Monday, March 09, 2015

Straight Talk: Mumbling was part of Clark Terry's great legacy

Clark Terry died at the age of 94, on February 21st. He was living in Arkansas and had been in poor health for quite a while. One of his last great appearances was at Birdland in 2003, and among the admirers was Soupy Sales. I had to mention to Mr. Terry that, yes, I was "one of your Soupy fans…I first heard your music when Pookie (the puppet) danced around to the soundtrack of "Mumbles" on Soupy's show."

Though Terry was best known as a brilliant session player (trumpet and flugelhorn) and put out his own records and was a regular in clubs, and even spent some time in Carson's "Tonight Show" band, his foray into vocals provided his trademark. It's playing on his website ( and he recorded many versions of it over the years. Probably the best known is the one he did guesting with the Oscar Peterson Trio.

"Mumbles," aka the "incoherent blues," was a parody of hipster-speak as well as the old blues singers who seemed like they were saying something important even if nobody could tell. You could go from Sammy Davis Jr's cha-ka-sha-bow scatting to Bill Cosby's nonsensically histrionic vocal riffs (especially the theme song for his first sitcom) and it all comes back to Clark Terry.

All the greats knew and loved Clark Terry, from Miles Davis to Quincy Jones, from traditionals such as Duke Ellington and Count Basie to the farther out Thelonious Monk and Charlie Mingus. When Carson's "Tonight Show" moved to California, Terry stayed in New York to be part of the jazz scene there. He tooted and he tutored, and like so many musicians, songwriters and singers, he put the joy of his art above getting a day job. Unfortunately, a lot of dull people who have day jobs, and then get pensions, have no sympathy or appreciation for creative artists. In other words, it's "don't ruin our fun" when it comes to "sharing" (and don't call it "stealing") and don't interrupt our Communist rants of "everything should be FREE."

Now, contrary to what some Seniormole or Chris-Goes-Crumb or Devil Girl of Death or Kim Dotcom or other funny-named denizen of the blog world, forums or torrents might think, musicians can't tour into their 80's and 90's and sell t-shirts to make up for stolen music and lost royalties. They can't, like street panhandlers, deal with the humiliation of Spotify throwing pennies when it doesn't pay the rent. They couldn't work at some dull job all day, and magically tour the country or be up all night playing in those clubs that don't exactly pay that well.

Just how fucked up the situation was for Clark, might be gleaned from a page that was on his website.

Somehow, people who are not in the music business, who never interviewed a celebrity, who have no idea what the workings are in getting deals or maintaining a career in a competitive field, are the ones who are in the position to mind somebody else's business. Thanks to the Internet they can do everything from bully a teenager to death to steal royalties and send someone into poverty and a fatal state of depression. There's always a rationalization for the entitlement. It can be anything from simple surliness and the glee of being evil, to sanctimonious bullshit about "music should be free," or "the record labels and managers screw the artists too," so they can do it, and so can Lord Savior Spotify. Hey, posting a daily give-away of albums on the Net somewhere is "good publicity." You can tell the parasites: they just post music and ask for "nice comments" and if there's any text, it's stolen from Wikipedia or "All Music" and passed of as their own. Yes, it helps non-entities pretend they're in show biz, while kicking real artists OUT of show biz.

Clark Terry's choice was to be a freelance musician, and despite the odds he managed to make it a career. Too bad in an era of inflation and poor social security, and unions that couldn't cover his needs, he suffered at the end. It wasn't helped by piracy, the extinction of record stores, the cheapening of music via mp3s, or Spotify turning out to be no substitute for radio royalties.

Fortunately Clark Terry had friends to build a website for him (even if they couldn't pay for all his needs) and folks who visited and cheered him (even if they couldn't pay for all his needs). And in this world of mumbles (such are promises), where all things lie in jest, and where Clark Terry lies in Woodlawn Cemetery, here's a salute to a guy who put smiles on the faces, and made fingers snap and feet stomp. He even made a rubber puppet named Pookie dance.

Clark Terry Mumbles

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