Inside the Arc – His Name was Clark

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His name was Clark, and he wanted more than anything else to play a horn and make sounds like the ones he was hearing on the radio every time he walked home from school past the barber shop, where the men laughed, smoked and told stories about “The Great War”.

“You think that swings?” asked the barber. “Man, I guess you never dug those cats in James Europe’s band. They’d cut that sorry stuff to ribbons!” Another somewhat shorter man just smiled and shook his head. “That’s nothing but moldy fig music. You got to hear Eldridge. Dude can play higher than a clarinet.”

Sheet Music – Lt. James Reese Europe

The youngster heard exchanges like this every day, but to him all that music sounded great. It had all those horns, and he aimed to get himself one, no matter what. There was a problem, however.

It was 1930 and he was right in the middle of the country as it began its precipitous slide into the abyss of the Great Depression. Nobody had any money for something as frivolous as a musical instrument and, being from the wrong side of the tracks, Clark’s family had somewhat less than that. There was no band at his school, either. The thing was though, nobody had ever taught the boy the art of giving up.

So he headed on down to the junk yard and found a dented funnel and a piece of discarded garden hose, and made his own horn. He didn’t know about mouthpieces so he just sat down on an old funky living room sofa and worked the contraption until he began to coax some notes from the big end. Before long he could imitate a police siren and approximate “Mess Call”, all interspersed with some rather ungodly shrieks. Day after day, for weeks he honed his “craft”.

Most of the neighbors were unimpressed, to say the least, and longed for this unwarranted punishment to stop. “We got to do something about that kid”, was the general view. One of the elder curmudgeons did something. He took the young man by the arm and walked him over to his own favorite home-away-from home, the wooden shack that housed the club he and his old Army buddies had formed, the Tom Powell Post of the American Legion.

There were a few other kids there and they had some drums…and some shiny brass Army bugles! It was heaven with a cherry on top for the boy.

Eventually, he would actually travel with them to the State Convention, where they would tramp around a dusty field playing W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues”, the same tune Lt. Europe’s Hellfighters had performed in France in 1918, the first jazz ever played “over there”.

Without the benefit of valves, they just lipped the “blue” notes, but who needs a valve when you have a lip that can get music from a garden hose? Not surprisingly, the retired military men who served as judges flipped out, and when the dust settled, the Tom Powell Corps was the State Champion.

Spirit of St. Louis Drum and Bugle Corps

In time the corps would become the legendary Spirit of Saint Louis, the finest among the hundred or so all-black units of the genre until the appearance in Newark many years later of the George Washington Carver Gay Blades.

And the young man? He went on to play with Count Basie and Duke Ellington (among other notables), eventually becoming one of the most identifiable and influential trumpeters and jazz educators who ever lived, continuing to perform and mentor into his 90’s.

He never forgot Drum Corps, nor did it forget him. Four years ago, he was inducted into the Buglers Hall of Fame, an honor of which he was so proud he listed it in his autobiography, among all the Grammys, Music Industry Awards, University Doctorates and other significant performances, recordings and events of his life.

Three Faces of Clark Terry

He passed away a couple of weeks ago, still mentoring students to the end, from his hospital bed. When people like this leave us, there inevitably follows a torrent of tributes like “one of a kind”, “icon”, “never see his like again”…etc. Being the man he was, he’d have endured those cliches for the sake of their authors, but one suspects he’d hold that bugle pretty close to his heart, as well.

The great choreographer, Twyla Tharp, says we must all “earn our ancestors” by learning about and honoring their achievements, and making an effort to live up to the bar they’ve set for us. It’s a worthy quest.

His name was Clark…Clark Terry…and he was a bugler.


(Images from the author’s personal collection)

About the Author:
Frank Dorritie is one of the legends of the activity .... a performer, instructor, arranger, adjudicator, and observer over the past 5 decades. Frank has been playing the bugle and trumpet since the 1960s, and has performed with artists like Billy Cobham and Maynard Ferguson. He has instructed and/or arranged for the Blue Devils, Cadets, Santa Clara Vanguard, Cavaliers, Chesterton and Tenri High Schools, the Bushwackers, Bridgemen and a host of others. His audio production honors include 9 Grammy Nominations, 2 Grammy Awards and membership in both the World Drum Corps and Buglers Halls of Fame. He is active internationally as a clinician and adjudicator, holds the DCA Soprano/Trumpet/Tenor Individual titles for 2003, 2005 and 2006. Frank also chairs the Department of Recording Arts at Los Medanos College. His popular brass method book, “Power and Endurance”, is available from The opinions expressed in this column are strictly those of the author.

Posted by on Wednesday, March 11th, 2015. Filed under FrontPage Feature, Inside the Arc.