Past midnight, 93-years-old jazz icon Clark Terry lays on a bed as he mumbles (no pun intended) his almost academic doodle tongue technique to twenty something-year-old pianist Justin Kauflin. Nasal cannula assisting with oxygen flow, the man who served as Miles Davis and Quincy Jones’ mentor can barely see out of his diabetes affected eyes. That’s fine however, his Virginia Beach-based protege can’t see either. It’s just another night in a years worth of practice in Terry’s Pine Bluff, Arkansas home. Though TC (as many call him) has become a legend over the years, his health has deteriorated to near non-functionality. On the other hand, Kauflin is a struggling musician who recently travelled back home with his parents as the tough New York jazz scene didn’t accommodate the lack of eyesight. In this father and son like relationship, both use their passion for jazz to persevere essentially impossible obstacles; a big theme in Al Hicks’ phenomenally inspirational directorial debut Keep On Keepin' On.
Alongside five years of shot footage detailing Terry’s deteriorating health and Kauflin’s ambitions in striving his own career path, Keep On Keepin' On mainly revolves around the storied history of the St. Louis born bebop trumpeter. Mainly narrated by Terry himself, there are some heavy hitting interviews given by jazz geniuses ranging from Jones to Herbie Hancook. What the film masterfully illustrates is Terry’s mission in breaking numerous glass ceilings while preserving the genre’s future by mentoring and teaching hundreds. Not bad for someone who came up under Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong.
For someone who counted himself as one of the few performers allowed in Count Basie and Duke Ellington’s bands, Terry broke racial barriers by becoming NBC’s first African-American staff musician on “The Tonight Show.” Then there was his cultivation of jazz legends including Davis, Jones and Hancook, mentioned previously. It’s quite amusing seeing someone as prolific as Jones play Obi-Wan Kenobi to Terry’s Qui-Gon Jinn. In fact, Jones joined as one of Keep On Keepin On’s producers after visiting Terry’s home and being amazed by Kauflin’s abilities.
Between archival footage and interviews, the footage of Terry’s present day battle with diabetes is just as exhausting as viewing Roger Ebert’s fight against cancer in Life Itself. There’s even a few scenes showing the trumpeter struggle to hit those same jazz runs that was so effortless for him during his prime and eventually becoming an amputee. Similar to Ebert’s wife Chaz, Terry’s better half Gwen becomes his rock and mother figure to Kauflin and many of his modern day students.
Again, like Ebert, Terry continues to do exactly what he does best when all hope seems, and probably is, lost. This extends to the much younger Kauflin whose self doubt as a musician makes his blindness the least of his worries at times. Those insecurities lend themselves to intense shots of practice, though while short, give the feeling that he’s been sitting behind the keys for hours on end honing his craft. Kauflin’s second guessing of himself is understandable considering the ultra competitiveness of the jazz world. A heartbreaking middle half involves him losing the coveted Thelonius Monk Institute Competition in Washington D.C. after Terry lends him some black lucky socks. Doesn’t mean those problems of being disabled aren’t there. One particular scene earlier in Keep On Keepin' On purposefully demonstrates the difficulties of him not having eyesight as he removes the last box from his apartment, cautiously walks down the stairs to the ground floor, runs into a wall on his way out the complex’s door and into his mother’s van. There’s something moving as Gwen explains how Kauflin pretty much helps Terry adjust to life without sight.
Something to note, Kauflin also worked on the film’s amazingly smooth score with composer Dave Grusin. With that in mind, Keep On Keepin' On features a soundtrack that puts it in the realms of Round Midnight and Mo’ Better Blues. Between the original music and many of Terry’s 905 recording sessions, its doubtful that one will hear a better soundtrack this year. Like the art-form and culture of jazz, Keep On Keepin' On features a cinematic style that’s technically proficient, yet smooth and warm. For someone new to the directors chair, Hicks evokes the moods of a veteran. Adam Hart’s cinematography allows moments between Terry and Kauflin, while giving the feeling of being in the room with them.
There’s been much hype surrounding Keep On Keepin’ On after winning the Audience Award for Documentary Feature and Hicks nabbing Best New Documentary Director Award at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. And it’s easy to see why. Besides being a remarkable music doc, Keep On Keepin’ On is a suitable testament to the human spirit. Jazz fanatics missing the genre’s Golden Era and casual listeners of America’s greatest artistic creation will enjoy everything this musical history lesson offers.