This documentary exists because Australian first-time director and jazz drummer Alan Hicks, who had studied with trumpeter Clark Terry and toured with his band for three years, was approached by an Australian documentary channel to shoot a short piece about their friendship.
When funding was pulled at the last minute, Hicks saw a missed opportunity. He and his friend Adam Hart decided that they could do it on their own. “We saved up for a year,” Hicks tells me in a phone interview. “We bought one camera and plane fares and came out and started shooting with Clark.”
Hicks and Hart would shoot for three months, run out of money, go back to Australia, where Hicks would play drums for three months, then pool their money to shoot for three more months. They alternated this way for four years as they amassed more and more footage.
Over that time, the documentary shifted its focus to follow Terry’s burgeoning relationship with his protege, blind jazz pianist Justin Kauflin. The movie was an obsessive labor of love that took over Hicks’ and Hart’s life, as they slept on floors to stay close to their subjects.
After they got the majority of principal photography completed, Hicks knew he needed a producer, and attended the 2012 Sundance Film Festival to find one. “I walked up and down street for two weeks in Park City talking to people, showing some footage.”
At the “Chasing Ice” premiere he was impressed with producer Paula Dupre Pesmen, and approached her. She was busy and it took a while, but he pressed his case and when she finally looked at the footage, she knew there was a movie there.
“I was madly in love with it instantly,” Pesmen says. “I had faith in my instincts. We hung out for a week, went through tons of footage, asking questions, learning where he had been. It was definitely not an historical jazz doc. I loved it and my husband Al felt the same. It’s a human story that involves music, the power of love and friendship. It’s inspiring to people. We had the same vision about the direction of the film. Their respect and love for Clark was clear. We were working with people of integrity and dedication.”
3. Clark Terry is an artist who believes in mentoring other artists. He’s the real deal.
The heart of the movie is trumpeter Terry, 93, and his amazing generosity. We see how nurturing others also feeds and strengthens him. And the audience gets to learn from his wisdom as well. Academy members will understand what it means for an artist to support and advise a young protege. We watch the duo’s progress, as Terry and wife Gwen cope with ongoing age and health issues and Kauflin battles his acute performance anxiety.
One of Terry’s coping mechanisms was to have his students around, suggests Hicks. “It was the opposite of most people when they would deal with health challenges. He loves having students around, even in tough moments. That allowed us to be there with him through the hills and valleys, and also to provide some comfort to him. In the movie when it does get really tough, we’re not sugarcoating that.”
Hicks always wondered why Terry took so much care with him–and then discovered that many others had the same experience. “This is my way of thanking him,” he says.
4. Quincy Jones is behind the film.
During one filmed session with the very ill Terry, his old friend and student Quincy Jones came calling and met the filmmakers and young Kauflin, who he eventually took under his wing, adding him to several dates on his concert tour. Eventually, in post-production Jones came onto the project as a producer, helping tweak the soundtrack and adding some scoring by David Grusin.
A Hollywood heavyweight like Jones brought cred to the film and a much wider scope of friends, fans and followers. Jones has traveled with the doc on the fest circuit, where the film won the audience award for documentary and new documentary director at the Tribeca Film Festival; Jones accepted a tribute and showed the film at the Seattle International Film Festival and went on to Telluride, where Kauflin gave an outdoor concert.
Jones’ participation also boosts the movie with Academy voters, turning the film into a must-see. His presence helped to bring Harvey Weinstein’s Radius-TWC on as distributor. The movie opens Friday September 19.