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Justin Kauflin Jams with the Greats BY TAD FRIEND New Yorker

Justin Kauflin Jams with the Greats BY TAD FRIEND New Yorker



Jazz, once the national vernacular, lingers as a fading dialect at a musicians’ union in Hell’s Kitchen. Old men in black fedoras and roomy suits, men who toured Europe with Lionel Hampton and Chet Baker, now brush the hi-hat at Monday-night jam sessions before forty people in folding chairs. A few Mondays back at Local 802, “A Foggy Day” sounded downright murky until Quincy Jones strode in and a chorus of old friends cried, “Q! Q!”

Jones, the trumpeter who went on to produce Frank Sinatra and Michael Jackson and win twenty-seven Grammys, had returned to where he got his musician’s card, in the fifties, to support his latest discovery, a piano player named Justin Kauflin. Kauflin, who is twenty-eight and blind, was in the back with his guide dog, Candy, wearing dark glasses and a trusting smile.

The men embraced, and Jones studied Kauflin approvingly, saying, “Look at this cat, now!” Then the producer—stocky, monumental, still unruly at eighty-one—sat and began fist bumping the many who came up for a word, chatting in Spanish and French as he bounced his hand off his knee in time to the bass. When an elderly woman in a red bandanna, Loretta Abbott, did a provocative shimmy up front, undulating a là “The Wiz”—which she danced in and Jones wrote songs for—he cackled and called out, “Shake it, but don’t break it! Bite it, but don’t fight it!”

Two years ago, Jones went to Arkansas to visit Clark Terry, an ebullient ninety-three-year-old trumpeter who’d been not only his mentor but Miles Davis’s. Jones recalled, “We were in the process of recording Clark and Snoop”—the rapper Snoop Lion—“because, as Duke told me, ‘Fuck categories. You be the one to decategorize American music.’ But we couldn’t finish.” Terry, a diabetic who’d recently had both legs amputated, had just enough embouchure left to murmur that Jones should hear his new protégé, Kauflin, who was at his bedside. Jones promptly signed him—Kauflin’s new album débuts in January—and stepped in to help produce a half-completed documentary about Terry and Kauflin’s friendship, “Keep On Keepin’ On,” which opened a few weeks ago.

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Kauflin walked up to the stage with Candy, to sit in. He was introduced by Wendy Oxenhorn, of the Jazz Foundation of America, which pays the living expenses for aging artists, including Clark Terry; she elicited warm applause when she explained that “this is the man who helped keep Clark alive the last few years, who gave him a reason to live.” Kauflin bent low over the keys, gliding into “It Could Happen to You,” searching around, then finding the pocket with a bass player and a drummer nearly three times his age.

Jones listened, smiling, and said, “What I liked about Justin was he’d done his homework. God gives you the right brain, everyone’s got emotion, but you gotta practice, you gotta put the left-brain work in. You need musicality and discipline when we’re fighting all these booties, the booty battles.” He broke off to address an attractive woman with dreadlocks: “Do you sing?”

“I used to,” she said, shyly.

Jones, who has seven children with five women, leaned in. “Why’d you stop?”

“I got scared. And I got lazy.”

“Lazy!” he said. “Lazy!” He turned away. “I see fourteen Nobel doctors in Stockholm,” he went on, as the combo moved into Sonny Rollins’s “Pent-Up House,” “and they tell me there’s two things that kill you: one is something in your inner ear that falls down and makes you lose your balance, I forget exactly what, and the other is your mind. Use it or lose it! I do four Sudoku every day, to keep me young. Puzzles, and young women!”

When Kauflin returned, the renowned drummer Steve Jordan said, “You played your ass off, man!” and Kauflin blushed. The drummer he’d played with shuffled over and took his hand to say, “It’s Jackie, man—Jackie Williams. I really loved playing with you! When you see Clark, if you remember, say, ‘Stish said to say hello to Spish.’ ” Kauflin repeated the message, and they laughed, still holding hands.

“Until I met Clark,” Kauflin said, “I’d never been around anyone who could say ‘I love you’ so easily, who could spread joy just with his beautiful soul. That’s the same vibe I get from Q. We need to bring back that love because”—he gestured to the room—“we don’t exactly have a big audience anymore.”

A Japanese woman knelt beside him and began a flirty conversation. Then Jones hailed her over, calling out, “Domo arigato gozaimasu!

As Kauflin turned away, Oxenhorn patted his knee and said, “It doesn’t matter how good-looking or talented you are—when Q calls a woman over, she’s going to leave you.” 




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