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ClarkThe Autobiography of Clark Terry$

Clark Terry and Gwen Terry

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780520268463

Published to California Scholarship Online: May 2012

DOI: 10.1525/california/9780520268463.001.0001

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Duke Ellington

Duke Ellington

27. Duke Ellington

Gwen Terry

University of California Press

Abstract and Keywords

In this chapter, Clark describes the point of his life where he got offered a job by Duke Ellington and at the same time, he had to make the difficult decision to leave Basie and his band. The money offered by Duke Ellington was good, and it was something that could bring Clark closer to fulfilling his dream of making jazz respectable like classical music. The decision was not an easy one for Clark. He went back and forth with his decision to leave, but deep inside he knew he wanted to go with Duke. While on one hand, Basie was getting excited about the big band; on the other hand, Clark was trying to figure out ways to express his desire to leave to Basie.

Keywords:   Clark, Duke Ellington, Basie, jazz, band

Duke sent his wife, Evie, to scout me at the Brass Rail. I learned later that she was a former Cotton Club showgirl. Not a dancer but a pretty girl who decorated the stage during a show. Since I loved Basie and the cats, I didn't give her the time of day. She was very fair-skinned and I didn't know if she was colored or white. She was tall, shapely, elegant, and quite self-assured. But despite her determination, I wasn't budging.

A few days later, Duke sent John Celley, his road manager Al Celley's brother, to talk to me about joining the orchestra. John was an easy-spoken, slump-shouldered Italian guy with lots of hair. But I just wasn't interested; Basie and I were real close and I didn't want to leave a tight-knit situation to become a drop in the ocean. With Basie I had a say. With Duke I didn't feel that I would.

John bought me a drink during an intermission. We sat over in the corner and shot the breeze for a few minutes. Then he said, “So, would you like to be in Duke's band?”

I took a sip and said, “No. I'm really happy with Basie.”

When Duke's publicity man, Joe Morgan, came up to me while I was on break a few nights later, I thought, Man, Duke is relentless! But I still wasn't leaving Basie.

Joe was a short, heavy-set Caucasian cat. He lit his smoke and I lit mine. We smiled and I checked out his sharp vines. He must have seen me eyeing his stingy-brim hat. He puffed his smoke and then he said, “If you join us, you might come by a hat like this and a whole lot more. You know Duke wears custom shoes, hats, suits, and ties. We all have nice things, too. He takes real good care of his people.”

For a moment, I looked into the air and thought about it.

(p.123) Joe leaned closer. He said, “And Duke will pay you a hell of a lot more than you're making with Basie.”

I sat back and said, “Well, I like where I am, but let me think about it.” I felt guilty even thinking about leaving Basie, especially now that he was about to get the big band back together. He'd been so excited about it.

The next afternoon when the phone rang in my room at the Southway Hotel, I recognized Duke's voice.

He said, “Hey, I'd like to talk to you. Sure would like to have you aboard.” I said, “Okay.”

He said, “Can we talk?” I said, “Yeah.”

He said, “Well, I don't want to come up to your room, because somebody might come in there. So why don't we just happen to meet in the hall and have a quick discussion. I'll come up there tomorrow. But, uh, I don't want to, naturally, hang around in the lobby. So when I come, I'll just call you and, uh, we'll go from there.”

I said, “Okay.”

So he did. The next afternoon he called and I answered the phone.

He said, “Well, I'm in the lobby. So just let me know what floor you're on and meet me at the elevator and we'll have our conversation.”

I said, “All right. I'll meet you at the elevator on the sixth floor.”

When the elevator door opened, there was Duke. But when I turned around, I saw Freddie Green's door open. It was right in front of the elevator. He saw me and he saw Duke getting off.

Freddie had a shocked look on his face. He said, “Oh, shit!” Then he went back into his room and slammed the door.

Duke smiled and smoothed his silk suit. Without one word about Freddie, he said, “Now, I can't just take a player out of a buddy's band. That doesn't work nicely. What I think is that you'll need to fake illness. You just say you're sick and you just go home to St. Louis. Tell Basie that you're going to cool it for a while until you recover. We'll be coming through there on Armistice Day, November 11th. And when we do, you'll just happen to join us. It's only a few months away, and meanwhile, I'll put you on salary at two hundred fifty dollars a week, which will be your starting pay with us.”

My head was spinning. I looked at the floor and thought, Wow! What a fantastic deal! Leave Basie and go with Duke and be on salary with Duke before I even join the band. I'd get a chance to go home and see Pauline and everybody and get paid.

