The Horn Names The World
Review: KEEP ON KEEPIN’ ON
Directed by Alan Hicks
Produced by Quincy Jones and Paula Dupre Pesmen
Edited by Davis Coombe
By JASON WALDROP
Twitchy, Chatty, Snags, No-Tail, Old Man Mose, Lips, Bubble Eyes, Ribs, The Warden. Those are the names that a twenty-year-old Clark Terry gave to nine monkeys in the back of a circus truck as he and a couple of carnival mates hitchhiked from Hattiesburg to St. Louis. Names. It seems he nicknamed every creature, both human and animal, that he encountered during his 94 years. So it’s a wonder that anyone is still unfamiliar with his name: Clark Terry. With the name he made for himself.
Clark Terry (1920-2015) lived long enough to see Keep On Keepin’ On, using an iPad held up to the last narrow band of vision remaining in one eye. Keep On Keepin’ On is a testament to Terry and to the name he made for himself. But Keep On Keepin’ On also testifies to the love for Terry and to the devotion to the project of everyone involved in the making of the film—current and former students, cameraman, editor, producers, and director, Alan Hicks.
It is the spirit of Terry’s first horn, fashioned from found objects at the dump—a kerosene funnel, a length of hose, and a piece of lead pipe for a mouthpiece—that guides the film documentary, Keep On Keepin’ On. First time director Alan Hicks, an Aussie and a surfer, worked from scratch, beginning with a Documentaries for Dummies manual but learning so much along the way that he was able, in the end, to craft a fine collage of Terry’s life story, including very intimate, often heartbreaking, scenes from Clark’s last years. Hicks started as a drummer with Clark Terry’s small group, so he knew Terry’s power as a leader. In his biopic, Hicks films Clark Terry as the current mentor and friend of a young pianist, Justin Kauflin, blinded by a rare eye disorder at the age of ten. Hicks introduced the blind Kauflin to Terry just as Terry’s eyesight began to fail due to diabetes.
Hicks and his cameraman, Adam Hart, made the film over a period of five years. In order to complete the project, they worked an alternating schedule of three months of filming followed by a break for three months to do the “hard labor” necessary to generate more funds. One time, needing airfare, they had to sell their lighting equipment and replace it with substitute Walmart lights. This alternating work-film schedule was well underway when Clark Terry’s first student, Quincy Jones, stepped in to help complete the project.
Keep On Keepin’ On skillfully cobbles footage from award ceremonies, Tonight Show clips, interviews with other jazz greats (including Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Mulgrew Miller, Arturo Sandoval), and storyboarding. All this flows together with a voice over done by Mr. Terry himself. The film begins with a series of testimonials fleshing out the man, Clark Terry. We see Terry dressing for his Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010, as his wife, Gwen, asks who was it that gave him his shoes, a pair of bluish suede dancing shoes. Was it Count Basie or Duke Ellington? Well. It was Duke, who also gave Terry during his ten years at the University of Ellingtonia the roles of Puck (Such Sweet Thunder) and Buddy Bolden (A Drum Is A Woman). The Lifetime Achievement presentation is followed by footage of another particularly telling reminiscence: at a Knicks game where Clark was to perform the National Anthem, Dizzy Gillespie came up to C.T.’s wife in the green room and said, “I don’t believe you know who you are married to.” “Why yes, I do, I’m married to Clark Terry.” Dizzy goes on to explain, “Clark is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, trumpeters who has ever lived. And I know because I’m Dizzy Gillespie. I know.”
Clark Terry (L) with Dizzy Gillespie.
All the musicians knew Terry’s worth. Oscar Peterson in his autobiography (2002) calls him an “Unsung Hero”, baffled that he is not better known. Duke Ellington notes in Music Is My Mistress (1973) that no one credits Clark’s work on the flugelhorn as they do say Louis Armstrong or Dizzy Gillespie on the trumpet. “I hear none of the prime authorities on the subject say, ‘Clark Terry did this sixteen years ago.’ If this is not recognized soon, he could grow up to be the Barzillai Lew of the flugelhorn.” (Lew was the black drummer and fifer who served in the French and Indian and Revolutionary Wars.) Miles Davis considered his mentor, C.T., a magician because of the way he could make his horn sound by “twisting and lightening the spring action of the pumps of a trumpet.”
C.T. resolved that after every injustice, whether done to or committed by him, he would come out as a better man. As a sixteen year old, he waited outside a club to ask the trumpet player, when taking a cigarette break, how he could improve his tone in the lower register. Annoyed, the trumpet player instructed Clark to go home and sit in a chair with both feet flat on the floor, stare into the mirror, grit his teeth and wiggle not his right but his left ear and practice long and hard. (According to Mr. Annoyance, hanging his trumpet from the ceiling and kissing the mouthpiece would be too advanced for such a green novice as the young musician). When a trusted friend told Clark that that was jiveass shit, Terry decided that, in the future, he would share any of the secrets of his instrument with any young player who cared enough to ask.
