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Keep On Keepin' On: the power of love, commitment, and mentorship (review)

Keep On Keepin' On [2014]
with Clark Terry and Justin Kauflin
directed by Alan Hicks
Wakefield International Film Festival, February 21-22, 2015


Keep On Keepin' On will receive its Ottawa-Gatineau premiere at the Wakefield International Film Festival, with two showings on February 21 and 22.


Parents find this out all too quickly: it's not what you say, it's what you do when it comes to raising children. How you act is more important than what you tell them.

And that's also what makes this recent documentary about the great jazz trumpeter Clark Terry so intensely believable and so emotionally strong. In the film, you can see Terry working with his students, passing on his love and knowledge of particular songs and of jazz in general, and connecting with his longtime musical colleagues. In archival clips, you can see him in action in his heyday, playing his heart out and clearly communicating his joy in the music.

Keep On Keepin 'On posterTerry is now 94. He came to fame playing in Count Basie's band, and then spent almost a decade in what he referred in as the “University of Ellingtonia” with Duke Ellington, before becoming the first African American staff musician at the NBC TV network in 1960. In 1991, he was named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master; in 2010, he received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award; in 2013, he was inducted into the Jazz at Lincoln Center Nesuhi Ertegun Jazz Hall of Fame. He has performed on more than 900 recordings, including several collaborations with Oscar Peterson.

Biographies of him say that he established a lasting reputation in his long career for “his wide range of styles (from swing to hard bop), technical proficiency, and infectious good humor” – and that's what comes through in this film, despite Terry's increasing physical frailty throughout. In 84-minutes, it tells a compelling story, both about Terry's illustrious career, but also about how he's kept on going into his 90s.

But it wouldn't be so strong if it wasn't also about one of his long-time students, jazz pianist Justin Kauflin. They first met at the William Paterson School of Music in New Jersey, where Terry taught as a visiting professor, and Kauflin has kept returning for private lessons even when Terry moved to Arkansas. The film shows Kauflin trying to establish his own career but even more importantly finding his own voice as a musician, and the intense work he puts into this despite setbacks.

You can see the deep mutual love between the two. Kauflin refers to Terry at “C.T.” and clearly sees him as a mentor, while Terry does his best to help Kauflin to develop his voice and to deal with his crippling stage fright – including giving him a special personal talisman and message for a major competition. They have a particular link: Kauflin was born with a degenerative eye disease that left him blind as a boy, while Terry was affected by diabetes since he was a young man, which led to him losing his sight during the filming of this documentary.

The film includes scenes of Kauflin being guided by his seeing-eye dog, Candy, and Terry in his sickbed. But what is actually memorable about the film isn't that, nor the frustrating pain Terry has to deal with nor his hospital treatments. Instead, what stands out is Kauflin running and playing with Candy, and the twinkle in Terry's eyes as he sings a jazz tune. Neither of them lets their illnesses define them: they're musicians and they keep on playing.

Kauflin is only one of a long string of students whom Terry has mentored. His very first was jazz great Quincy Jones, who asked Terry for lessons when Jones was a skinny 12-year-old. Their classes were at 8 a.m. when Terry got home from playing all night in NYC jazz clubs and before Jones went off to school. There's a wonderful section in this movie when Jones comes back to see Terry at his home and they talk about old times, and Jones gets to hear Kauflin play.

If there's any theme to the movie, it's how Terry wants to pay forward to his students what he learned as a jazz musician, and the pleasure he has received over many decades as a teacher, whether in clinics, camps, universities, or founding a Harlem youth band. His style challenges his students to do their best, and communicates his joyful approach to the music.

It's the antithesis of the 2014 fictional jazz film Whiplash, love and joy being far more effective communicators than fear.

As Terry says to Kauflin partway through the movie, “God Bless, stay well, and keep on keepin' on.”

Keep on Keepin' On was made by two Australian filmmakers, first-time director/drummer, Alan Hicks (who studied with Terry at William Paterson School of Music), and his surfing mate and cinematographer, Adam Hart. They spent four years filming Terry and Kauflin at their homes and in performance – including practice sessions at Terry's home that lasted well into the small hours of the morning – and then spent another two years editing the film.

The end result is an inspired mixture of archival material and film. The film uses family and archival photographs, TV clips from past decades, and even pencil drawings to tell Terry's story. It effectively avoids expository lumps by weaving the older material around interviews with current jazz luminaries, like Herbie Hancock and Dianne Reeves, and with Kauflin's and Terry's story.

One of the most memorable sections is a clip of Terry singing his joyous scatting tour-de-force, “Mumbles”, back in the 1960s. When you hear him singing jazz pieces in his recent late-night teaching sessions with Kauflin, the connection is strong and immediate.

At the end of the movie, both Terry and Kauflin have kept moving on – not in a predictable Hollywood ending, but instead by continuing to work and to love their work.

On February 13, 2015, a post on clarkterry.com said that “our beloved Clark Terry is now in hospice care. Gwen and the health care team are making sure that Clark is as comfortable as possible. During this time the family is asking for your prayers.”

Update February 21: on the website, Terry's wife, Gwen, announced that that Terry had died. "He left us peacefully, surrounded by his family, students and friends."

Regardless of this sad news, the joy that Terry has brought to his students and fellow musicians and to his many listeners over the decades still remains – and is celebrated in this fine documentary.

    – Alayne McGregor

Keep on Keepin' On was named one of the top five documentaries of 2014 by the National Board of Review, USA, and won several awards at notable America film festivals, including the Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature at the Palm Springs International Film Festival and Best New Documentary Director at the Tribeca Film Festival.

See also: Whiplash drums up the tension, but doesn't do justice to jazz (movie review)