine Bluff, Arkansas in 2006, where he became a professor at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. There, he focused on educating young musicians, one of his great contributions to the future of jazz.

In 2014, the documentary Keep on Keepin’ On depicted his mentorship of blind piano player Justin Kauflin. Well into his nineties, it was clear that as long as he lived, Terry was devoted to music and to passing on the gift of playing to others.

Clark Terry died in hospice in 2015. An undisputed legend with countless honours and accolades and a terrific educator with countless lives impacted for the better.