by Alexandra Marie Daniels
Filmed over five years, Keep On Keepin’ On, the story of 93-year-old legendary jazz musician Clark Terry, shines light on the valuable concept that we keep what we have in life by giving it away. Best known as one of America’s greatest jazz trumpet players, Clark Terry also dedicates his life to teaching jazz to young musicians. Watching this film we learn how Clark Terry gives back everything he knows about jazz music. His brilliance is not only in his huge talent, but his honest desire to share it.
Directed by first-time filmmaker Alan Hicks, a student of Terry’s, Keep On Keepin’ On intimately documents the relationship between master teacher and student Justin Kauflin. Kauflin is a 23-year-old piano prodigy determined to succeed in the jazz world despite blindness and stage fright. With Terry’s encouragement, Kauflin perseveres and faces his challenges. A friendship develops and both teacher and student support each other.
I had the opportunity to talk with Alan Hicks and learned how Keep On Keepin’ On came to be. The director met Clark Terry in New York City in 2002. When introduced to Hicks, Clark Terry said, “You must be Al.” Hicks was blown away that the acclaimed musician knew who he was. Clark Terry took Al Hicks under his wing and eventually Hicks joined one of Terry’s bands. “I was always baffled that he actually believed in me as a musician and a person.” While filming, Hicks interviewed other musicians and was surprised to discover how many expressed the same disbelief. Clark Terry deeply believed in his student’s talents and for Hicks, “this film has been a way for me to be able to say thank you to my teacher.”
In Keep On Keepin’ On we witness Terry’s encouragement with Kauflin. “Your mind is a powerful asset,” he tells the young musician, “use it for positive thought.” We watch the two musicians hanging out together late in the evenings playing music while Terry shares remarkable stories of his life. The camera slips away and we are all there, in the room, listening intently.
This intimacy is possible because of the closeness between the filmmaker and subject. As Hicks explains, “Clark and Gwen (Clark’s wife) Terry gave us 100 percent access, because we were like family. They trusted in us that we would make the right decisions when it came to the editing process.” The film crew lived together at the Terry’s home while filming. Before retiring at night, cinematographer Adam Hart would set up his camera then cradle it in front of him ready to go, while he slept. Spontaneous scenes, no matter what the hour, were captured at a moment’s notice.
At a very young age, in the “trumpet player’s town” of St. Louis where he was born, Clark Terry decided that he would share anything he learned about jazz. As the film illustrates, Terry keeps that promise throughout a career that spans more than 70 years. One of the most recorded jazz musicians, Clark Terry is one of the few to have played in both Count Basie’s and Duke Ellington’s bands. In the 1960’s, he was the first African-American staff musician at NBC, playing for The Tonight Show. Such renowned musicians as Quincy Jones – who at the age of 12 sought out Clark Terry and became his first student – and Miles Davis, credit Terry as their mentor.
The concept for this film came to Hicks after many life-changing hours spent with Terry. According to Hicks, his hero became his teacher and then his friend. What drove Hicks was the desire to share his “hero with a world that doesn't know him well enough.”
Hicks discovered that making the film was much like forming a band and playing music. Terry had taught him to surround himself with good people and Hicks did just that for the film which is produced by master jazz musician and humanitarian Quincy Jones as well as award-winning producer Paula Dupré Pesmen (The Cove, Chasing Ice). The Director of Photography is Hicks’ close friend from high school, Australian surf photographer Adam Hart.
Like jazz, Hicks used his intuition to make the film. In the director’s words, “Clark once told me, that when you go into a jam session and you feel your nerves start to creep up and everything inside of you is telling you not to get up there and play, that’s when you should play, because that’s when you’re going to learn something about yourself. He said, ‘embrace the nerves’ which is what I’ve tried to do here.”
Clark Terry teaches students that success evolves from the desire to excel. He encourages his students to “know your shortcomings and work on them.” Jazz education exists as it does today thanks to Clark Terry. He taught thousands of musicians that went on to teach others. He has inspired many to navigate life’s challenges and, above all, discover their own voices. Terry has received multiple honorary degrees from colleges and institutions over the course of his career. In 2010 he was honored with the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
Keep On Keepin’ On is a film to be enjoyed by everyone. It is an absorbing introduction for those who don’t know Clark Terry, and a reunion for those who know the man and love his music. For everyone who watches this film, Keep on Keepin’ On is a gift and an opportunity to “hang” with the master.
Keep on Keepin’ On carries a message of encouragement for us all. The film teaches us to work hard, to embrace our individual, unique voices and to stay positive. As Terry says, “don't go the easy way, go the right way.” Watching this film, the message I get is to share. By sharing what we’ve learned and passing on our talents to the younger generation, we get to hold on to what we have.
'Keep On Keepin’ On’ premieres in Los Angeles, September 19. Live performances by Justin Kauflin and Q & A with director Alan Hicks to follow show times: Arclight Hollywood 15: Friday, Sept. 19 at 9:15 pm and September 20, at 7:10 pm; The Landmark Theatre: Friday, 9/19 at 7:00 pm; Saturday, 9/20 at 2:00 and 4:00 pm and Sunday, 9/21 at 4:30 pm and 7:00 pm. -Ed.
About the Author: Alexandra Marie Daniels is a writer, dancer, and filmmaker. Born in California, at age 17 she moved to New York City, where she received her Bachelor of Arts degree from Sarah Lawrence College. She choreographed and taught with Jacques D'Amboise's National Dance Institute and in 2000 returned to Sarah Lawrence to receive her Master of Fine Arts degree in dance. In 2007, Ms. Daniels attended the Los Angeles Film School and made three films with the director Bernard Rose; The Kreutzer Sonata (2008), Mr. Nice (2010), and Two Jacks (2012). Alexandra has worked with the director Martyn Atkins as a script supervisor on concerts such as Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood: Live from Madison Square Garden, The Crossroads Guitar Festival 2010, and The Crossroads Guitar Festival 2013. She currently teaches dance at Monterey Peninsula College.