Monday, November 24, 2014

Clark Terry Keeps On Mentoring at 93 - DownBeat

Jazz relies heavily upon oral tradition to stay vital. Its practitioners are just as frequently asked about who they studied with as who they listened to. The value of that firsthand exchange of knowledge is what ensures not only that the music lives on but the attitude too. The new film Keep On Keepin' On is about Clark Terry, an NEA Jazz Master who, at the age of 93, continues to mentor aspiring musicians though he is bed-ridden. He is a sharp, funny and unflinching subject for the documentary.

Terry started his career in the 1940s, playing trumpet and flugelhorn in the big bands of Count Basie and Duke Ellington. He has recorded numerous solo discs, embracing modern technology and developing his own distinctive, mumbling scat style. Throughout his career, Terry has shared whatever he could. Quincy Jones, at the age of 12, became one of Terry's first students. Some decades later, Terry was teaching at William Paterson University, which is where he encountered first-time director Alan Hicks and pianist Justin Kauflin.

"My original intention was to just have the film be about Clark and his life," said Hicks, who spent a couple of years on the road as a drummer with Terry. "Even if we didn't finish making it, I would've given the footage to an archive. After a year of shooting just Clark, we asked Justin if he would let us follow him around as well. Once we made that decision, the story between those two blossomed."

The film focuses primarily on Terry's mentoring relationship with Kauflin, a Thelonious Monk competition semi-finalist who is more than 60 years younger than Terry and lost his vision at the age of 11. Their bond formed as Terry began losing his eyesight due to complications from diabetes.

"The thing is, it's not blatant," said Kauflin. "Yes, I am blind. Yes, I have a guide dog. I appreciate that the movie doesn't call attention to it much. That's our lives. That's what we are dealing with. No need to make it anything more than it is. I knew that anybody could watch this movie. Everything Clark shares with me and his students is universal."

Keep On Keepin' On paints a sometimes brutal reflection of jazz life and examines the effects of aging and disability. As Kauflin's world expands, Terry's gets smaller and harder to navigate. According to Hicks, Terry permitted the film crew to document anything they wanted. This resulted in amazing footage of Terry in a hyperbaric chamber talking with Kauflin as well as late night bedside tutoring sessions that only hint at the lifetime of work required to become a master musician.

"When those health things were happening, it was really tough," Hicks said, alluding to his personal connection to Terry. "We weren't a hired crew. He was our mentor. It was a bit of a roller coaster." But for the most part, the time they shared was good. "We shot 350 hours of footage, plus [we compiled] 100 hours of archival footage. Clark is filled with so much great advice and wisdom."

Hicks struggled to keep the film rolling when a chance visit from Quincy Jones at Terry's house led to a new investor in the project.

"The most surreal moment was when I was at the table between Quincy and Clark, seeing their relationship after 770 years. To see them as people and see how much they love each other really brought everything home to me," said Kauflin. "Quincy is one of those students! I'm one of those students!"

Keep On Keepin' On is uplifting and heartbreaking, swinging and somber. The film is ultimately triumphant, providing a fascinating look at the beginning and end of a professional jazz musicians' career.

Keep On @ DownBeat

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