What goes around
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