After a long bout with diabetes, Jazz legend Clark Terry has died at the age of 94.
The highly influential musician and educator’s wife Gwen confirmed his passing with a message on his official Facebook page, which read: “Our beloved Clark Terry has joined the big band in heaven where he’ll be singing and playing with the angels. He left us peacefully, surrounded by his family, students and friends.”
Terry was first diagnosed with diabetes almost 40-years ago, and despite suffering physical challenges that would be insurmountable for less dedicated performers, including the amputation of both his legs, he kept the music alive and well and continued to perform well into his 90th year on this earth. And even when he couldn’t play he continued to dedicate much of his time to providing education and encouragement to the countless musicians, both young and old, that were inspired by the path he led in life.
Born on December 14, 1920 in St. Louis, MO, Terry had a rough upbringing after his mother died while he was young and his abusive father kicked him out of the family’s home at just 12 years of age. Music served as Terry’s only sanctuary from a very young age, and after standing out in his high school band a local musician encouraged him to take music more seriously; which sparked the start of a whirlwind career that would see Terry appear as a pivotal figure in the ongoing development of jazz as a genre.
After working with various travelling bands, and the U.S. Navy Band during World War II, Terry’s career took off when he performed with Count Basie’s big band between 1948 – 1951. Immediately after leaving Basie’s band, he enjoyed an 8-year stint as a central figure in Duke Ellington’s orchestra before becoming the first black musician on The Tonight Show’s house band in 1962.
During this period Terry became a fixture on the jazz scene. In addition to recording more than 80 albums as a bandleader he also worked with an incredible list of fellow jazz legends that includes Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Sonny Rollins, Cannonball Adderley, Louis Armstrong, Charles Mingus, Stanley Turrentine, Yusef Lateef, Quincy Jones, and countless others.
In a career spanning seven decades, he is listed as a performer or producer on over 900 different recordings.
His impact on music today is incalculable, and according to his recently published autobiography Terry has received more than 250 accolades for his contributions to music. In addition to receiving a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010 and being named an NEA Jazz Master in 1991, he was also the recipient of sixteen honorary doctorates at universities across the globe.
And despite all of his musical achievements, education always remained his greatest passion. In addition to mentoring jazz icons like Miles Davis, he also taught at many universities over the years and organized countless camps and classes for aspiring musicians to learn more about jazz. On his website, Terry wrote: “Teaching jazz allows me to play a part in making dreams come true for aspiring musicians.”
Terry’s recent mentorship of 23-year-old blind pianist Justin Kauflin was the subject of an award-winning 2014 documentary titled Keep On Keepin’ On.