Doctalk: Keep on Keepin’ on

The name Clark Terry has become synonymous within the music industry for one term – jazz legend; but despite his undoubtedly long and renowned career, he is so much more than a great trumpet player. In a career that has spanned seven decades, the St. Louis born Terry, or CT as his friends call him, has collaborated with Count Basie, Duke Ellington; trained Quincy Jones, influenced Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie; has been featured on over 100 albums; became the first black member of the NBC Studio Band, playing nightly over a decade for The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and in recent years has transitioned his time into a beloved passion – music mentor. It was through this mentorship that he was introduced to a talented music student, Justin Kauflin.

In 2006, while studying at William Paterson University in NJ, Justin, who was there on a Presidential Scholarship, became involved with a small jazz group in which Terry had become acquainted with. But as a whole, Keep On, Keepin’ On, is so much more than the typical “mentor; mentee” story – at its heart it really is about the kinship that these two talented musicians, each bookending the other at the points in their respective careers, have with one another.

Right from the opening scene we can see that this relationship goes beyond student/master, with CT lying in bed as Justin plays a piece on his keyboard, their dynamic bounces off of one another as Terry sings the melody to him and Justin immediately shows off his skill replaying every note CT just sang. But there is one more ingredient to this recipe – Justin is blind, has been since he was 11 and CT, due to the effects of advancing age and diabetes, has not only begun losing his own vision but his body is slowly wearing down. Over the course of the  84 minute film, 5 years goes by and we, as the audience watch as the trials and tribulations throughout both of their lives occur.

With Justin, we see him as a recent college graduate who at the start of the movie, is living in New York, trying to break into the professional jazz scene and having a hard time. We follow him through various setbacks and triumphs — a move back to his parents’ home in Virginia Beach, a tense appearance at the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Piano Competition. With Terry, we see him enduring the effects of his disease and age as he struggles to hold onto his notorious optimism that is essentially at the core of his personality, resonating into his music., As one admirer describes as possessing “the happiest sound in jazz.” But throughout the various points of these two men there is a constant remaining – their friendship; The audience visits him and his wife, Gwen, at their home in Pine Bluff, Ark., and accompanies them to a hospital as his health declines. Mr. Kauflin is also a frequent visitor, receiving instruction from his teacher even when Mr. Terry is too weak to sit up in bed.

Learning is a basic human process that at some points requires trial and error and to be able to learn from the master of a craft can be a bit daunting but to watch these two is like watching a perfectly timed orchestra. They bounce and feed off of one another so flawlessly that from an outsider looking at it would seem as though they had been playing together for decades. Taken from a scene later on in the film, as Terry lays in a hospital bed, Justin has his ever present keyboard, takes a few notes from Terry’s mouth and transform them into a Jazz melody so flawless, his 24 years at point seem to fall away. Terry’s belief in Justin is so magnificent that even after his failed attempt at the Thelonious Monk competition, he is so sure of Mr. Kauflin’s capabilities that he invites another former protege, Quincy Jones, to his house to hear him play. What happens next sets the tone for the finale piece of the film, Justin’s redemption song.

Flying overseas to join Quincey’s international tour we are reminded of Terry’s influence over the past few years of his life and vice versa. Without Terry, Justin would probably still be living at home, waiting for his career to start and without Justin, Terry’s zest for life throughout his illness would have waned. It was their kinship that kept them moving forward and ultimately what perfectly defined both of their careers.

Elizebeth Bernie 

Photo source: