KEEP ON KEEPIN’ ON. Starring Clark Terry, Justin Kauflin, Quincy Jones, Gwen Terry. Directed by Alan Hicks. 84 minutes. Rated M (Coarse language).
There are many films which are called “feel good”. With this film, the audience feels good, but feels even better.
Jazz aficionados will know the name Clark Terry. Those not into jazz may not have heard of him, but he is considered one of the best jazz artists of the 20th century, a trumpeter par excellence. This is his story.
The film was co-written and directed by Australian, Alan Hicks, a drummer who attended the William Paterson University for Music/Jazz Studies and was tutored by Clark Terry. However, Hicks is very self-effacing and does not appear in the film at all, no mention of his musical background. Rather, he wants to concentrate on Terry but also introduces another student at the William Paterson University, Justin Kauflin. This makes for an interesting and entertaining interaction, the elderly musician as teacher and the young piano player as student, relating to Clark Terry not only as mentor but as friend.
During the filming, Clark Terry turned 90, 91 and 92. He was still living at the time of the film’s release. We see him more immediately in past action before the film goes to the biographical aspects. At once, we realise that he is a very genial man and who is supported by his wife, Gwen, not only for their long marriage but, especially, as his health fails. He has been a long-time diabetic, now experiencing trouble with his eyes and, eventually, the need for amputating both legs. (As with the film about Roger Ebert, the Chicago critic, Life Itself, which showed Ebert in his years dealing with cancer in his chin and face, not afraid to appear on screen in the debilitated state, so this film shows Terry, often in hospital, in treatment, and at home.
It should be noted the Justin Kauflin suffered from a rare eye disease when he was born, losing his sight as a child, but optimistic, especially when he discovered that he had a talent and an urge to play the piano, fine long fingers enabling him to play with dexterity. He met Terry when he was a student in 2007 and they became friends, Justin often visiting him, having classes and jam sessions together, Terry encouraging Justin to practice and enter competitions. just comes across as a fine young man, in the scenes at home with his mother, with Terry and Gwen, in performance.
Clark Terry had a very interesting career, playing with the Duke Ellington band for 10 years, then joining Count Basie, then being one of the first African Americans to play for a television studio orchestra. A young man who was in awe of Terry approached him and Terry became his mentor as well. This was Quincy Jones. Terry then played for Quincy Jones in his band and they became lifelong friends. In the film (and Quincy Jones became a producer of the film) he is seen visiting Terry when Justin is present, sees him playing the piano and, ultimately, invites him to join him on a world tour and offer him a contract. Justin wrote a great deal of the music for this film.
With so much archival material presented, the audience has a very good impression of Terry’s life and career, his performance and skill. Audiences will enjoy his manner of teaching, lying ill in bed, riffing on themes, advising students, and all the time enjoying things thoroughly, with his idiosyncratic vocabulary which means that practically everyone is referred to as, baby.
The film is an excellent musical documentary – but, it is far more, really showing the nature of a vocation to music, a vocation to teaching, the effect of human interaction between teachers and students.
Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out 18th December 2014.
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