Much more than a reintroduction to the signature sound of one of jazz’s preeminent trumpet players, Keep on Keepin’ On bears testament to Clark “CT” Terry’s ceaseless efforts in mentoring the singular talents of subsequent generations of musicians. The inverse of Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, in which an abusive teacher pushes the threshold of a young pupil’s talent through punishing taunts, Alan Hicks’s documentary, which charts the relationship between a jazz legend and his blind but promising piano protégée, Justin Kauflin, celebrates a student’s desire to excel through the gradual and persistent encouragement of a teacher who believes first and foremost in ever-faithful friendship.
The opening image, of Terry and Kauflin’s hands clasped together as Terry lies in his hospital bed, ailing from diabetes and almost as blind as his student, beautifully illustrates the unique tensile strength of their touchy-feely bond. Terry, whose stifled, mellow tone and half-depressed valve effects produced the “happiest sounds in jazz,” and whose presence in the studio helped to create a party atmosphere during recording sessions, is unmistakably the same man in his 90s. Now mostly bedridden with his trumpet gathering dust, Terry is never happier than when he’s jamming into the early hours, regaling Kauflin with tales of his time swinging alongside Count Basie and Duke Ellington, and vocalizing melodies until the youngster recreates them note-perfect on his keyboard.
Observing the pursuit of perfection, Hicks has no such aspirations stylistically. It’s appropriate that his footage resembles home movies, as the filmmaker has been a friend of Terry’s for 13 years and shot for five, taking a year to work through 350 hours of material and scrapping scenes together in a way that feels a lot like jazz. The end result is one of trial, error, and improvisation, and what Keep on Keepin’ On lacks in professionalism, it more than makes up for in intimacy and warmth.
Yet with Herbie Hancock and Arturo Sandoval talking him up so much, and the established trust between filmmaker and subject granting unguarded access, Hicks seems to go out of his way to avoid the question of why such a legendary player remains relatively obscure to all but aficionados. Dedicating himself daily to his craft and the secrets others refused to share with him when he was coming up, we’re left to infer that if Terry once lacked the self-advertising showmanship that saw his contemporaries rise to greater notoriety, that’s only because all his energies were demanded of the nobler aspiration of imparting everything he’d learned the hard way, helping make the dreams of young musicians like Kauflin come true.
A pioneer who elevated jazz to a legitimate subject of academic concern, Terry stresses to Kauflin over everything else the importance of finding his own voice—advice he once gave to old charges Quincy Jones and Miles Davis. Slowly, the powerful message of heart and soul winning out over an impaired body and over-thinking mind develops into the core drama of this otherwise modest doc. Confidently navigating the jazz mecca of New York City, the blind Midwesterner takes demoralizing rejections from bands on the grounds of disability in his stride. It’s only after he’s confessed that his mind is a barrier prohibiting full feeling in his playing, and that his sound isn’t where he wants it to be, that we begin to see that for Kauflin the only thing harder than being blind is figuring out how to be himself. Such uncertainty is even evident in his speaking voice, content to mimic others and cleaving between his mother’s apple-pie Americana and his best friend’s jive talk.
Follow Timothy E. RAW on Twitter at @timothyeraw.