“Dear Justin,” an elderly man recites, “challenges are a part of life, as you know. Your mind is a powerful asset. Use it for positive thoughts and you’ll learn what I learned. I believe in your talents and I believe in you.”
So begins the documentary “Keep on Keepin’ On,” Alan Hicks’s ode to the friendship between the prodigious jazz trumpeter Clark Terry, now 93, and the rising pianist Justin Kauflin, 28. The film opens Oct. 3.
The three men met when Mr. Kauflin and Mr. Hicks, himself a drummer, were enrolled in the jazz performance program at William Paterson University in Wayne, N.J., where Mr. Terry taught. The film was originally a tribute to Mr. Terry, who swung and bebopped with Count Basie and Duke Ellington, and imparted technique and wisdom to Quincy Jones and Miles Davis. But Mr. Hicks soon focused on mentor and protégé as they navigated a dimming world: Mr. Kauflin had been blind from a hereditary disorder since 11; Mr. Terry’s vision was failing from diabetes.
A couple of years into filming, Mr. Jones signed on as one of the film’s producers. Then his management team signed Mr. Kauflin. Touring gigs followed, with an album composed and performed by Mr. Kauflin, and produced by Mr. Jones, to be released in January. The documentary won awards at the Tribeca Film Festival in April.
“Being around Clark has taught me how selfless he is, and how selfless a lot of these great jazz musicians are,” Mr. Kauflin said in an interview with Kathryn Shattuck in New York, where he’d traveled from his home in Virginia Beach, Va., with his guide dog, Candy, who has a star turn in the film. “Every student he’s worked with, from Quincy to Miles to Dianne Reeves to myself, he’s truly there to support and love and share his love for music. Having that makes me want to do so much better for him.” These are excerpts from their conversation.
Q. When did you start playing the piano?
A. At 9. I’d loved the piano since I was 2 and was happy that we finally found a teacher who was comfortable dealing with a visually impaired student. I say I loved the piano, but before I lost my sight it wasn’t my favorite thing to do. Basketball, video games, being a goofball, being a kid were. It shifted when I lost my sight.
You turned from classical music to jazz.
I auditioned to get into the Governor’s School for the Performing Arts [in Virginia]. They wisely chose to put me in the jazz department, mainly because in the classical department the sight reading requirements would have made things difficult. I fell in love pretty quickly with what I discovered in jazz, which was this incredible freedom of expression. You spend all this time learning theory and mechanics, and in classical music you aren’t really able to apply it. But in jazz, you can take that knowledge and actually use it.
How did you meet Clark?
When I got to William Paterson, Clark was losing his sight due to diabetes and Al thought it would be a good idea to bring me over to the house, as I was somebody who had dealt with the situation and could share my own experiences with Clark. I was there to console him a little bit.
Do you wear the good-luck socks that Clark gave you in the film?
Yeah, I do. But I make sure to tell people that they’ve been laundered.
How is it playing with him?
The band sounds O.K., and then when Clark picks up the horn and starts playing, the band sounds way better. When you’re playing with a master, they have a tendency to bring everybody up to their level.
What have you learned from Clark?
Obviously he taught me a great deal as far as the mechanics go. But the thing that has stood out to me is he is the consummate performer. Clark is just an absolute expert about making the band feel good and about making the whole audience just so happy to be there. It’s an art form. And I hope to try to be just a little bit like that.
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