Cover Image

Larger ImageView Larger


The Autobiography of Clark Terry

Clark Terry (Author), Bill Cosby (Foreword), Quincy Jones (Preface), Gwen Terry (Contributor), David Demsey (Introduction)

Available worldwide

Paperback, 344 pages
ISBN: 9780520287518
June 2015
$26.95, £22.00
Other Formats Available:
Compelling from cover to cover, this is the story of one of the most recorded and beloved jazz trumpeters of all time. With unsparing honesty and a superb eye for detail, Clark Terry, born in 1920, takes us from his impoverished childhood in St. Louis, Missouri, where jazz could be heard everywhere, to the smoke-filled small clubs and carnivals across the Jim Crow South where he got his start, and on to worldwide acclaim. Terry takes us behind the scenes of jazz history as he introduces scores of legendary greats—Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson, Dizzy Gillespie, Dinah Washington, Doc Severinsen, Ray Charles, Thelonious Monk, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Coleman Hawkins, Zoot Sims, and Dianne Reeves, among many others. Terry also reveals much about his own personal life, his experiences with racism, how he helped break the color barrier in 1960 when he joined the Tonight Show band on NBC, and why—at ninety years old—his students from around the world still call and visit him for lessons.
Preface by Quincy Jones
Foreword by Bill Cosby
Introduction by David Demsey

1. Big Dreams
2. First Instruments
3. Kicked Out
4. The Vashon High Swingsters
5. First Road Gig
6. Nigga
7. Ida Cox
8. Stranded
9. Lincoln Inn
10. On the Road Again
11. Tennis Shoe Pimp
12. Jailed
13. Len Bowden
14. Navy Days
15. Gray Clouds
16. The Big Apple
17. George Hudson
18. The Club Plantation
19. Galloping Dominoes
20. Tempting Offers
21. Lionel Hampton
22. Road Lessons
23. Pauline
24. Charlie Barnet
25. Count Basie
26. Big Debt
27. Duke Ellington
28. Leaving Basie
29. The University of Ellingtonia
30. Working with Duke
31. Duke’s Team
32. Duke’s Management Arts
33. Miles and Bird
34. Billy Strayhorn
35. Endurances
36. Flugelhorn
37. Europe
38. Norman Granz
39. Norman’s Battles
40. Q
41. NBC
42. Jim and Andy’s
43. Johnny and Ed
44. Mumbles
45. First House
46. Big Bad Band
47. Carnegie Hall
48. Etoile
49. Jazz Education Arena
50. Those NBC Years
51. Storms
52. Black Clouds
53. Keep on Keepin’ On
54. New Love
55. Whirlwinds
56. Through the Storm
57. Second Chance
58. The Biggest Surprise

Honors and Awards
Original Compositions
Selected Discography

Photographs follow page 186
Clark Terry’s illustrious career—as an innovative trumpeter and flugelhornist, horn designer, leading jazz educator, and composer—has covered an epic span of jazz history. Winner of the 2010 Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and an NEA Jazz Master, in addition to many other accolades and awards, Terry is the author of Let’s Talk Trumpet: From Legit to Jazz and The Interpretation of the Jazz Language, both with Phil Rizzo.
“‘Clark’ chronicles, in endearing prose, Terry's personal and professional journey. . . . Onstage and in the backroom, Terry and his trumpet shared a front-row seat to jazz history. ‘Clark’ is nothing short of that remarkable story.”—Alexander Heffner San Francisco Chronicle
“Terry’s wonderful book is a true labor of love . . . . It’s about love, of people, of music, of beauty. And jazz, of course. What a man!”—Peter Vacher Jazzwise
“A lively, memorable book, a work that will allow subsequent generations access to one of jazz's great figures, as well as a fine human being.”—All About Jazz
“Compelling from cover to cover, this is the story of one of the most recorded and beloved jazz trumpeters of all time. With unsparing honesty and a superb eye for detail, Clark Terry, born in 1920, takes us from his impoverished childhood in St. Louis, Missouri, where jazz could be heard everywhere, to the smoke-filled small clubs and carnivals across the Jim Crow South where he got his start, and on to worldwide acclaim. Terry takes us behind the scenes of jazz history as he introduces scores of legendary greats.”—All About Jazz
“One feels that even the nearly sixty chapters of narrative are not enough to do justice to such an exceptional career.”—Arsc Journal
“An important book, an excellent read, a genuine page turner by a dependable, talented musician who achieved worldwide fame as a unique and creative improviser.”—Blue Light
“The trumpet grandmaster, who turned 90 this year, addresses the scene with emotion, humor, concision, acuity and analytical discernment. . . . Nothing if not a blues epic, the narrative is also a true-grit portrait of a diligent, inspired artist.”—Downbeat
“This is a book that will uplift, inspire, and make you laugh out loud. A life lived this well, with constant integrity, enthusiasm, positive energy and good will is something for which to cheer. The celebration begins when you open the pages.”—Duke Ellington Society
“Clark is the last survivor of a great jazz age, and thus this book is doubly important. . . . With a subject like this you couldn’t go wrong, and the book is a most satisfying read.”—Steve Voce Jazz Journal
“A long awaited story of the great joy of playing the trumpet and making music since the early 1930s. Terry’s book is conversational in style but blunt and exacting in detail about people and dates; he holds nothing back.”—Jazz Times
“No doubt because of Terry’s ebullient personality, the text reads just the way he speaks, and has vivid descriptions of people, places and smells, with a knack for folksy similes.”—Brian Priestley Jazz Uk Magazine
“[Clark Terry has] changed the institution of jazz education, creating new standards for a performer’s generous relationship with students of all types, and a healthy respect for the place of a thorough education in the evolution of jazz.”—Jazzed: Jazz Education Journal
“Right in the thick of so much jazz history, Terry offers a sprightly and readable account of the events, and, more importantly, of the character of the people who helped shape the music. He is a most entertaining companion, someone you come to trust and like immensely - a musician’s musician, obsessed with playing right from the start, always eager to learn more, hone his craft, grow as an artist, then share that knowledge with others. That’s exactly what he does with Clark.”—KMUW FM
“Storytellers are to be cherished and Clark Terry should be on a pedestal for his thoroughly entertaining autobiography. Brimming with life, love, music, and great characters, this book is as much a history of the twentieth century as it is a history of his ninety years (and counting!).”—Music Industry Newswire
“In his moving autobiography, Clark Terry tells the story of making his very first trumpet out of scrap metal, which led to school bands, then regional orchestras and eventually gigs with Count Basie and Duke Ellington. Terry also tells a fascinating story about how he broke ground when he joined the NBC Orchestra in 1960, becoming the first black member of that band. His contribution to American music would have been cemented with all of the above, but then he discovered jazz education. Clark is a worthy addition to the canon of race relations in this country and an even better account of a gifted, widely loved man who made this country a better place by simply falling in love with jazz.”—Felix Contreras National Public Radio (Npr)
“An easy, entertaining and informative volume that will please his fans and introduce budding jazz listeners to his many contributions.”—New York City Jazz Record
“The great trumpeter, flugelhornist and mumbler writes with joy about the good times in his long life and with frankness about the rough patches. His humor and generous spirit are intact whether he is telling of his love for Basie and Ellington, his triumphs as a performer, his legions of friends, or encounters with racists and bottom feeders in and out of the jazz world. Terry’s ear, eye and memory for detail provide insights into not only his remarkable career but also the trajectory and development of jazz as an art form and a social force during his many decades in music.”—Rifftides/Artsjournalblogs
“Clark is a breezy read, fast paced and enjoyable. Honest and genuine. It was a great idea for this young man to get it down on paper.”—R.J. Deluke Rj On Jazz
“A disarmingly honest and thoroughly entertaining autobiography. . . . No drug and alcohol sob stories here, just hard work and an exceptionally good nature. This is a sweet read.”—Paul De Barros, Seattle Times jazz critic Seattle Times
“The chapters of his memoir become their own improvisations as one memory keys off another, pulling you into the ‘set’ as if you were sitting at a front-row table, until he circles back to the story at hand. . . . Discover: The inside story of modern jazz, told by one of its most revered legends.”—Shelf Awareness
“Terry tells his amazing, finally triumphant, life story in a free-speaking, chatty, direct style.”—The Australian
“If it still existed, the first trumpet played by Clark Terry, made out of garbage he found in a junkyard, would deserve a place of honour in a jazz museum. Terry used it to begin his long, rich career, a career he’s recently chronicled with open-hearted charm in Clark: The Autobiography of Clark Terry.”—The National Post
“An abundance of memorable moments, some shocking, some joyful, some sad, some funny.—Town Topics, Princeton, Nj
“In his memoir, which has the pulse of jazz's life force, Clark Terry himself exemplifies what he once told me about Duke Ellington: ‘He wants life and music to be always in a state of becoming. He always likes to make the end of a song sound like it's still going somewhere.’ On and off the bandstand, and now at his home with students in Arkansas, he gets inside the jazz life. His choruses in this book will bring readers to his music for generations to come.”—Nat Hentoff Wall St Journal
"Informative, detailed, intimate, and throughly absorbing, "Clark" is very strongly recommended."—The Midwest Book Review
“Clark Terry is the epitome of jazz trumpet, of jazz, and of human kindness. His playing is impeccable and original, scintillating, humorous, and brimming with pluckish wit and late-night pungence. His style is virtuosic and deeply intelligent. It cannot be identified by decade or era or style (as it is timeless and definitive of American Jazz and the profoundest aspirations of the jazzman): to be one of a kind, to endure, to inspire, to be truthful, to be accurate, to swing. He has inspired thousands of younger musicians and nourished us with his interest, his knowledge, and his love. His contributions go far beyond the bandstand and he will always be an indelible part of our lives, inseparable from our identity as musicians and people. We all love him deeply. And forever.”—Wynton Marsalis

