February 22, 2015

Clark Terry, 1920-2015

Clark Terry and Monk Rowe, October 1996

Jazz trumpeter and educator Clark Terry passed away on Saturday February 21, at the age of 94. I had been prepared for this news knowing that this jazz legend had been in ill health for many years, and having just viewed the touching documentary Keep On Keepin’ On.
I think of Clark as a member of the second generation of jazz musicians. He was born in St. Louis in 1920, three years after the first jazz recording by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. His mentors and teachers were of the first generation, and the music of Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, and Duke Ellington all played a formative role in Clark’s development. While his music education came predominantly from outside the classroom, one of Clark’s contributions was to help move that knowledge into an educational setting. But even in the codified world of academia, he was able to impart the importance of learning the music by ear, feel, and intuition. Clark would just as soon expound on the beauty of the three blue notes as he would on the whole step/half step scales that might be applied to a specific ii-V-I chord progression.
I am one of the fortunate ones who spent time with Clark through my position at Hamilton College. He received an honorary degree from Hamilton in 1995, and performed numerous times at our annual Fallcoming jazz event. One memory that will remain is an evening gig in our on-campus pub [pictured above]. I was joined by Bob Cesari, a fellow saxophonist, and we were consistently amazed and amused by Clark’s ability to conjure up the absolutely perfect background riff to insert behind soloists. This may seem like an expected ancillary skill for a jazz musician, but I assure you it is not. You won’t find it in textbooks, and most academically-trained jazz musicians do not learn the technique. It comes from learning on the job, balancing theory with spontaneity, and, in Clark’s case, a wry sense of humor.
In 1999 I released a CD of compositions dedicated to artists that I had met through the jazz archive oral history project. The tune I wrote for Clark Terry was named “Beyond Category,” a phrase I borrowed from the Duke Ellington legacy. Duke used the term to describe Clark, a musician who could rise above definitions and provide exactly what was needed at any time. The flugelhorn of Wendell Brunious came about as close as you can get to capturing Clark’s unique sound.

February 17, 2015

Yeh Yeh

Do you wake up with a tune in your head? I often do, and they are not necessarily songs I like. A few days ago the 70s hit “Sing a Song” by the Carpenters was mysteriously present in my head when I woke up. I don’t hate the song. It was a charming, well-produced ditty, complete with children’s choir. Perhaps the reason it was in my head is it is a bit of an ear worm. No one really knows why one song gets stuck in our head. But the only way for me to get this one out was to replace it with something else. That particular day I chose another ear worm, entitled “Yeh Yeh.”
Some months ago, my bandmate John Hutson brought a lead sheet to one of our gigs and we played “Yeh Yeh” without rehearsing, a common occurrence for us. While I had a vague recollection of the tune, playing it live tweaked my curiosity and I’m now fascinated by the history of it.
“Yeh Yeh” was written by Rodgers Grant and Pat Patrick as an instrumental song, and first recorded by Mongo Santamaria on a 1963 LP that also featured the first recording of Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man.” It was a minor Latin hit, and soon was treated to a clever lyric composed by Jon Hendricks of the vocal trio Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. Their own recording of the song was quickly covered by British pop musician Georgie Fame and his band, The Blue Flames. This was the biggest hit in Georgie Fame’s career, and its 1965 release knocked The Beatles out of the number one spot they were enjoying with “I Feel Fine.” Any one of these versions will find a place in your brain for a full day. Here’s the original version by Mongo Santamaria.
Let’s take a look at some of the hooks. The song starts out with Latin percussion and a distinctive piano riff, a variation on the omnipresent Latin rhythm called the clavĂ©.
The original composers wrote a call & response melody made up of two riffs, the second a third lower than the first.

Twelve bars of this melodic exchange leads to the “Yeh Yeh” riff. If that’s not enough memorable material, the composers balanced this active verse/chorus with a marvelous bridge that starts with a rare  beat of silence. The rest on beat one is a hook in itself, followed by an ascending line with pairs of notes that climb over major and minor chords — very sophisticated for pop music.

Another YouTube of the song, this one with the Jon Hendricks lyric, features Hugh Laurie, actor and musician.
If you listen to these versions of “Yeh Yeh,” I predict the song will stay in your head, stay in your head, stay in your head. If you can figure out why certain songs become ear worms, you should probably go write one.