The Jazz Man Came a-Knockin’

A decade ago, I met jazz legend Clark Terry on an airplane. He was a terrific guy, and the experience was inspirational. So why does the memory haunt me to this day? 

Clark Terry was a famous jazz trumpeter. He played swing throughout the big band era,  later venturing into bebop and hard bop. He was a mentor to, among others, Miles Davis and Quincy Jones. He recorded with countless musicians, and he even played on the tonight show.

I met Clark once. It’s not often a homebody like me meets a celebrity, and as someone who lives and breathes music, I was quite proud when we crossed paths. In recent years, however, I forgot that it even happened. It came back to me unexpectedly the other day. As I was walking into town, searching for musical opportunities –bands to jam with, children to teach– my encounter with a cheerful old Jazz Man came flooding back. Some of the details are missing; I met him on an airplane, flying back from Florida, but I can only guess as to when it happened and where I was coming from. Still, why did I remember this story at a moment when I was searching for opportunity? And why did I let allow myself to forget in the first place?

I’m going to guess it was 2005, because that’s the year Clark won the NARAs President’s Merit Award, and when we met he said he had just been given an award. My family and I happened to be in the first class compartment of the airplane, thanks to something involving my father having points with the airline and seat availability. As to why we were in Florida, I suspect it was for my grandmother’s birthday.

As I made my way into the cabin and located my seat, I noticed an old black man occupying the window in front of me. By the way the flight attendants were caring for him, I could tell he was someone important. They were all calling him “Mr. Clark,” and offering to bring him any manner of comfort. Several people were aware of his presence, but none of us knew who he was. After subtly questioning the flight attendants, my brother, Jeff, told me, “It’s Terri Clark!” I passed the information over to my parents. The woman across the aisle leaned over to ask who the celebrity was. “Terri Clark!” I answered. Boy, was that exciting!

Wait. That doesn’t sound right. Terri Clark is a woman!

Jeff was lucky enough to sit beside the cheerful old fellow. They formed a fast acquaintanceship. Before long, Jeff turned around again and murmured, “It’s not Terri Clark. It’s Clark Terry!”

“They always get my name confused,” Clark said, but he seemed perfectly okay with that.

So I spread the corrected word: it was Clark Terry, a famous old Jazz Man. At this point, I became jealous of my brother, who spent the next two and half hours chatting with a musician of over 60 years. Periodically, Jeff would look back and share some tidbit with me, which would allow me to ask my own questions. Clark was very soft-spoken, making it difficult to hear him over the engines, so I relied on Jeff to keep me in the dialogue.

Eventually, it came out that I was a drummer. I recall a passing a few messages back and forth; probably information about how long I’d been playing and what sort of music I liked. I wanted to make some sort of vocational connection with the man.

My brother listened to Clark’s response, then looked back at me with a slightly bewildered expression. “You want to jam with Clark, Seth?”

Um…

My brother, whom I had known my entire life, had just asked me if I wanted to jam with Clark Terry. No, scratch that: Clark Terry had invited me to jam with him! He was, after all, going back to New Jersey, were I lived year ’round.

While I’ve always been a rock/metal drummer and an unashamed metalhead, I’ve been known to play a little jazz on both my kit and my radio. Like any drummer worth his salt… regardless of what he plays… has studied venerable grandfathers like Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, Max Roach, Louis Bellson, and Elvin Jones.  But my skills at jazz were less than rudimentary. I dabbled in easy stuff, and I had more of a back beat than a swing. Did I want to jam with Clark Terry? COULD I jam with Clark Terry? It was a ridiculous notion. Ridiculous. I could never hold my own with a guy like that. Me showing up at a jam with jazz musicians even approaching Clark Terry’s level would end in abject humiliation.

“No, I’m not a jazz drummer,” I said. “I’m just a rock drummer. I could never keep up with a jazz musican.”

My brother relayed my response to Clark. I heard the Jazz Man say, “Ohhh.”

And that was that. Later, I had the privilege of taking Clark’s trumpets down from the baggage compartments. Incredible, I thought, I’m holding Clark Terry’s trumpets! Clark signed the back of my drum pad. Next to his name he drew a cheesy little trumpet, giggling infectiously as he struggled to render it. He disembarked once the cabin had emptied, and I waved to him in the tunnel. After that, I didn’t see him again.

Cool story, right? I met a celebrity. Immediately after it happened, I recounted the event to a number of people. I mean, I had proof right there on my practice pad. So why did I subsequently forget the experience, and why is it haunting me now?

Could it be because age and hindsight have given me a different perspective on what really happened that day?

Clark Terry asked me to jam with him.

And I said…

No.

The reasons I turned down Clark’s invitation are transparent: Self doubt. Fear of failure. Fear of humiliation. In the end, I just couldn’t imagine how a small, socially-withdrawn, obsessive-compulsive peon like myself could belong at the session of a legendary Jazz Man. Fear and doubt caused me to miss one of the most unique opportunities of my lifetime.

Looking back after a decade, my choice seems even more ridiculous. Even if I really didn’t have the chops to play with a musician of that caliber, how many other scenarios could have unfolded?  I didn’t have to impress anyone, right? I could have sat in on a slow, easy jam. Even that would have been extraordinary. In fact, maybe someone else there might have been a funk/fusion musician and could have met me in the middle. Hell, I should have just gone and watched these guys make magic! I didn’t have to play. But that’s another question: would it have been just Clark or a collection of musicians? What sort of contacts or friendships could I have made? Would I have been introduced to a great music teacher, or a literary agent for my writing? Maybe I could have just made some cool friends. Maybe Clark Terry, mentor to the gods of jazz, could have been a mentor to me!

Perhaps, perhaps not. The possibilities are endless. My point is that we’ll never know.

For so much of my life, I’ve been ruled by fear and doubt. As many of you know, when you’re caught in the clutches of these insidious emotions, the easiest recourse is to let them have their way with you. We bow to the fear. We embrace the doubt. We tell ourselves, “There’s no way I could ever do something like that!” Well, here’s something I wish I had asked myself that day: “Is the concept of me jamming with Clark Terry any more outlandish than the concept of Clark Terry asking me to jam?” Today, all I have to show for my decision is a half-faded, barely legible signature.

Do we go around this mad world once, or do we come back for repeated attempts? No one knows. However, in 38 years here, I’ve learned something: fear and doubt are powerful motivators, but in the long term, they lead only to regret. The next time you’re facing an opportunity and demons from the id come crawling out to take it away, ask yourself this: “What do I really have to lose?” If you can’t come up with anything that’s honestly important — if bankruptcy, injury, or death aren’t in the equation–  then what are you hiding from? What are you protecting yourself from? Opportunity came for me; I was afraid of being humiliated, so I took the safe path. Maybe I avoided humiliation, but years later, I feel even more humiliated for saying “No” to a legend.

The opportunity to correct that mistake will never come. Clark Terry died on February 21st, 2015. His life was a musical odyssey. According to Wikipedia, he played with Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Quincy Jones, and many others. He appeared on over 900 recordings. He mentored a handful of the most important jazz musicians of the 20th century. He received over 250 awards. When I met him, seemed like a humble, down-to-earth man; kind, playful, and relaxed.

Once, I met Clark Terry on airplane. But the story didn’t have to end there.

What will you do when the Jazz Man invites you to jam?

-S

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