Keep On Keepin' On


Review by Willard Manus

This documentary about the esteemed jazz trumpeter Clark Terry is the perfect antidote to the poisonous feature WHIPLASH, which posited the thesis that only a cruel, ruthless taskmaster can teach youngsters how to become professional jazz musicians. The only love that works is tough love, brutal love.

KEEP ON KEEPIN’ ON puts the lie to that fascistic notion by showing how Clark Terry operated as a teacher and mentor over his long career as a jazzman. Terry, who died earlier this year at 95, came out of poverty and hardship in St Louis (his mom died when he was seven) to play with the likes of Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Quincy Jones, winning plaudits for his warm, expressive, deeply felt horn work. Terry also led his own band for many years and was a featured player on countless albums, television shows and jazz concerts. All along the way he gave of himself as a teacher, selflessly and whole-heartedly.

His desire to help others took root in him when he was a youngster, a wanna-be trumpet player (hearing the Ellington band at ten is what turned him on to jazz). None of the oldtimers he went to for lessons would help him, so he had to somehow teach himself to play, first on a home-made instrument, then on a hock-shop horn (purchased by his neighbors). Because he had innate gifts, Terry was able to turn pro at seventeen, but that happened only after ten years of struggle and failure.

Vowing to spare others from that kind of anguish, Terry began a teaching career that has touched tens of thousands of young students over the years. That’s right–-thousands. That’s because he has not only taught privately (Miles Davis, Diana Reeves and Quincy Jones, to name just a few) but on the university and music-school levels. Many of his students went on to become teachers themselves; those teachers have bred other teachers, exponentially
One of Terry’s prize students was the pianist Justin Kauflin, who is given almost as much screen time as Terry in KEEP ON KEEPIN’ ON. Kauflin, who is blind and depends on a seeing-eye dog to get around, was a teenager when he came to Terry for help. Terry himself was beginning to go blind as a result of diabetes, which also affected his blood circulation and led to the amputation of both of his legs. But even when he was bedridden and suffering grievously, Terry still found time to coach Kauflin, encourage and inspire him.

He did this not in a sappy, sentimental way; he was always honest with the kid, quick to point out his weaknesses, pinpoint his problems. But this was always done with love, the love of a father for a son, a guru for his disciple. Kauflin responded to this kind of teaching in a miraculous way, growing in every way as a musician. It’s not that things came easy to him; on the contrary, he had a bitter failure (coming out a loser in the Thelonius Monk International Jazz Competition). But with Terry’s counsel and encouragement (“You can’t do it the easy way, you gotta work hard at it, you gotta keep on keepin’ on), Kauflin hung in and ultimately was rewarded for his courage and perseverance. Just recently the young pianist released an album, DEDICATION, produced by Quincy Jones. (See Blues & Jazz, below, for review).

Jones is another important figure in KEEP ON KEEPIN’ ON; his love and respect for Clark Terry (and the latter’s wife, Gwen) fill the screen and help make the documentary the moving, inspiring film that it is.