'Keep on Keepin' On' focuses on life in music and the joy it can bring

'Keep' centers on jazz legend Clark Terry and pianist Justin Kauflin and their musical collaborations are a beautiful thing to see.

Courtesy of RADiUS-TWC
Justin Kauflin (on the piano) and Clark Terry form a musical friendship centered on the love of jazz in Alan Hicks’s documentary, ‘Keep on Keepin’ On.’

Clark Terry, the 93-year-old jazz legend and one of the few performers to have played in both Count Basie’s and Duke Ellington’s bands, was once quoted by Dizzy Gillespie as having “the happiest sound in jazz.” That happiness still radiates, despite a series of major health setbacks, including encroaching blindness and, several years ago, the amputation of both legs. 

Terry is the subject of Alan Hicks’s documentary, “Keep on Keepin’ On,” filmed over four years, but he’s not its only focus. An Australian drummer, Hicks was hired to tour with Terry’s jazz ensemble in the mid-2000s after he had come to America to study music at William Paterson University in New Jersey. 

While at Paterson, Hicks met Justin Kauflin, a gifted jazz pianist blind since sixth grade, and subsequently introduced him to Terry – or C.T., as his friends call him – in order to help him cope with his own worsening eyesight. The two men – 66 years apart – became fast friends, and Terry became Kauflin’s musical mentor. Since music is so much more than music between these two, their filmed sessions resemble not so much rehearsals as communions.

Barely able to sit upright, with oxygen tubes in his nostrils, Terry hums riffs and Kauflin, on piano, picks up their lilt and extends them. It’s a beautiful thing to see. When Kauflin, who suffers from stage fright, enters the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition, Terry gives him his “lucky socks.” (Kauflin was a semifinalist.) He tells the boy, “I believe in your talent and I believe in you,” and he means it. 

Coming from Terry, one of the most recorded musicians in the history of jazz, this is no small ego boost. Hicks, who wisely keeps himself out of the movie (it’s his first), offers ample footage of Terry in all stages of his career. He grew up “dead poor” as one of 11 children in St. Louis, where he cobbled together his first horn using spare parts from a junkyard. 

By 1948 he was playing with Basie, three years later with Ellington; he stayed eight years as a featured soloist. In 1960 he became the first black staff musician at NBC and spent 12 years with the “Tonight Show” band.

His passion for jazz education became more pronounced around this time; he mentored everyone from Miles Davis to Wynton Marsalis. He speaks of the “supreme joy in helping young musicians.” One of those musicians was 13-year-old Quincy Jones, his very first pupil, and, as Terry describes him back then, “skinny enough to ride a rooster.” Jones, now 80, and Terry became lifelong friends and musical collaborators, and Jones, who coproduced the documentary after being asked to appear in it, provides its most heartfelt moment when he visits his ailing mentor in his home in Pine Bluff, Ark. Jones’s tender, abiding love for this man shines through, and, almost wordlessly, is returned in kind. (Extending the cycle of mentorship, Jones becomes so taken with Kauflin’s playing while visiting Terry that he ends up signing him to a record deal.)

Terry’s wife, Gwen, who met him at a 1990 tribute to Ella Fitzgerald and who co-wrote his autobiography, is a constant, consoling presence. 

Watching her husband jam with Kauflin, she tells him, “I may not know the technicalities of jazz, but I know when you’re happy.”

Actually, Terry seems happy just about all the time. An inveterate storyteller, he was known in the jazz world for keeping the latest hours and also arising before anyone else. His 1963 scat classic “Mumbles,” which we see a clip from, is such a glorious swatch of vocalized nonsense that it makes you grin ear to ear just listening to it. He talks in the film about “getting on the plateau of positivity,” and if anybody ever embodied the truth of his own words, it’s Clark Terry. Grade: A- (Rated R for some language.)

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

QR Code to 'Keep on Keepin' On' focuses on life in music and the joy it can bring
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today