I first met Clark Terry when I was 6 months old. I met him because my father, Stephen Fulton, and he had been friends since the late 1970’s. It would take me a long time to understand he was famous, in my childhood he was simply like my Grandfather. I drew him pictures for his birthday and holidays, spoke to him on the phone (probably to talk about Barbies). He would let me play with his charm necklace (which had a wheel of cheese charm that he was always trying to convince me was Pacman) and then give me treats from Europe and sometimes money to buy Mommy and Daddy a present as a surprise. I understood he was important, successful, even wealthy – but it was many years later, as I started to become a Jazz musician myself, that I would understand how significant he was in the music.
In 1994, my family and I moved to LeMars Iowa so my father could become the director of the Clark Terry International Institute of Jazz Studies. Jazz Education was always an important part of Clark’s career, he taught all over the world, but this was the first and only time he would have his own Institute that would teach the music as he wanted it taught. As the Artistic Director he helped design the curriculum by choosing the tunes the students would learn, the solos they would study to learn theory, (such as Coleman Hawkins’ solo on “Body and Soul”) and by insisting that the “visiting artist series” be a required course for credit. He chose my father, Stephen Fulton, as the director; the other faculty included Cliff McMurray (drums), Mark Nelms (bass), Morris Nelms (piano), and David “Bull” Stewart (saxophones). The institute would stay open only until 1997, when the university (Westmar University) would begin to go bankrupt and eventually close its doors.
I was 8 years old at the time the institute opened, and just beginning to become seriously interested in being a Jazz musician. Those 3 or so years were truly an idyllic time for me, to be totally surrounded by the study of Jazz. Clark visited the campus a few times during each semester to teach classes, private lessons, and also to perform in a concert with the students, and he also sent his friends like Red Holloway and Butch Miles as “visiting artists” to give clinics to the students while he was away.
Many of the people who taught me lessons, both faculty and students, were kind and generous with their time, but only a few truly took the time to treat me seriously as an aspiring musician. Clark was one of them, Red Holloway another (and of course, my father). Once Clark realized I was serious, there were no holds barred when it came to my musical education. Often we see him smiling and being encouraging, and he often was, but he was also extremely serious and wasn’t afraid to show it. There’s no crying in baseball and no crying in Jazz either, and I learned to take my lumps early on.
It was during that time that I first performed with Clark in public, and it was also during those years that Clark gave me my first paying gig. I had formed a band, “The Little Jazz Quintet” (we were all under the age of 12), and we played mostly Clark’s original tunes as well as some standards. We were young, but we worked hard, and Clark hired us to play his 75th Birthday Party. The party was at my family’s house, and we played a set towards the beginning of the party. Afterwards Clark paid me and explained how to pay my musicians, so that I would be a good bandleader. He counted the money ($50 bills) out on top of my Barbie playhouse.
There are so many stories from this time, and I want to share more of them with you, but for now I will close with some pictures. And please, feel free to comment (especially if you were at the Institute), and share this with your friends! Clark Terry is an extraordinary musician who should be loved, cherished, and thought of often.