“Clark Terry is a living history of much of jazz, to which he has contributed as a deeply imaginative soloist and influential band leader. His additional life mission has long been ‘to teach as many young musicians as I could.’ His first pupil was Quincy Jones and he was the first to recognize the potential of Miles Davis. To this day, Clark’s international impact is such that young students come to his home in a small town in Arkansas from Israel, Australia, and other lands to take lessons from Clark. Now, at last, in this memoir of his storied career, Clark swingingly personifies the multi-dimensional jazz life. He writes as he plays—the very sounds and rhythms of surprise!”—Nat Hentoff, author of At the Jazz Band Ball: Sixty Years on the Jazz Scene

“Clark Terry is the unique voice in America’s creative art form called jazz. I would not have a career without him. His friends and admirers cover the whole planet.”—Jimmy “Little Bird” Heath

"Clark Terry has not only been living his dream, he has spent his life helping others to achieve their dreams as well. He's an extraordinary role model and mentor who has walked the walk. And now, in addition to decades of wonderful music, he is giving us another gift, his autobiography. It is up to us to share the love, the music, and the stories with our children, and our children’s children, for this is how they’ll learn. Thank you, Clark, for the wonderful example you have set. We love you.”—Nancy Wilson

"Clark Terry is an American Master. I love to listen to him, particularly ‘Mumbles.’ I was so delighted when we received degrees together, along with Edward Kennedy, at the New England Conservatory in 1997."—Aretha Franklin

"I've always been a great admirer of Clark Terry's work on the trumpet and flugelhorn, and now I have become a big admirer of his work as an author—you will love this book." —Clint Eastwood

"I met Clark when I was sixteen years old. He saw something in me and without hesitation planted me in the most fertile soil any aspiring artist could hope to be in . . . his heart. I am eternally grateful for his generous spirit, love, encouragement, storytelling, and above all laughter throughout the years! Clark . . . I love you madly."—Dianne Reeves

“I’ve come to know Clark as undoubtedly the greatest teacher in the history of jazz. From the mentoring of Miles Davis and Quincy Jones, to the millions of young musicians touched by the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz all over the globe, Clark and his incredible music stand as a symbol of intellect and spirituality of the highest order to all of us. Thank God for Clark Terry!” —Thelonious Monk, III

“Thank you, Clark, for a lifetime of your incredible talents, and for filling this world with so much love. All of us at the Jazz Foundation of America are sincerely thankful for your compassion and involvement in our efforts to help musicians in need. You are an inspiration and a classic role model truly beyond category!” —Wendy Oxenhorn

“His style, his sound, his look, his voice, his heart, his soul. That’s what inspires Snoop Dogg about Mr. Terry. If I could only do half of what he did in the music business, my life would be complete. I had the honor and pleasure of spending a few days with Mr. Terry. He’s the greatest to ever do it. Thank you, Uncle Quincy, for introducing me to Mr. Mumbles!!!” —Snoop Dogg

