Shot over the course of five years by first time filmmaker Alan Hicks, ‘Keep On Keepin’ On’ depicts the remarkable story of 93-year-old jazz legend Clark Terry. A living monument to the Golden Era of Jazz, Terry – a mentor to Miles Davis – is among the few performers ever to have played in both Count Basie’s and Duke Ellington’s bands. In the 1960’s, he broke the color barrier as the first African-American staff musician at NBC – on ‘The Tonight Show.’
Today, after a life spent working with and teaching the most totemic figures in jazz history, Terry continues to attract and cultivate budding talents. “Keep On Keepin’ On” highlights his friendship with the preternaturally gifted Justin Kauflin, a blind, 23-year-old piano prodigy who suffers from debilitating stage fright. Not long after Kauflin is invited to compete in an elite Jazz competition, Terry’s health takes a turn for the worse. As the clock ticks, we see two friends confront the toughest challenges of their lives.
Kauflin’s work on the film’s score with composer Dave Grusin sets the tone for a story that spans decades, lifetimes and the entire history of modern Jazz, complete with firsthand anecdotes from Jones and Herbie Hancock. Co-produced by music legend and former Terry student Quincy Jones, “Keep on Keepin’ On” is a film crafted with great affection by Hicks – another former student of Terry’s.
David Teich spoke with Hicks about Terry’s unique sound, his gift for teaching, and what it takes to be a great musician.
“Keep On Keepin’ On” is now playing in select theaters in New York and Los Angeles, with more releases to follow in cities across the country. Learn more here.
Clark Terry talks a lot in the film about the importance of finding one’s own voice as a musician. What was Clark’s voice like, and what made him unique as a jazz musician?
Clark Terry is known for having one of the happiest sounds in jazz. Nobody’s been able to duplicate the Clark Terry sound. It’s very warm and beautiful.
Do you think that the happiness of his sound reflects his personality?
Absolutely. Having known him, I can say that his sound is directly related to who he is as a person. Clark believes that to find your voice you have to find yourself, and that being a good person is the first step to being a great musician. Clark’s the essence of that. His sound is so happy and so positive and so beautiful and caring. And those are the same words you’d use to describe him as a man.
What has his influence been on jazz?
Clark is one of the jazz legends. If you look at the jazz tree, Clark’s at the base. He was born in 1920 and grew up in St. Louis. He joined the Count Basie band, was part of the Duke Ellington band, and was the first African American staff musician on NBC. He taught Quincy Jones and Miles Davis while they were young. He’s taught thousands and thousands of students over the years. He’s dedicated his life to mentoring, as well as being a master of his craft.
What is it about him that makes him so passionate about sharing his gift?
I think that’s who Clark is as a person. I didn’t quite understand how dedicated he was as a teacher until I spent some time with him. He would play his concert hall, and then at the side of the stage he’d be teaching students before and after the concert. Then he’d be teaching students back at his hotel room. And never in his life has he charged a student for a lesson. He just has a gift for teaching, and he knows that he should be passing on the jazz language to others. Since he was around near the beginnings of jazz, I think he’s felt a strong commitment to passing it on and helping the art form survive.
What are his strengths as a teacher—what does he do that other teachers and mentors don’t?
Well for starters, he really does care about the student. And he’s not kidding when he lets a student know how proud he is of them. Nothing makes him happier than having a student who’s working hard and succeeding. I’ve heard from so many people that Clark has gift for making a student feel like they’re the only student in the world. And that creates a very powerful feeling in a student, because Clark is one of the greats. Clark instills a confidence in his students: If the great Clark Terry believes in you, you must be doing something right. I think that’s why his students of the past have been so successful. I myself studied music and jazz with Clark. Clark didn’t have to believe in me as a musician. I was always baffled as to why he cared. And I’ve met many students of Clark who say the same thing: “I never knew why he cared so much about me.” And I’d never actually made a film before, but when I first asked him about making one, he was so supportive. He believed in me. That’s just who Clark is: He believes in his students. This whole film has been a way for me to be able to say thank you to my teacher.
A lot of documentaries about musicians rely heavily on archival footage and talking heads, but you used very little of either. Instead, you mostly documented a very specific period of Clark’s life, during which he mentored a student even as he suffered from glaucoma and life-threatening ailments. Why was that the better approach?
It came about organically. I originally started shooting just to document Clark’s life, and to learn about his past. And about a year in, we realized that we had covered him as a musician, but we hadn’t covered him as a teacher. I knew how compelling that would be, but we weren’t able to convey it with just talking heads. So we made the talking heads a minimal part. It’s only about three minutes of the movie.
Much of the film is devoted to Clark’s relationship with his blind student Justin Kauflin, a piano virtuoso. How did Justin become involved?
Me and Justin used to play in Clark’s band together. And while I was shooting with Clark, Justin would often be there studying. One day we just asked Justin if we could switch the focus of the film to him and Clark. And as soon as we did that, life just happened. And luckily we shot long enough [to document it]. We shot for four years. And because Clark trusted in me, he allowed [me and my team] to just live with him for a good majority of that time. We had cameras with us the whole time. I’m so glad that we were around at that period to capture the relationship between those two.
You yourself were mentored by Clark. Was that part of what made you want to capture this relationship between Clark and his student?
Yeah, I’d walked the teacher/student path a little bit with Clark. And I knew what it felt like to be trying to find your own voice on your instrument, and to deal with stage fright, little things like that. But those little things are actually really big things to musicians as they and develop. Justin’s a better musician than me, but he was going through all those same things. And watching Clark essentially coach him through these periods in his development, whilst Clark was having some of the biggest challenges of his own life as well—to me, that’s just real life. In Clark’s toughest times, the people that he calls on are his family and his students. I think that’s a rare and beautiful thing.
So you think that maintaining relationships with students like Justin helped Clark get through his own challenges?
I definitely think students like Justin helped Clark through these hard times…When things were tough and he was feeling down, as soon as Justin would walk in, Clark would be upbeat. He’d be teaching Justin from his hospital bed sometimes, laughing and singing songs and passing on the jazz tradition. And it didn’t matter what state Clark was in—he always wanted to give time to his students.
Was there anything fascinating to you about the idea of two people with disabilities complementing each other?
It’s just such an interesting dynamic: A student who’s completely blind, a teacher who’s going blind. And yet Clark and Justin never dwell on that. Clark’s trying to help his student, and Justin’s trying to find his sound. It’s never a pity party. That’s really inspiring for me. Whenever I feel like I’m having a hard day, I always think about Justin and Clark. They’ve dealt with such tough situations—in Clark’s case, even life-and-death situations—with such positivity. I’m honored to have been around for that.
In the film, Clark says that musicians who become truly great work extremely hard to try and become better than everybody else. In your opinion, to what degree is becoming a great musician related to inborn talent, and to what degree is it related to hard work?
I’ve heard Clark and Quincy talk about this—how if you’ve been given the gift of talent, you have to back it up with the hardest amount of work that you can. And that is the key. You’ve gotta have a little bit of talent, but you have to be a hard worker to become one of the greats. And when Clark talks about that desire to play better than everybody, it’s not a negative thing. It’s just that that’s going to keep you trying hard and practicing every day.
Do you relate to that as a filmmaker?
Yeah, to make a film you’ve gotta work your butt off every single day. And all that advice that Clark had given to me as a musician, I was able use as filmmaker. Making this film is one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. But at the same time, I had Clark’s support all the way through. And his voice was always in my head, especially during editing. “Don’t worry man, do it again, let’s keep trying.”
Has Clark seen the final film?
Yeah, many times. For him it’s like a little diary of this part of his life. He can only see a little bit out of his right eye, so we just hold an iPad up close to his eye and he’s able to see it. But he’s listening too, and singing along to all the songs. And the last time Clark he saw, he said he thinks Justin will look back on this period fondly, as a very important time in his life.
When did you meet Quincy Jones, and what did he bring to the project?
Quincy literally walked into the movie. We didn’t know him until that day we show in the film where he comes and visits Clark. He was actually meant to do a recording session with Snoop Dog that day, with Clark singing mumbles in the background of the rap track. When I found that out, I couldn’t believe it. We were actually down at Clark’s shooting already. And then Snoop Dog sprained his ankle and couldn’t come, but Quincy was already en route. So what was going to be a huge production with bodyguards ended up just being Quincy coming down and visiting with his teacher for eight hours. It was one of those magical days. We were worried Quincy wouldn’t let us shoot, but he was happy to let us. And that’s where he met Justin. It was towards the end of the shooting process that we approached Quincy with the idea coming on board [as a producer], and thank god he said yes. It’s been a pleasure working with him.
The film’s other producer, Paula DuPré Pesmen, has worked on award-winning documentaries like ‘The Cove’ and ‘Chasing Ice.’ What was it like working with her?
She’s one of the great documentary producers. And in the spirit of Clark, she took me and [Adam Hart] the cinematographer under her wing. She really helped us finish the film, and mentored us in filmmaking.
Toward the end of the film, we see Quincy telling Clark that he’s decided to take Justin with him on a world tour. Just how lucky did you feel to capture the actual moment when Justin caught his big break?
Well, we shot 350 hours of footage. So the luck factor goes up if you shoot all day, every day. [Laughs.]… Since we would live with them for months at a time, we’d shoot all the time. That was our process, and I think that’s partly because we hadn’t made a movie before. Nobody told me not to shoot that much. [Laughs.] So it made it harder when we got to the editing room, because we had so much footage. But it also made for a richer experience, because we had captured so much.
How did you go about choosing songs for the film’s soundtrack?
I’d gotten to know Clark’s favorite music after spending all those years with him. The soundtrack is a collection of Clark’s favorite songs, and his favorite tracks that he played on. The soundtrack is essentially Clark’s mixtape.
A postscript at the end of the film says that Justin is working on a new album, with Quincy as producer. Do you have any more updates about what Justin is up to?
He’s finished that album. That should be coming out in the New Year, I believe. Justin’s doing really well. He’s moving forward, and he’s still the same humble character. I’m really proud of him. Once, years ago, Clark said to me that he thinks Justin’s going to make a lot of people happy. And I’m just starting to see that happen. Another great thing is that we’re opening here in New York on the third of October, and during opening weekend Justin will be doing a concert after every single screening [at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema]. There’ll be a piano in the theater. It’ll become a 3D experience.
Do you think your film might help Justin’s music career?
It’s hard to tell. For us, the main objective is just to have people get to know Clark, a man we’re all so fond of, and hopefully be inspired by his story. And if the world gets to find out about Justin at the same time, I think that’s also a beautiful thing. Fingers crossed.
— Interview conducted, transcribed and edited by David Teich