Keep On Keepin’ On

January 17, 2015
Justin Kauflin and Clark Terry in 'Keep on Keepin' on' (2014)
Justin Kauflin and Clark Terry in 'Keep on Keepin' on' (2014)

Palace has found the perfect companion for Life Itself, in Alan Hicks’s Keep On Keepin’ On, a documentary about the great jazz trumpeter, Clark Terry. While Life Itself begins with Roger Ebert in his hospital bed, Keep On Keepin’ On introduces us to Terry on his 90th birthday. He may be old and sick with diabetes, but he has a truly indomitable spirit.

As the film progresses over five years Terry’s state of health continues to disintegrate but nothing can undermine his positive outlook on life. From his sick bed he will inspire a young, blind pianist, Justin Kauflin, who aspires to be a professional musician. Justin has the talent, but is nervous on stage and lacking confidence. His relationship with Terry is not simply that of a pupil to a teacher, it has a psychological and spiritual depth that makes this film quietly compelling. It’s a study in what it takes to be the best.

Justin is not the first young musician Terry has mentored. He also helped out figures such as Quincy Jones and Miles Davis; as well as hundreds of college students in his role as a pioneering teacher of jazz. In his novice days Terry found that established jazz men wouldn’t help him or answer his questions, so he promised himself to act differently if he ever became one of those big names.

Jones, himself now in his 80s, plays a prominent role in this film. He is one of Terry’s most ardent admirers and has never forgotten the debt he owes the older man. Terry draws on this bond when he introduces Jones to Justin.

One thinks instantly of Whiplash, Damien Chazelle’s brilliant indie about a rookie jazz drummer and the sadistic teacher who pushes him to the limit and beyond.

Terry is proof that one can get results by patient encouragement and be no less respected by one’s charges. It’s vaguely reassuring that Whiplash is fiction and Keep On Keepin’ On reality.

Terry began at the very bottom of the heap. He was born in a dirt-poor suburb of St. Louis and made his own first trumpet from scrap. He learned on the job, and by 1948 was playing with Count Basie. Three years later he would be a member of Duke Ellington’s big band, with a reputation as one of the master trumpeters of the era, and an instantly recognisable sound.

Justin envies that strong sense of identity and works frenetically to find his own musical signature. For Terry it was a simpler process. He has always striven to lead a happy life, and was known for having “the happiest sound in jazz.” Music and life are intertwined. Both require total commitment and offer commensurate satisfactions. Terry is proof that a positive attitude is one of the keys to longevity. Another might be the avoidance of the crippling drug and alcohol dependencies that sent so many musical prodigies to an early grave.

The film generates a degree of suspense as we watch Justin preparing for a big contest, wondering if he can overcome his nerves. The other suspenseful factor is Terry’s health, which seems to be deteriorating by the day. Viewers will find themselves wondering if he’s going to make it to the end of the movie.

Jazz buffs may want to see this film for the archival footage and the anecdotes, but Hicks’s emphasis is on the here and now. Like Life Itself, Keep On Keepin’ On might be seen as uplifting and inspirational, or rather depressing. The spectacle of a big-hearted, hugely talented man in a state of terminal physical decline will induce intimations of mortality in many viewers. Even the thought of Terry handing on the baton to Justin does little to dissipate the melancholy. Nevertheless, one can’t help but admire a character who can endure so much illness and pain while keeping up a constant stream of repartée, thinking always of what he can do to help others. If any of us can get to the finish line with half as much dignity as Clark Terry or Roger Ebert, we might feel it had all been worthwhile.

Keep On Keepin’ On
Directed by Alan Hicks
Written by Davis Coombe & Alan Hicks
Starring Clark Terry, Justin Kauflin, Quincy Jones, Herbie Hancock
USA, rated ?, 84 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 17th January, 2015.

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