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When Australian drummer Alan Hicks was hired to tour with legendary trumpeter Clark Terry‘s jazz ensemble, he also lucked into terrific documentary subject matter. The resulting tribute, Keep On Keepin’ On, is both tender and joyous, a moving account of the mutual nourishment of artistic mentorship and the rewards of accentuating the positive in whatever life throws at you. Jazz aficionados are the obvious core audience, but the human-interest aspects significantly expand the appeal of this film from producers Quincy Jones and Paula DuPre Pesmen (The Cove), which has additional scope as a music-education tool.
Hicks won the John Schlesinger Award for a first-time filmmaker at the Provincetown Film Festival after earlier this year picking up the Audience Award for best doc and a juried directing prize at the Tribeca Film Festival, where the movie was acquired by Radius–TWC.
The director came to the U.S. to study music at William Paterson University in New Jersey, and met Terry when bad financial planning made it look like time for him to give up and return home. The influential horn player — who has worked with everyone from Count Basie and Duke Ellington to Jones — took Hicks under his wing and eventually gave him a job in his band. But in a refreshing change from the tiresome trend of documentary makers inserting themselves into their material, Hicks steps back and keeps his focus on the real story.
That centers on the uplifting friendship between Terry and Justin Kauflin, a talented young jazz pianist blind since the sixth grade. Hicks met Kauflin at Paterson and introduced him to CT, as his friends call him, to help the trumpet player through the gradual loss of his own sight to diabetes. As CT’s health problems steadily worsen, Kauflin also has to cope with crippling nerves as a semi-finalist in the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition. Bridging the 66-year age difference between them with their love of music, the two men boost each other’s spirits through seemingly insurmountable struggles, in ways that are truly moving to witness.
Hicks and his co-writer and editor Davis Coombe chronicle a four-year period in this remarkable bond, bringing warmth, generosity and immediacy to the film that reflect the personal qualities of its two principal subjects. And while there’s never a preachy note, the sheer resilience and optimism of both CT and Justin in the face of every hard knock make for a powerful lesson.
No less heartfelt than the documentary’s account of the mentor-disciple exchange is its nostalgic look back over Terry’s extraordinary career. Described by Dizzy Gillespie as possessing the happiest sound in jazz and one of the most instantly recognizable, CT is also a natural raconteur. While there are admiring assessments from such interviewees as Herbie Hancock, Bill Cosby and Arturo Sandoval (as well as Miles Davis in an archival clip), the biggest blast comes from listening to CT’s own recollections of his early years.
He grew up poor in the 1920s and ’30s in a family of 11 children in St. Louis, Missouri, and was just seven when his mother died. But he makes even that time of hardship into a melodic blues-jazz narrative, recounting how hearing Ellington’s band for the first time at age 10 prompted him to build his own trumpet from scrap metal.
His time with the Basie and Ellington orchestras led to him becoming the first black staff musician at NBC, playing for ten years on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. A clip of him performing “Mumbles” shows Terry’s infectious style of be-bop scat singing, which he continues even during his hospitalization and from his bed at home following long bouts of treatment, surgery and recovery — feeding Justin tunes to replicate on the keys.
But in addition to Terry’s 70-year career as a musician, appearing on close to 1,000 recordings, the film also salutes his achievements as a jazz educator. He has taught countless kids to find their own sound, starting with Jones when he was a skinny 13-year-old. Testaments to Terry’s contribution in this field come from Dianne Reeves, Terri Lyne Carrington and Wynton Marsalis, among others. A visit from Jones to the home in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, that CT shares with his devoted wife Gwen, shortly after the trumpeter’s 92nd birthday, is among the film’s most emotional moments.
It’s easy to see the central connection between Terry and Kauflin as the basis for an inspirational narrative feature. But this lovingly made first-hand account needs no further embellishment.
Production company: Absolute Clay
Director: Alan Hicks
Screenwriters: Alan Hicks, Davis Coombe
Producers: Quincy Jones, Paula DuPre Pesmen
Executive producers: Adam Hart, Alan Hicks, David Skinner, Adam Fell, Tom Gorai, Jill Mazursky
Director of photography: Adam Hart
Editor: Davis Coombe
Music: Justin Kauflin, Dave Grusin
No rating; 86 minutes.
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