“Clark and I have been friends for many decades, and I’ve always enjoyed his music. Recently, on a long, three-hundred-mile drive to our gig, we listened to Clark’s wonderful Porgy and Bess album. This was the second or third time that we’d done that. It sure was some great playing on your part, Clark! We enjoyed those Chicago Jazz Orchestra brass players, too. Congratulations on your book.” —Dave Brubeck

“When I saw Clark performing at the Blue Note in New York, I thought to myself, ‘Could this be what all of us instrumentalists are really trying to do?’ Before my eyes and ears, the legend/man/craftsman went there. As I saw it, there was straight to the source of personal expression. Through Mumbles or through the flugelhorn, the man spoke to me that night, and I’ll remember that always as a larger than life experience.” —Esperanza Spalding

“Clark Terry is a jazz superstar, and one of the most extraordinary individuals I have ever encountered. He’s a world-class musician, educator, composer, jazz pioneer, and a co-founder of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz. He has inspired people of all ages with his humor, courage, passion and vision. Thanks for your friendship, Clark, and for always being there for the Institute.” —Tom Carter

“Whenever I see Clark Terry, I always look forward to talking to him and reminiscing about the early bebop years. There’s an expression coined by Lester Young that succinctly says it all about Clark Terry: ‘chandelier,’ a raconteur par excellence, Mumbles-brilliant, original musical brilliance. It has been a privilege.” —Billy Dee Williams

"The one I admire without restriction is Clark Terry, whose pronunciation at the trumpet or bugle is a model of sharpness, clearness and authority. A model which is given with generosity to all of those who want to play this instrument...the way it should be played." —Maurice André


Big Dreams

I made my first trumpet with scraps from a junkyard. My friend Shitty helped me find the pieces on a blazing hot summer day in 1931. I coiled up an old garden hose into the shape of a trumpet and bound it in three places with wire to make it look like it had valves. Topped those with used chewing gum for valve tips. Stuck a piece of lead pipe in one end of the hose for a mouthpiece. And for the bell on the other end, I found a not-too-rusty kerosene funnel. I was an eleven-year-old kid, blowing on that thing until my lips were bleeding, but I was trying to play jazz! It may have sounded like a honking goose, but it was music to my ears.

Jazz was everywhere in my hometown, St. Louis, Missouri. My brother-in-law played it in a band; I heard it on the radio, in parades, in the parks, in my neighborhood at block parties and the Friday night fish fries, and from the riverboats that I watched from the banks of the Mississippi River.

That junkyard trumpet, I made it right after I heard Duke Ellington's band play on a neighbor's graphophone (a predecessor to the gramophone) at a fish fry. I wanted to be involved with music like that.

Duke's band was different from any other band I'd ever heard! The sound. Those horns. That rhythm. It was powerful, like a freight train. Everybody knew about Duke's band. I had heard about him-heard that he was the most respected band leader anywhere. And that night, I heard why.

Nobody's band moved me like that. Nobody's. It blew my mind! Stopped me dead in my tracks. I couldn't do anything but listen to that music. It was like the whole world disappeared. Nobody was left but me and that band. I wanted to learn how Duke did it.

Twenty years later, I was fortunate enough to be hired by Duke. I was thirty years old. It was Armistice Day, November 11th, 1951, at the Kiel Auditorium in St. Louis. Huge place. All the latest sound and lighting. Believe me, I'd paid a lot of dues before then. Lots of acid tests, situations that seemed impossible-but nothing like the changes I had to go through that night in Duke's band. Back in {apos}47, when I first joined Charlie Barnet's band, what he came up with for an acid test didn't compare. The way that Basie made me prove myself in front of his band in {apos}48 was hard as hell! But even that couldn't touch what Duke whipped on me. That was the lay of the land: put the new kid on the spot. You either passed the test or got the ax!

Many of my dreams have come true, but what I've learned is that dreams change. New dreams come into play. What I thought I wanted most of my life changed, too.

I'd always thought that the most important thing was to play my horn-to get into this band or that band or Duke's band, to have my own band, to perform, record. And I did enjoy these things. Worked hard to achieve them. But later on, I had a new dream: helping young musicians to make their dreams come true. That became my supreme joy and my greatest aspiration.


