Bebop pioneers unite for one remarkable night
When you ask Gerry Gibbs for a poignant anecdote about his father, legendary jazz vibraphonist and drummer Terry Gibbs, he's quick with a response. "He owes me $2.12," cracks Gibbs, one of San Antonio's best jazz drummers and the weekly host of Jazz With the Thrasher on KRTU 91.7 FM.
Gibbs' Thrasher Productions - in association with the Carver Community Cultural Center - is bringing Terry to town as part of the Elder Statesmen of Jazz, a rare opportunity to catch four top-notch pioneers of the bebop era in one night. When asked about his dad's involvement in the concert, Gibbs puts it this way: "See, I bring him here and I take it out of the money he owes me."
Such weisenheimer shots are typical of the kind of verbal riffs Gibbs and his dad have long exchanged with each other. He recounts a Caribbean tour they shared years ago, when Terry introduced his long-haired son from the stage as "my daughter," and went on to suggest that Gerry find a real job. Although the insults were facetious, a male attendee confronted the elder Gibbs to tell him what an abusive father he was. At every stop, they kept running into the same man, and he never let up. Finally, Gerry told him that his father was merely performing some shtick. The man responded: "You don't have to take it anymore!"
The Elder Statesmen concert is unique because it presents four distinct jazz masters who are all - or soon will be - octogenarians, yet continue to perform at a high level. In fact, all four performers released albums this year, and Terry Gibbs' new disc, 52nd & Broadway: Songs of the Bebop Era (featuring Moody on sax) recently hit No. 1 on the Jazz Radio chart.
"I wanted to put a concert together bringing legends of the bebop era," Gerry Gibbs says. "There are only eight or nine of them left. We've had great jazz concerts here, but this is a legendary situation for San Antonio because this is four guys. This will never happen again."
"Clark is probably as great a brass player as has ever lived," says Morris Nelms, a music teacher at Texas State University in San Marcos. Nelms taught at the Clark Terry International Institute of Jazz Studies from 1994-97, while he was the faculty pianist at Westmar University in LaMars, Iowa. "Clark is a student of the music and a student of his instrument in a way that a lot of musicians aren't. He's very serious about the history of the music from the earliest recordings of Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith all the way up to whatever is going on right at this moment.
"He's an unusual one in the sense that he's comfortable with a Basie swing groove and he's also comfortable with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and even up to John Coltrane's bebop stuff. He's recorded things like 'Got My Mojo Working.' He's comfortable with anything that has to do with jazz and blues. He recorded with Digable Planets. He can make his music fit in any kind of context and he will make whoever he is playing with sound better as a result."
Though he's most often associated with bebop, Terry also has the rare distinction of playing for both Count Basie and Duke Ellington, leaders of the two greatest big bands of all time. Like Dizzy Gillespie, he's juggled serious musicianship with a showman's sense of the absurd. He earned his nickname, "Mumbles," by scat singing nonsense syllables with a risqué edge and he's also known for taking off his mouthpiece and using it to simulate talking. He often mocks his venerable age by taking his medication onstage and taking hits of it between tunes.
"You go back to the late '40s and he's playing bebop as well as anyone else, and you don't really hear his name mentioned with people like Dizzy Gillespie or Fats Navarro or any of the other big trumpet players of the time," says Aaron Prado, chief announcer and program director at KRTU. "He's right there doing it, but the thing is, he doesn't keep doing that. He ends up getting into these big bands and carves out this other language for himself that's completely unique. No one sounds like Clark Terry. No one sounded like him when he was 25 and no one sounds like him now that he's almost 85."
"Through the rise and fall of all these different stars, he's just one of those guys who'd played great," Prado says. "He hasn't changed a whole lot. He's just held the bebop torch. He was one of the first people to take bebop language to the tenor saxophone. Back then it was everybody playing the alto sax, trying to be like Charlie Parker."
Hendricks, 83, as a member of the vocal ensemble Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, helped pioneer the technique of "vocalese," in which lyrics are written and sung to fit famous instrumental solos. "People don't know it, but Henricks wrote a lot of lyrics to tunes that are commonly sung," Prado says. "He's kind of a vocal gymnast."
Gerry Gibbs' band, Third Trio From the Sun, will back three of the elder statesmen, while Thrasher, his big band, will support his father.
"It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," Prado says of the concert. "These guys are in their eighties and they're people we need to embrace and recognize. I want to be able to say I heard James Moody live. And if you don't make it this time, you might not be able to say that, for each of these guys." •