In “Keep on Keepin’ On” first-time documentarian Alan Hicks captures the moving relationship between a blind piano prodigy and jazz icon. The film opens on legendary performer Clark Terry, known as one of the most distinct horn players in the jazz world, tutoring 23-year-old Justin Kauflin, just starting out as a jazz pianist in New York City. For four years, Hicks follows the pair as the 93-year-old Terry shares his wisdom with the younger musician, while grappling with his own rapidly declining health.
Terry is a key figure in the jazz world, loved not only for his joyous performing style but for a 70-year career during which he played with Charlie Barnet, Duke Ellington, and Count Basie, later going on to become the first black bandleader on the “Tonight Show”. Already considered something of a great even early in his career, Terry has also been credited with discovering music greats like Quincy Jones (who produced and makes an appearance in the doc), and Miles Davis.
But while Hicks takes great care to highlight Terry’s many achievements and contributions to the jazz world, this film is as much a celebration of his work as a professional musician as it is a celebration of his work as a musical mentor.
Over the course of four years, we watch the stories of both Terry and his protege Justin run parallel to each other and then converge. Justin, who began losing his sight as a little boy, is a gifted and eager pupil who first met Terry as a student at Rutgers University. Probably the strongest moments in the film are those moments between Terry and Justin, as they communicate with each other in a sort of musical language that goes beyond words.
There’s a slightly uncomfortable undercurrent throughout the documentary, though, as Terry’s dedication to helping Justin jumpstart is struggling piano career is complicated by his ailing health. Over the course of the film we watch him lose his sight, his ability to breathe, and to walk. These scenes, filmed with a voyeuristic and unblinking eye, are especially difficult when presented in contrast with archival footage of Terry when he was a younger, healthier, more lucid man.
And while the mentor-mentee relationship is certainly endearing, the documentary does suffer slightly from a lack of momentum in its second act – Terry is an endlessly fascinating figure but Kauflin, more reserved and unsure of himself, makes for a difficult subject to get connected to.
Despite the disturbing quality of watching Terry’s decline, the film still ends on a hopeful note, with the icon tutoring yet another young student into the wee hours of the morning, keeping on his dedication to education in spite of his circumstances. Rounded out with interviews from Quincy Jones, Wynton Marsalis, Herbie Hancock, Bill Cosby, and Dianne Reeves, “Keep on Keepin’ On” is a poignant if slow meditation on music, life, and legacy.
"Keep On Keepin’ On" begins its theatrical run today in New York and Los Angeles. Visit the film’s website for release/screening specifics here.
Zeba Blay is a Ghanaian-born film and culture writer based in New York. She is a contributor to Huffington Post, Africa Style Daily, and Slant Magazine. She co-hosts the weekly podcast Two Brown Girls, and runs a personal movie blog, Film Memory. Follow her on Twitter @zblay.