I was lucky enough to catch the Australian premier of the documentary Keep on Keepin’ On as part of the Sydney Film Festival. The film follows trumpet legend Clark Terry, who now in his 90’s spends the greater part of his days mentoring young musicians, including Justin Kauflin, a 23 year old visual-impaired pianist. The film focuses on the the trials and tribulations of both the elder trumpeter and his understudy pianist. I was so moved by the film I had to pen and share my thoughts on it.
The more you think about Clark Terry, the more he boggles your mind. You know he can play the trumpet pretty damn well, and some may also be aware of his comedic alter ego the ‘mumbler’. But you’d be forgiven if you were unaware Terry was born way back in 1920 [to give perspective, Miles Davis was born in 1926, Dizzy Gillespie in 1917] or that he played in both Count Basie’s and Duke Ellington’s band, the two most prestigious jazz orchestras in music history; that he was the first African-American musician on NBC’s Tonight Show Band, or that he gave lessons to both to a young Miles Davis and Quincy Jones, both openly praising him as their earliest mentor.
In fact, more than playing it well, Terry, to the ears, seems to be one of only a handful who have tamed the retched beast that is the trumpet. His facility on the horn leaves me in awe- as does th consistency of his chops throughout his across his career- playing with the same vivacity into his 70’s and 80’s.
Although fore-mostly a soloist and section player, stories of Terry playing lead follow his name like kids and candy, and come as no real surprise to many who know the extent of his chops. Closer to home, I’ve been told the late Sydney expat trumpeter, and ex-head of jazz at the Con, Dick Montz would often boast how his embouchure was identical to Terry’s [and had an accompanying photo of Terry playing on his office wall to prove it] as if to say ‘if they look the same they must sound the same, right?’
With all that being said, I think it’s fair to say Terry never quite sat on the front-fringe of jazz, opting to cushion himself right in the pocket of music that oozed groove, taste and fore-mostly- swing. And so I was momentarily baffled to hear Terry, the focal point of Al Hick’s directing debut Keep on Keepin’ On, advocating early in the film the paramountcy of developing your own musical voice- one of the documentary’s running themes. But fleeting was my ignorance as I swiftly realised that the institutionalised, neo-classical, quasi-art music ‘jazz’ that we know, and for some, love to loath today was in fact the popular music of Clark’s day. It wasn’t played with a hue of postmodern irony as it is in 2014, more than 70 years after its inception, because it was the music of the day, the music of his day. More over, the events that contextualise his generation concurrently gave birth to the jazz we know and play today; from the thousands of musicians of his day, Clark has forged his name as one few enduring, charismatic voices of that generation- his ‘isms’, most noticeably his doodle tongue technique, but also a number of melodic and rhythm idiosyncrasies and preference of flugel has characterising his sound for over seven decades.
…and so from that- and only second to the reoccurring and ever important theme of finding your own voice- the most enduring message I took out of the film was Clark’s deep connection and intensely passionate love for jazz. I guess to word it frankly, Clark has a relationship to jazz that makes a middle-class white Australian living in the 21st century feel illegitimate to play anything that sonically resembles the music that Clark holds dearly. But on the contrary it only fuels the drive to find the music that makes me as passionate as Clark is about jazz- all in good time it seems.
Furthermore, I think it’s fair to say Terry’s untiring commitment to jazz pedagogy, made explicit numerous times throughout the course of the film- Clark himself even commenting on his love of informing new generations of aspiring musicians, is a direct product of his passion for the music. There is a scene were Justin, the film’s student-protagonist, walks into one of Terry’s remedial oxygen chamber session to find him listening to Clifford Brown- a subtle insight into the trumpet guru’s unrelenting love of the music.
In a flashback interview from what seemed like the 80’s, Clark employs emotions to describe his sound. For him and the musicians of his generation, chiseling your musical voice was just as vital as it is seen today [something we at times forget]. Although one might note where today the land of originality lies beyond the horizon of swing, Terry would have been trying to personalise his playing without losing an ounce of the blood of the day’s music. He goes on to add how he attempts to portray happiness and joy [I think those were his words?], what he considered to be his best qualities as a person, through his music.
And let me tell you, Terry’s personality on screen, radiating pure happiness and joy, was visibly infectious throughout the cinema. For the non-jazz initiated, the trumpet elder was far more accessible than some of the style’s greatest figures, whether it be the brooding egotism of Miles, the deeply-dark introspection of Coltrane or even the looseness and larrikinisms of Bird and Diz; Terry showed himself to be busting at the seams with positivity, warming you from the inside out. I imagine this warmth was far more typical within the jazz community of his day than what is so often portrayed and remembered. Even in the darkest moments of his health and the film the elder continued to radiate unrelentingly hospitality to those around him. Likewise, Clark’s very own Karate Kid, Justin Kauflin, exuberated an identical warmth, all the while remaining humbled as opportunities revealed themselves over the course of the film.
Keep On Keepin’ On is a film that far exceeds its classification as a music documentary, resonating with me as a film of equal parts humanity and kinship, as much as music; a reminder to love those around you with vivacity. Highly recommended for music lovers and the musical illiterate alike.
Note: The film is expected to have a commercial release. Keep an eye out!