Terry Remembers Young Ella's Great Voice ... And Arm

Posted: February 07, 1997

At 6 in the morning, after playing at Club Plantation in St. Louis, trumpeter Clark Terry and his bandmates liked to work off the last of their unspent energy by playing a game of softball.

It was probably in the late '30s. And often tagging along with the boys was the tomboyish female singer.

She had a great voice. And a great arm.

``She could throw your butt out at home plate from the outfield,'' recalled Terry, 76. ``She was very energetic and very athletic.''

Terry called the singer ``Sis.'' The world would know her as Ella Fitzgerald.

``She had a special set of pipes that no other vocalist had,'' said Terry, a longtime friend who will be paying tribute to the singer during Peco's ``Ella: A Celebration'' concert at the Academy of Music. Fitzgerald died last June at 78.

``Her diction was impeccable. She could swing, and she had this little-girl charisma'' that connected her to the audience, Terry said.

But Terry, recalling those early years in his home town of St. Louis, remembered Fitzgerald as very sensitive.

``If two people had their heads together talking when she approached, she thought you had to be talking about her,'' Terry said.

Terry would go on to bigger and better things, too. After the Navy, he played with the bands of Charlie Barnet, Charlie Ventura, Eddie Vinson and Count Basie in the 1940s. During this time he helped a couple of young musicians named Quincy Jones and Miles Davis.

In 1951, Terry joined the Duke Ellington Orchestra, where he stayed for eight years, became its featured soloist and started specializing in the fluegelhorn.

He took a job with NBC, becoming the first black musician on the company payroll and a member of the ``Tonight Show'' band. But when the show moved to Los Angeles, Terry stayed in New York, where he became a jazz educator, continued recording and touring, and developed an interest in younger players.

He still recalls his dealings with Quincy Jones in the '40s as proof that young musicians need to be nurtured.

``He brought in an arrangement for the Basie small group,'' Terry said. ``The arrangement was horrible. But there was something that showed he was on the right track.''

As a teacher, Terry finds himself urging young players to never become satisfied. ``I tell them the only difference between a groove and a grave are the dimensions.''

And they must develop their own sound, and not just jump on the next trend of ``stuff'' coming down the road.

``There was a time when a lot of us were playing a varitone,'' an electronic brass instrument, Terry said. ``It took no effort to develop the thing. The kids were depending on this before they could develop the center of their tone'' on a real trumpet, Terry said.

And how can you tell when a kid has what it takes to become a professional musician? ``You can tell if they are zeroing in on the proper material, the traditional jazz thing,'' Terry said. ``There has to be the essence of sincerity there.''

And now, as an elder statesman, Terry knows how important it is for the young to learn from the old - as he did. He remembers when improvisation was called ``get off,'' that the 12-bar blues was the standard jazz form. In some arenas, jazz has started to become too intellectual, Terry said.

``One of the things we old-timers try to teach the kids is to come back'' to the basics of bebop.

For Terry, memories of Ella will also stay young.

``She could scat like a musician plays a horn,'' Terry said. ``I will always call her Sis.''

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