First Instruments

The only person I knew who didn't love jazz was my old man. He liked country music. He was a short man, just over five feet tall-"Five foot two," he always said, smoking or chewing on a handmade Hauptmann cigar. He was a strong man. Didn't take crap from anybody! I remember when his union was trying to get the workers to go on strike at his job. He worked for LaClede Gas and Light Company, and the union wanted better wages, but Pop wouldn't cooperate. He said, "I got too many mouths to feed to play a white man's game." So some white union guys came to our flat after work. They were shouting from the street up to our front window. Calling him by the name he hated.

"Shorty! Come on down!"

Pop sent my five sisters downstairs the back way, so they could slip out to our Aunt Gert's place next door to the flat below ours. Then he armed my two brothers with pistols, knocked out our window pane, aimed his shotgun, and let his bullets do his talking. The men below were armed with pistols, baseball bats, crowbars, and chains. When they heard Pop's shotgun blasts, they took off like chickens running from a cook.

Everybody respected him. He wore nice clothes and hats. His name was Clark Virgil Terry, and we called him Pop, but everybody else called him Mr. Son, because his nickname was Son Terry. All my friends were scared of him, and I was, too. He'd beat me at the drop of a dime. None of my brothers and sisters. Just me. Except one time he beat my oldest sister, Ada Mae, when she stood up for me and begged him not to whip me after I broke the limb off a neighbor's tree while I was swinging on a rope.

When I told him that I wanted to play a trumpet, he said, "Rotten on that shit, Boy!" He had a weird way of cussing, but I knew what it meant. He said, "Remember your cousin Otis Berry? Always walking up and down the streets on his paper route, playing that damn horn! He got consumption and died! So, I'd better not hear tell of you playing no damn trumpet, or I'll beat your ass till you won't see the light of day again!"

That wasn't gonna stop me. I didn't believe that I'd get consumption. (That's what they called tuberculosis.) I'd wanted to play a trumpet in the worst way ever since I was five and watching those trumpets in the neighborhood parades. I loved the trumpet, because it was the loudest and it led the melody. And after I'd heard Duke's band at that fish fry, I had to play some jazz on a trumpet and I had to have a band, too. No matter what Pop said.

I was born on December 14, 1920, in St. Louis, the seventh of eleven children. Eight girls and three boys. Ada Mae, Margueritte, Virgil Otto (we called him "Bus"), Charles Edward (we called him Ed), Lillian, Mable (her nickname was "Sugar Lump," and they told me that she only lived for six months). Then there was me, Juanita, Mary and Mattie-the twins-and my baby sister, Odessa. All my sisters looked like little brown dolls. Ed was about my father's height, Bus was tall, and I was medium height.

Before I was born, my brothers and sisters said they begged Pop to name me John. He named me Clark Terry, Jr., with no middle name. But everybody called me John, including Pop.

My mother's name was Mary. She died when I was around six or seven. I don't remember too much about her because she was always gone. Working, they said. Ada Mae told me that Momma was from Crystal City, Missouri, and Pop was from Fort Scott, Kansas. They were both born in 1888. I don't know how they met, and I don't know anything about my grandparents.

As far as I was concerned, Ada Mae was my mother. When she married Sy McField and moved out, my next-oldest sister, Margueritte, became my mother. When Margueritte married Johnny Pops and moved out I tried to be happy for her, but I missed her. My mother's sister, Aunt Gert, was kind of like a mother after Margueritte left. But I always wondered why she wouldn't take up for me, knowing how Pop beat me. She was a short, dark-skinned woman who loved to cook special things for me. Still, whenever I played "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child" later on in my career, I felt every note I played.

We lived in a neighborhood called Carondelet, about a half mile from the Mississippi River, where trains went back and forth all day. Clackalacka, Clackalacka. Whoo! Whoo! And kids wore Buster Brown shoes with a knife pocket on the side. My knife was in my pants pocket because I couldn't afford Buster Browns. From our backyard, St. Louis seemed like it was way up high on a big mound and we lived down low near the river bottom. I dreamed of growing up and getting away from there. Away from the chickens in the backyard, the rats running around, the roaches, and the bedbugs that my brothers and I used to burn off of the bedsprings each Saturday.

Our pastor, Reverend Sommerville, instilled a lot of hope inside me. I loved him and admired the way he spoke-very clearly and with a lot of authority. He said, "The only way to get out of this ghetto is to get your education. And remember, in this enigma called life, we must hold on to God's unchanging hand!" He was a short, robust man with thick curly hair. Always dressed to the nines-double-breasted suits, fancy ties. And he had an impressive vocabulary. I wanted to learn some fancy words like he used.

