Choice Anecdotes: Comic Books and Switchblades
Nat Hentoff encourages us to “Listen to the Stories” in a book of that same name published in 2000. Here’s a pair that I thought you’d enjoy from Clark Terry’s richly anecdotal memoir, Clark: The Autobiography of Clark Terry, which I wrote about last fall in this blog entry.
These come from the trumpeter's work with the bands of Count Basie and Duke Ellington in the '50's. The first is one of the tales he relates about the daily grind that touring black musicians faced finding lodging before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 banned discrimination in public accommodations. Terry writes:
A few gigs later, we ended up in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania with no place to stay. So Basie and I scouted several houses and found places for everybody except ourselves. Finally, he knocked on the door of a house owned by a lady named Mrs. Jones.
She said, “I’ve got a couple of beds in the attic. One is regular size and the other is a pull-down.”
We paid her for the accommodations and settled in. Of course, I got the slab. There was a small dresser where Basie put the contents of his pockets. I put my stuff on the other side near his things.
There was one major problem with Basie and me being roommates: he couldn’t sleep with the light off and I couldn’t sleep with it on. So I thought, Ain’t nothing for me to do but lie here and wait for him to read his comic book till it flops on his belly. Then I’ll know he’s asleep, and I’ll sneak over and pull the light chain.
I eased up and sneaked over to the dresser, and just as I was about to pull the chain, he sat straight up and said, “Put it back!”
(Here's Terry with Basie's Septet around 1951. That's Buddy DeFranco, clarinet, Wardell Gray, tenor saxophone, Freddie Green, guitar, Jimmy Lewis, bass, and Gus Johnson, drums.)
Clark relates this bit of bravado from his days with Duke Ellington. After telling us that Cat Anderson was “a very dependable musician, a lead trumpeter with great chops,” he then lets on that he was a compulsive thief, “But he knew not to mess with me.”
All the cats from St. Louis carried a shank—in common language, a knife. So did I. When I’d come to work, before I took my music out of the book, I’d push the switchblade button. Bling! The sharp metal would flash in the lights. Then I’d throw the knife so that the point of the blade would stick in the fiberglass music stand. Boing! I’d shoot a look at Cat, then say, “Good evening, everybody.” He’d ignore me, but I knew he got my message.