I remembered when Hamp told me to wait for him and he didn't show. But I didn't get the feeling that Duke was jiving. I imagined having Duke's (p.124) salary compared to the one-forty a week that Basie was paying me. Then I felt lousy, since Basie had just given me a raise. But when I looked into Duke's impatient eyes, I knew I had to make a decision right there.

Duke took a step closer and said, “Is there anything else?”

I said, “Just give me a little time to tell Basie.”

He smiled and said, “But of course.” He jingled some change in his pocket and he said, “Your salary starts with us as soon as you leave Basie. I'll have my people in touch with you. And we'll see you in St. Louis on November 11th?”

I said, “I'll be there.”

That night at the gig, Freddie did his usual looking off with no eye contact routine when he talked to me. He said, “Shit, you're a fool if you don't!”

I didn't respond. Nobody else said anything, so I didn't either. In the back of my mind was a ball of guilt, but I was also excited.

Joe Williams joined us that night and we were all glad that he'd decided to join our group. He teased me after the first show about carrying him to George Hudson's car when he'd collapsed at the softball game back in St. Louis.

I laughed and talked, but in the back of my mind was a ball of guilt. Still, we all had fun. But the real spotlight was on the Joe Louis fight that night. We'd all bet on Joe Louis to win, except for Joe Williams. He'd bet on Ezzard Charles. And when Ezzard won the fight I asked Joe about his bet.

He had a pocket full of money. Just beaming and grinning. He shrugged his shoulders and said, “Well, when I went to Louis' training camp, I saw how sluggish he was and how his training partner was knocking him around. They were telling Joe to quit fighting. So I knew Joe wasn't gonna make it.”

I sneered at him. He said, “I didn't really want to bet against Joe, man. But you know, I just wanted to make some extra bills. You understand. If I had told anybody what I knew, well, that might've jinxed the fight. Plus Joe might have won. I was still pulling for him.”

After the Brass Rail gig ended a week later, we went on to New York for the Strand Theater job. I tried to find a way to tell Basie, but I just couldn't. I went back and forth with my decision to leave, but deep inside I knew I wanted to go with Duke.

Basie was getting more and more excited about getting the big band together. As I sat with him in his dressing room at the Strand, he said, “I need a trombone player and an alto saxophone player.”

I said, “Okay, I've got them for you. Ernie Wilkins and his brother, Jimmy.”

(p.125) He looked at me quizzically. “Can they play?”

I said, “Does a bear shit in the woods? And besides, when Buster Harding and Jimmy Mundy get a little busy, Ernie can help them out with the writing.”

He smiled his usual wide smile and said, “Okay. Tell them to come on.” While Basie was in the steam cabinet, I picked up the phone and called St. Louis. The steam was at full blast—“Ssssssssssssssssssssss”—and Basie couldn't hear me.

Ernie answered his phone. I said, “Hey, Ernie. You want to come and join Count Basie's band?”

He said, “Aw, man, don't be playing with me like that!”

I said, “Naw, man. I'm serious, and I can't talk long and I can't talk loud. Do you want to do it?”

He said, “Sure!”

I said, “Good. And get Jimmy.”

His voice rose. He said, “Jimmy, too?”

I said, “Yes. But the only thing is that you've got to play alto.”

He said, “Man, I don't play alto. I'm a tenor man. I never played alto in my life.”

I knew from our navy days that he was a good reader and he had a good sound, and I knew that he could play alto if he wanted to. So I said, “Get an alto and come to New York. I'll make a reservation for both of you at the Hotel America. Not the Americana. We're in a little fleabag off 47th Street.”

He said, “Okay. All right. I'll be there. We'll leave tomorrow and I'll be there day after tomorrow.”

I said, “Make it for sure.” He said, “Okay.”

They came to the hotel and checked in. The next morning bright and early, we went over to the Strand and I took them to meet Basie.

I said, “This is your new alto player and your new trombone player.”

Ernie's borrowed alto was held together with rubber bands, chewing gum, and cigarette wrappers. When he pulled it out, everybody looked at him and said, “What? Where did this guy come from?”

But he passed the acid test, and Jimmy did too. Then Basie said to Ernie, “Well, we just got Joe Williams. Can you write something for him?”

Eventually Ernie came up with “Everyday, I Have the Blues.” Joe Williams sang the shit out of that song. Much later, it became a mega hit, catapulting Basie into the mainstream. But that was yet to come. For now, we had to finish getting the orchestra together and hit the road again.