What goes around

Pasatiempo - - Moving Images -

Keep on Keepin’ on, doc­u­men­tary, not rated, Cen­ter For Con­tem­po­rary Arts, 3 chiles First-time di­rec­tor Alan Hicks’ doc­u­men­tary about jazz trum­peter Clark Terry’s re­la­tion­ship with the young, blind pi­anist Justin Kau­flin gets right to the specifics of jazz ped­a­gogy. The film opens with Terry, a men­tor to many great jazz mu­si­cians, Miles Davis among them, in bed, fixed with breath­ing tubes. Kau­flin has pulled a por­ta­ble key­board bed­side, and Terry is coach­ing him through a war­bling boo­gie line by scat­ting the notes. Ev­ery syl­la­ble that Terry sings — its open vow­els and clipped con­so­nants — re­veals the pitch of a note and its qual­ity. Tones slide one to another and are drilled, stac­cato-style, as Terry gives voice to the phras­ing. Kau­flin im­me­di­ately rec­og­nizes the dis­tinc­tions in Terry’s pre­sen­ta­tion, trans­lat­ing ev­ery in­flec­tion from the trum­peter’s lips di­rectly to the pi­ano.

This kind of ex­change hap­pens sev­eral times dur­ing the course of Keep on Keepin’ on, a film that stud­ies what goes on around the ad­ver­sity both men live with. Kau­flin, born in 1986, is shown after a move to New York, learn­ing to nav­i­gate the city’s sub­ways and street cross­ings with the help of Candy, his see­ing-eye dog. Terry, born in 1920 and still with us, is strug­gling with com­pli­ca­tions from di­a­betes. He’s los­ing his sight, and worse con­se­quences loom. His wife, Gwen, spec­u­lates that the trum­peter was drawn to Kau­flin, a mem­ber of the jazz en­sem­ble that Terry taught at Wil­liam Pat­ter­son Univer­sity ( Hicks was also a mem­ber), be­cause of their shared vi­sion is­sues. Kau­flin’s sight grad­u­ally went dur­ing his child­hood; by age eleven, he could only see shad­ows. The bond be­tween the two men is an un­chang­ing con­stant at the cen­ter of the film. What story there is moves ahead on their in­di­vid­ual strug­gles — Terry cop­ing with de­clin­ing health and Kau­flin try­ing to jump-start a ca­reer. Kau­flin’s en­try into the Th­elo­nious Monk In­ter­na­tional Jazz Pi­ano Com­pe­ti­tion gives the men pur­pose even as Terry, his horn put aside, is at his most frag­ile. As the cam­era fol­lows them around, it’s ap­par­ent that the two men come alive in each other’s company.

The bi­o­graph­i­cal as­pects of Keep on Keepin’ on are only gen­er­ally about Terry’s il­lus­tri­ous ca­reer. Terry came out of St. Louis play­ing in the bands of Charlie Bar­net and Count Basie. He spent most of the 1950s in Duke Elling­ton’s var­i­ous en­sem­bles. Elling­ton put Terry’s abil­ity to swing, sound the blues, and play pretty to ex­ten­sive use, fea­tur­ing him in suites and as a soloist.

Terry fa­mously recorded with pi­anist Os­car Peter­son and cut dozens of record­ings un­der his own name for la­bels big and small. Stu­dio work in New York led to a long as­so­ci­a­tion with Skitch Hen­der­son’s (and, later, Doc Sev­erin­sen’s) Tonight Show Band. Terry be­came known for his scat­ting on “Mum­bles,” a tune of his own mak­ing with lyrics of non­sense syl­la­bles sung to a bebop beat. On a clip not seen in the film, Johnny Car­son, an­nounc­ing Terry’s in­duc­tion into the In­ter­na­tional Academy of Jazz Hall of Fame, talks back to the trum­peter in mum­bles-speak. “Mum­bles” be­came Terry’s nick­name.

Terry also has a sig­nif­i­cant rep­u­ta­tion as an ed­u­ca­tor and men­tor. Even as a young man, he was sought out by trum­pet ini­ti­ates for guid­ance. In his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, Miles (writ­ten with Quincy Troupe), Davis re­calls how Terry first took him around to St. Louis clubs and al­lowed him to stay in his apart­ment while the younger trum­peter strug­gled with heroin. In the film, Quincy Jones re­lates the story of how, as a four­teen-year-old kid in Seat­tle, he went up to Terry, who was tour­ing with Basie, and boldly asked for lessons. Terry agreed, and the two would meet early in the morn­ing in Terry’s ho­tel room be­fore Jones went to school — even though Terry would have just got­ten in from his gig with Basie a cou­ple of hours ear­lier. Not men­tioned in the film is the fact that Jones gave Terry an ar­range­ment he’d done. Terry took it to Basie, and the band per­formed it at its next stop, in San Francisco.

Jones’ re­la­tion­ship with Terry is cen­tral to the film’s what-goes-around-comes-around spin. Jones vis­its Terry dur­ing a hos­pi­tal stay and while the on-cam­era re­union seems a bit self-con­scious at first, it be­comes ap­par­ent that the two men are tight. Terry has a fa­vor he wants from Jones. He tells the fa­mous com­poser­ar­ranger and once-upon-a-time trum­peter that he wants him to hear Kau­flin play.

There are plenty of sen­ti­men­tal mo­ments in the doc­u­men­tary, and Hicks comes dan­ger­ously close to over­play­ing them. En­cour­age­ment and plat­i­tudes flow from Terry to Kau­flin and back to Terry at times when they both need it. Terry is seen be­ing slid into a hyper­baric cham­ber, one of many such treat­ments, in an at­tempt to heal his feet. Kau­flin vis­its, and the two talk mu­sic through the arch of the cham­ber.

Kau­flin seems con­scious of the cam­era and un­com­fort­able in the per­sonal mo­ments. But Hicks has a way of wait­ing th­ese mo­ments out, keep­ing the cam­era close on his sub­jects’ faces and let­ting them process what to say next. This pa­tience is fre­quently re­warded with can­dor. The two men are at their most gen­uine when they are work­ing out mu­sic. Hicks makes it clear, ad­ver­si­ties aside, that mu­sic is the foun­da­tion of their re­la­tion­ship.

The sound­track, as you can imag­ine, is full of beau­ti­ful mo­ments, some writ­ten and per­formed by Kau­flin (and some writ­ten by Dave Grusin). Hear­ing Terry over the years, both on trum­pet and fluegel­horn, is a rev­e­la­tion. Hicks has pulled to­gether an ar­ray of his­toric footage show­ing Terry in ac­tion, all of which serves to re­mind us of his grace and in­ven­tive­ness. Yes, a “Mum­bles” per­for­mance, seen briefly, is hi­lar­i­ous, yet done with ob­vi­ous craft. You can’t help but think of “Mum­bles” when the scene jumps decades ahead, and you hear Terry give Kau­flin the ex­act sound of each note of a phrase in non­sense syl­la­bles — and the ris­ing young pi­anist knows ex­actly what he means.

— Bill Kohlhaase

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