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Remembering the Inimitable Lilian Terry [1930-2023]

Remembering the Inimitable Lilian Terry [1930-2023]
Lilian Terry conducting one of her iconic interviews of an American Jazz musician for her book

On the 13th of July at 21.13 hours Eastern Standard Time I received an email from my friend Francesco Crosara to tell me that his mother and my lifelong friend Lilian Terry had passed away from a sudden heart attack in Nice on June 29th during her dialysis treatment. I was devastated as family would be. “We’re family,” Lilian had said in one of her many letters to me. I was honoured – albeit not too surprised. We exchanged many confidences over the short time that we knew each other. Somehow a review I wrote of her autobiography struck a chord and we soon began living like members of a family that live – as many families do – at opposite ends of the world – She in France and I in Canada.

As I said, I was devastated, but something that Francesco wrote at the end of his email elevated me: “She always told me,” Francesco wrote, “[that] she would be joining the big jam session in the sky with all her musician friends, and what a roster [that would be],” Francesco concluded.

What a roster indeed…! For the uninitiated and those who had not yet read her remarkably candid book Dizzy, Duke, Brother Ray, and Friends [Univ. of Illinois Press, 2017] about her life that began as a media person in Italy who loved music and who became a peripatetic Italian ambassador of jazz – she interviewed everyone from Duke Ellington [who once famously changed a set list to include in his performance a song she loved when he found her in the audience], Count Basie, Oscaar Peterson, Woody Shaw, Willis Conover, Ornette Coleman, Horace Silver, McCoy Tyner, Abbey Lincoln, Max Roach Tommy Flanagan, and scores upon scores of other musicians and personalities. Along the way she also performed – and even recorded – with some the musicians she interviewed.

The reason why she was so loved and able to produce so many wonderful programmes for television is simple: she let musicians speak; she never got in the way, just cut a path so that they flowed – like the melodic soli they played on stage, and like their music, soon the melodic little stream of an interview flowed river in spate. The beautifully animated video of an interview which Lilian did with Nina Simone [from the website Blank-on-Blank] is a great example of how Lilian let musicians tell their own story.

Lilian Terry with Stevie James, Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington

More than anything else Lilian was a great lover of jazz music and an extraordinary artist herself, who performed – as vocalist – with Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Shank, Steve Lacy and Enrico Rava, of course with her son and pianist, Francesco Crosara and his ensembles, and not just many, but scores of other icons of the music. She recorded A Night in Tunisia – diabolically difficult to sing with anyone let alone with Dizzy in tow, as special guest on her album entitled Oo-Shoo-Be-Doo-Be …Oo, Oo …Oo, Oo. Dizzy even agreed to be pictured on the cover of the album of his great friend and enjoyed playing on Lilian’s album. With good reason: She had a wonderful, luminous, and airy voice that came from inside her chest, below her diaphragm, with emotion that could only come from her ephemeral being. Incidentally for those who are interested, Lilian has a discography which includes albums with Dizzy, Mr Flanagan and many luminaries including with her son and pianist Francesco Crosara.

Dizzy Gillespie at the school he helped found in Italy, Lilian Terry Archive

I sometimes wonder what I did to merit her friendship and becoming a part of the inner circle of family. All I did was write a review of her autobiography. I was enamoured of her life and her ability to tell the story of her life in media and music in a book that many writers, many of whom more gifted than she was because she wrote with the kind of truth that was affecting, always placing the music first, just like the many great musicians she interviewed and followed – on behalf of the television stations she represented – all around the world. Lilian was one of a kind and I believe that every musician, television producer, and even ordinary person whose life she touched became aware of that as soon as they met her. An essay she wrote and sent to me along with one of the many letters we exchanged said it all: That essay was entitled Jazz is Universal and appeared in the Imperatives section of this magazine.

Lilian was courageous, broke through many a glass ceiling as a woman making her way in the world. But she always lived her life on her terms, living each day as if it were her last. Surely this is why she endeared herself to so many musicians who lived their own lives likewise. Of course, she knew this, which is how she came to write this remarkable verse that Francesco shared with me. The uncannily prescient verse is set to become the epilogue of her forthcoming book entitled Close Encounters in The Jazz Dimension. I thank Francesco and his wife Julia for giving me permission to publish it here:

Close Encounters in the Jazz Dimension ©

The time has come to say goodbye,
My magic tale now ends.
I must prepare to leave this world,
My family and friends.
Now opens up a different chapter
Within a new dimension
Where I’ll be meeting once again
With my beloved friends.

I’ll start with Sonny who assured me
We meet every 144 years. Why not?
Looking back here come Dizzy, Chick, Horace, Ray;
Uncle Eddie Ellington, Max and Abbey,
Tommy and so many more…
Musicians who gave me their trust and friendship.
Who welcomed and advised my young musician son Francesco Crosara
Through many generous years.

As we say in Egypt: “Kullu maktoob”
It was all written down that it should be so
Therefore I am grateful for a very special fate,
With a wonderful, generous family
And sincere, encouraging friends.
All this within the magic world of music
That embraced me as a child
And never let me go.

Francesco revealed some of the aspects of Lilian’s life in a heartfelt eulogy, part of which I quote below as I too bid farewell to my dearest friend:

“From her birthplace in Cairo, Egypt, Lilian Cachia came to Rome and became known to the world as Lilian Terry, known for her contribution to the legacy of jazz music with her records, her radio and television programs, her concerts and interviews with the great figures of the jazz scene, and especially with the Dizzy Gillespie Popular School of Music in Bassano which she founded in Italy.

Julia, Lilian and Francesco at home in Nice

“To her many friends and family, she was simply Lily, always willing to listen and share her life stories and her wisdom with class, wit, experience, and open dialogue. Lily inspired many people and was very loved by all of her friends and her family.

“To me, she was Mamà, she formed my own attitude towards the world and enabled me to grow, to travel, and to discover my own path and talent. Thanks to Mamà today I have followed her footsteps and passion for Jazz with my own music career in the United States and abroad. To my beloved spouse Julia, she was also a true mother and always inspired her with honest communication and genuine love.

“My mother loved Nice and made it her home 22 years ago, where she developed many very meaningful relationships. In the last few years, her health took a downturn, but she turned her suffering into inspiration with all the wonderful people who took care of her, with whom I am eternally grateful. Lilian, Lily, or Mamà, she left us one week ago, but will remain in our hearts and her memory will always live in all the people she touched. Thank you all.

Deo gratis…

© 2023 Lilian Terry, Francesco Crosara


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