He was the pastor of our small church, Corinthian Baptist. Each Sunday, my brother Ed, a few of my sisters, and I would head out to church dressed in our "Sunday-go-to-meeting-clothes." The best we had. We'd walk for a few miles west up Bowen Street from our flat to the "hinkty" people's neighborhood, where our church was located. We'd say, "They think they're better than us. Bourgeois. With their hot water and electricity." Still, there was a lot of love there at Corinthian. Lots of friends and pretty girls.

After church at Corinthian, on Sunday afternoon, I'd meet up with a few friends and sneak over to the Church of God and Christ at Broadway and Iron Street. Now, I knew Pop would beat me if he knew that I went over there, but I didn't care. I dug the polyrhythms of that church. Those powerful beats, the tambourines, the foot-stomping and the hand-clapping. The way they sang-multiple harmonies. Lots of spirit. We were too scared to go inside, since we had peeked through the window many times and seen the folks shouting and running and jumping and talking strange. "Speaking in tongues" is what they called it. So we sat on a nearby corner, within earshot.

But the love of my life was jazz! On Friday nights, I heard it echoing off the waters of the Mississippi. From our front window facing the river, I could see the corner of Broadway and Bowen. Men who were the lamplighters used to come walking with a long pole to light a small pilot inside the lantern on that corner. They called it a streetlight, but it was pitiful. Barely lit the area in front of the long two-story corner building that was jammed next to ours.

Our neighborhood looked like a row of two-story buildings with a few walkways here and there. We called them "gangways." Not much grass anywhere, just a few trees and mostly dirt in the front, back, and between. Eight of us kids and Pop lived in a three-room flat upstairs at 6207-A South Broadway, with no electricity and no hot water. We had the one front window and a solid wood back door. Everything was heated and cooked with kindling and coal, which meant a lot of ashes for me to take down to the ash pit out back. There were some extremely uncomfortable moments in our little flat because we ate a lot of beans. The saying was, "Everybody knows you can't eat beans and keep it a secret."

Lots of families lived in those two-story buildings, with the doors and stairs to all flats in the back where the water pumps, woodsheds, and chicken coops were. There was a big, dusty vacant lot nearby where most of the kids hung out and played games like tin-can soccer. We didn't have a ball, but we had just as much fun with that can. I played goalie, and I had scars all up and down my legs. I guess the reason we didn't play football was that Carondelet had a lot of Germans living there, and they were into soccer.

There was an alley lined with ash pits that separated us from our white neighbors. That was the line that divided us from them. They were an alley away from the ghetto, but they were cool. My brothers and I used to make money hauling ashes for them.

Miss Liza lived next door. She was a short, dark-brown-skinned woman who usually sucked on a chicken bone and spied on us through a hole in her window shade. I didn't like her. She caused me to get an ass-whipping when she told Pop about me kicking a soccer can through Mr. Butt's window a few doors down. (His name was Mr. Robinson, but I nicknamed him that after our gang peeked inside his window one night and saw him screwing his old lady, and all we could see was his big black butt moving around.)

My friend Shitty lived right below us. It was his grandmother's flat, and she took care of him and his sister, Elnora-a foxy, brown-skinned cutie. I had played "stink finger" with her a few times. Shitty was the color of molasses, with sleepy eyes and dark pointed lips. His real name was Robbie Pyles, but since he was always taking dumps in his pants, I nicknamed him "Shitty." He was cool with that.

When Pop went to work, he told me to stay at home. I didn't listen to that. I'd sneak about four blocks away to Didley's house with Shitty so we could listen to jazz on Didley's crystal radio. It had terrible sound. We strained to hear the music. But when we put that radio inside of one of his mother's mixing bowls, the sound was a little better.

Didley was a smiling cat with two big buckteeth. He walked with a little limp because he'd been hit by a car when he was a little kid. We listened to broadcasts by Coon and Sanders (the Coon-Sanders Original Nighthawks Orchestra) and Jan Savitt-all-white bands. But Jan had a black singer, a rare thing during that time. The singer was a scat singer named Bon Bon Tunnell. Then there was Larry Clinton's band, playing things like "The Dipsy Doodle":

Dipsy Doodle is a thing to beware,

Dipsy Doodle will get in yo' hair.