Later on, Duke Ellington recruited Terry away from Count Basie, suggesting that Terry pretend that he was sick and needed some time off instead of resigning outright. Terry’s subsequent shame over this ruse (which Basie saw through) caused him, when he had bands of his own, to encourage his players to go when and where they wanted to go, most notably when Miles Davis called, asking if Herbie Hancock and Miroslav Vitous might want to leave Terry and join the Davis band.
But there was another wrong—a case of inaccurate naming—that he would not set right for sixty-five years. As a recruit of the United States Navy (black musicians were given the Rating of Musician in 1942), he “zeroed in on my stats: Height 5 feet, 8 and 1/4 inches; Weight 150 pounds; Eyes—Negro, Hair—Negro, Complexion—Negro. I wanted to scream, “My eyes are brown!…” In his autobiography, he clearly corrects the military’s lumping of his features into a classification of mere “Negro” by naming the exact skin color of every person he encountered—brown, dark brown, coffee and cream, coffee with a dash of cream, caramel, mahogany, nutmeg, almond, raw peanuts.
The flip side of this precision, whether nicknaming or noting skin complexion, is not-naming, the nonsense singing of his alter ego, Mr. Mumbles, who was born one day on The Tonight Show during a stump-the-band episode. This form of scatting (or speaking in tongues according to Rev. Dr. Calvin Butts at Terry’s funeral) evolved into the sexual innuendos mixed with open disclosures (in “The Fibble-Ow Blues” with Jon Faddis, “Frank Wess told me about that one”), the pantomime of the tight collar or checking his inside pocket for notes, as well as the lilt of fake Scandinavian languages. Keep On Keepin’ On includes two Tonight Show clips (Terry was the first to break the color barrier on the Tonight Show Band), one of Mr. Mumbles and another of Clark Terry accompanying himself on trumpet and flugelhorn. Dizzy Gillespie writes regarding Terry’s perfect chops: “Playing like I play, you have to have perfect time because you have to let the air out at exactly the right time. I don’t just pick up my horn and spit out notes. Clark Terry can do that. He can take two horns and spit out notes into each one on a different beat. I can’t. I’d never been able to do that…”
Arturo Sandoval, among many others, has said that Clark Terry’s sound is so distinctive that you can identify it within a couple of bars. The same can be said about Dizzy Gillespie and Roy Eldridge, both of whom played on many dates with Clark Terry. And that’s true except for one concert in the 80s with Dwike Mitchell and Willie Ruff. Ruff had just finished one of his French horn rants on Duke Ellington’s Mood Indigo, loud and insistent, and there was Terry holding his horn to his lips but what was he saying? He was playing the chorus to Mood Indigo but so quietly, particularly in the wake of Ruff’s French horn, that the wit proceeded the sound. Everyone in the hall cracked up, including Willie Ruff.
Naming is made of precision, wit, memory, and affection. Clark Terry used his horn to name the world. A world of dancers who smelled of roses and vanilla, trains of smoke and urine, a motherly woman whose show name was Big Fat Mama but whom Terry called Hut (her surname) because she was sensitive about her weight, an estranged father and son, violent bigotry, a buck dancer in Clark’s junkyard band named Shitty, dancing with Pet Milk cans stomped to fit his heels, the one childhood friend who disappeared from Clark’s life forever. For Terry, Oscar Peterson’s Unsung Hero, naming was a type of singing. Just ask Walt Whitman. Or Adam if you can find him. And sometimes the students just came to C.T. Just as the names did. Hicks catches the scene of Justin Kauflin introducing his seeing eye dog to his mentor, Clark Terry, who is now also losing his eyesight. The dog’s name is Candy. Terry immediately serenades the dog with the 1944 tune, “Candy” (Kramer, David, Whitney), backed by his own instrumental recording with Metropole Orchestra (1995).
Justin Kauflin is still at the beginning of his career. Clark Terry believed in his talent and in Justin himself, urging Justin past any failure of nerve. And Justin was just one of the innumerable students of Clark Terry, none of whom Terry ever charged. Indeed, Hicks made this documentary as his thank-you note to Clark. Terry’s singing was as infectious as the gratitude Terry’s students kept for their teacher. Clark Terry sang all the time, and Justin, every bit as nice a guy, has an incredible ear for picking up those tunes. According to Alan Hicks, in the Q&A included on the extras of the DVD, Clark sang twice as much when he was hospitalized. Terry believed that everyone has a sound of his or her own. “Most of them don’t even know what they can do until you get it out of them.” And Hicks shows us, gives us, second hand, a valuable slice of that teaching. Maybe you don’t yet believe in Clark Terry, but Clark Terry, who has now reached “the plateau of positivity”, believes in you.
Jason Waldrop is the author of the dystopian novel, The Last Cigarette. His poems and stories have appeared in numerous journals, including Poetry Northwest, Denver Quarterly, and Ploughshares.