“When you hear Clark, you hear his life. Only a master can do that.”
Herbie Hancock on late musician, Clark Terry
A true labour of love in every sense of the word, tonight’s music documentary, KEEP ON KEEPIN' ON is the perfect film for this most silly of seasons. Without wanting to lay the mozzarella on too thick, it is a chance to pause and reflect on the good in the world, so cancel that Christmas party, pour a glass, put your feet up and enjoy.
Shot over the course of five years by first time filmmaker and drummer Al Hicks, the film depicts the remarkable story of jazz legend Clark Terry, who died at the age of 94 not long after the film was finished. Sometimes called a “living monument to the Golden Era of Jazz” in his time, Terry is among the few performers ever to have played in both Count Basie's and Duke Ellington's bands and his talents knew no bounds. Right-handed, he taught himself to manipulate the valves of the trumpet with his left hand too, and could even play the instrument upside down with the backs of the fingers of either hand. This enabled him to play flugelhorn in one hand and muted trumpet in the other, swapping four-bar exchanges with himself!
Terry actually played mentor to Miles Davis in his early days, and the young upstart soon fell under the spell of the slightly older musician. Terry befriended Davis - who was six years younger - In St Louis, and was trusted by Davis’s father to take the teenage Miles to play at all-night jam sessions. Davis said of Terry: “I started to play like him. I idolised him.” The two men remained lifelong friends. It was Terry who showed Davis the beauty of the mellow flugelhorn, which resulted in its becoming a major jazz instrument.
It was also Terry who reportedly initiated Davis’s interest in boxing and boxers. The former was an extremely good boxer when he was younger, and was friendly with the great light heavyweight Archie Moore, also from St Louis. Terry recalled: “Archie used to tell me that if I had stayed in boxing, I would have become a champion, but I stopped to think that I’d have had to meet cats like Sugar Ray Robinson and Jake LaMotta, and I’m glad I got out of that.”
In the 1960's, he broke the colour barrier as the first African-American staff musician at NBC (on "The Tonight Show"), and continued to work as a teacher and mentor to young people in the music industry until his death almost two years ago. The man never slowed down and never stopped giving, and just to hear him speak will fill you with joy.
But back to KEEP ON KEEPIN' ON, which documents an unlikely mentorship between Terry and a driven, blind piano prodigy, Justin Kauflin. Equal time is given to the younger musician, which is a great plot driver and stops the film from just being a biopic – despite the fact that Clark’s work is worthy of a biopic and more! The camera introduces us to the world of 23-year-old Kauflin, who met Terry through one of the programs the trumpet player ran for many years for young musical talent. Kauflin went blind when he was in sixth grade, which he admits seriously limited his life. No playing with friends, no video games… so he sat down in front of a piano, and something truly amazing came flowing out. Kauflin’s story is one that falls into what Roger Ebert likes to call the “perspective documentary genre”, which is a phrase I really like and try to employ when the time is right. If you think you’re having a rough day or can’t escape from whatever hole life has dug for you, Kauflin’s – and Terry’s - worldview should give you a little perspective. As I said, perfect for dealing with Christmas madness and end of year stress!
During the course of the film it emerges that Justin – a true rising star if ever there was one - is invited to compete in an elite, international competition while battling terrible stage fright. Terry is dealing with his own struggles, finally starting to lose his battle with diabetes in a serious way. His health takes a critical turn for the worse, and during the course of filming, he loses his sight completely. Amazingly, this deepens his bond with Justin, and we witness the two great friends tackling the toughest challenges of their lives.
But enough said – this is an inspiring story of multi-generational friendship and it is a joy to behold. Clark Terry becomes so much more than just his Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, an inspiration as much for his character as for his talent. A beautiful film, and one so perfectly timed to make one stop, and smell those damn roses.
KEEP ON KEEPIN' ON premieres Thursday 15 December on Rialto Channel 39 SKY TV