But no matter who I heard, I just couldn't get Duke Ellington's band out of my head. I wanted a band like that. Had to have one. So I talked some of the gang into getting a little street band together. I told them, "Don't worry about Pop, because he goes to his girlfriend's house all day on Saturday. So we can play on a corner right after the parade and make a little money."

We made some instruments from some scraps at the local junkyard, about a block away. I made a kazoo, which was actually a comb wrapped in tissue paper left over from gift-wrappings. After the Labor Day Parade in {apos}31, we hurried up and started playing on a corner before the folks walked away. I was blowing hard on that thing, and moving that paper around when the spit got it wet, while we played our version of "Tiger Rag."

Shitty played "bass," which was a broomstick with a taut rope tied to the top of the stick and attached to an old galvanized washtub turned upside down. He also agreed to be our "buck dancer," which was a kind of tap dance. He was already prepared to do his buck dance because he had stomped on two Pet Milk cans-one for each foot-which he'd curled around the heels of his shoes. They had a great sound on the brick sidewalk. Clack, CLACK, Clack! At one point we were really wailing on "Tiger Rag." I mean we were getting down! Shitty jumped out front and went to work, clomping and stomping up a storm, doing his buck dance. Elbows flying up and down. Folks watching were eating it up. Cheering in spite of the smells coming from his pants.

Ed played drums, which I made with a worn-out ice pan turned upside down and placed on top of a tall bushel basket. His sticks were rungs from a chair. I had another friend, named Charlie Jones-we called him "Bones." He played "tuba," which I made with a big tin beer cup for the bell, stuck in one end of a vacuum hose that was wrapped around his neck. Charlie was a cool dude who was known for writing "Merry Christmas" in the snow with pee. Bones' chubby little brother, Pig, held the kitty, which was a cardboard cigar box tacked shut. It had a small slit in the top for donations.

We did pretty well doing our thing with the little crowd that gathered around us. About fifty cents for the musicians, and a few pennies for Pig. We were all proud!

But that kazoo just wasn't cutting it for me. So Shitty and I went back to the junkyard with the sun beating down hard. He and I were wiping sweat a mile a minute. He said, "Ok-kay, John. What sh-should we l-look for?"

I said, "Stuff that we can make a trumpet with."

We walked all over that funky junkyard. Over old tires, broken bottles, rusty car parts, dirty rags, used clothes, broken wheels, crushed dishes, furniture parts, newspapers, rusted sinks, cracked toilets, burned curtains, and a bunch of other crap until we found the parts that I thought would make a hip trumpet.

When we did our next performance, after the Thanksgiving Day Parade, I blew that junkyard trumpet so hard that the lead-pipe mouthpiece made a black ring on my lips. Even though we made a few more pennies than before, the gang wasn't digging all the practice time I was asking from them. They said they could make more money doing other things. Shitty said, "Grandma is s-sick, and I g-got plans." They all chimed in with reasons why they were quitting. I was speechless. Totally disgusted. But I wasn't going to give up on my dreams.

Mr. Butt walked up to me one day while I was blowing hard out by the chicken coop, and he was carrying a big brown paper bag. Pig, Shitty, Ed, and Bones were hanging out with me. Mr. Butt smelled like he'd just had a swig of home-brew and his eyes were bloodshot. We were snickering at his tight pants that hung down under his belly. He said, "Johnny Boy, we're tired of seeing and hearing you scuffling on that piece of garbage." He held the big bag up high then started shaking it in my face.

Beanie Roach came up to see what was going on. He looked like a roach with black beans for hair. Then my chubby cousin, Billy, joined us. He had just moved in with Aunt Gert. Mr. Butt glanced at everybody, and then he opened the sack. He said, "Let's see what you can do with this!" He pulled out a raggedy splintered horn case that looked like it had come from a haunted house movie. We all "oohed" as he handed it to me.

He said, "A few of us neighbors got together, and we bought this for $12.50 at the hock shop down on Kraus Street."

When I opened the case, there was a CG Conn Trumpet with no valve tips, and the mouthpiece looked and smelled like it had just been retrieved from an outhouse. But I was thrilled! And I couldn't wait to scrub it out with steel wool and O.K. laundry soap.

Related Titles

Join UC Press

Members receive 20-40% discounts on book purchases. Find out more