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Keep On Keepin' On
You don't have to know jazz to enjoy the new music documentary Keep on Keepin' On, though by the end of this story about trumpet player Clark Terry and one of his protégés, Keep on Keepin' On will certainly give you a taste for it. As Terry's wife Gwen says, Terry is like a living history of the art form.
Born in 1920, Terry began his career in Duke Ellington's orchestra before taking a 12-year-old Quincy Jones under his wing and jumping ship when his pupil started his own ensemble. In addition to being a celebrated player, Terry became an educator, teaching generations of musicians how to play jazz. Keep on Keepin' On picks up with Terry as he approaches 90. His diabetes is getting the better of him, but he's still teaching. One of his more recent and most gifted students is a blind piano player in his mid-20s. Justin Kauflin is there for Terry as his own sight fails him, and the two form a special bond.
Directed by first-time filmmaker Alan Hicks, Keep On Keepin' On packs a lot into a very short of time. The documentary efficiently gives us both Terry and Kauflin's prior history, interweaved with their present-day endeavors and interactions. We also hear a lot of music, whether it be an old recording or Kauflin rehearsing or Terry, sick in bed, scatting to keep the melody alive. (Kauflin and Dave Grusin provide an additional background score.) Some of the best scenes are when Terry remembers a beloved riff from his past, sounds it out for his student, and the young man picks up the rhythm and plays it on his piano.
To give the history weight, Hicks packs the film with all-star testimonials and archive footage. Jones, Wynton Marsalis, Herbie Hancock, and many more all chime in to praise Terry's playing and share a little about what the old master means to them. Even as his health fails him, the innovator's impact is evident. As is his humor. His one-liners and homilies will have you laughing just as much as his famous tunes will have you tapping your toes.
At the heart of the thing, though, is the relationship between the mentor and his apprentice. There is a sweetness to how these two music lovers get on, and a shared experience that cuts through the generation gap and brings it all down to the common ground of jazz. Contrasting this with the exaggerated abusive relationship between professor and protégé in the Sundance-darling Whiplash, Keep on Keepin' On comes out as all the more genuine. It communicates not just a love of music, but also a humanity, that the other film lacks. In this case, the truth is real and fiction is just a poseur.
Because in Clark Terry's syllabus, feeling is far more important than sheet music, and watching a successful artist work to help a younger player find his own voice is more inspiring and fulfilling than watching a bitter caricature rant and shout. In other words, lock in step with Keep On Keepin' On, because it's legit in an age when so much else is not.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent projects include the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, a loopy crime tale drawn by Dan Christensen; and the horror miniseries Madame Frankenstein, a collaboration with Megan Levens. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.