Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Tribeca ’14: Keep On Keepin’ On

Clark Terry’s distinctive personal sound has been justly hailed as the “happiest” in all jazzdom. Nobody could lift your spirits in live performance like he could, so it will be especially difficult for his fans to see Terry’s suffering the ravages of age and ill health. Yet, he doggedly continues to mentor his latest student, forging an unusually close relationship with blind Justin Kauflin. Alan Hicks follows four eventful years of their jazz lives in Keep On Keepin’ On, which screens during this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

Terry is the only musician to play in the Ellington, Basie, and Tonight Show bands. Thelonius Monk’s last real studio sideman gig was for Terry, one of the trumpeter and flugelhornist’s 905 documented recording sessions. If you didn’t know already, he is the real deal, but he has always been willing to take young musicians under his wing. However, Kauflin is more than just his latest pupil.

Born with degenerative vision that failed completely during his grade school years, Kauflin replaced his enthusiasm for sports with music. Despite his obvious talent, he suffers from confidence issues. Frustratingly, he just cannot seem to find sideman gigs, for conspicuously obvious reasons. Surely, Terry must know someone who can help, right? As a matter of fact, he once gave lessons to a young cat named Quincy Jones, who happens to be one of the producers of Keep On.

At times, Hicks’ intimate access to the two musicians feels like more of a curse than a blessing. He captures moments of pain and indignity that are uncomfortable to watch, but they accurately present the messiness of reality. For jazz fans, it is also bittersweet to see the late great Mulgrew Miller briefly appearing in an interview segment. On the flip side, it should be noted Quincy Jones looks eternally fab.

Frankly, it is important to accentuate the positive in Keep On. Perhaps providentially, one of Terry’s greatest hits was “Mumbles,” featuring his sly nonsensical blues vocalizing, considering his lessons now largely depend on his scatting chops. As bad as things get, Terry keeps plugging away with and on behalf of Kauflin, because you cannot keep a great man down.

Indeed, great is the right term. Jazz fans respect Bird and Dizzy, revere Duke and Armstrong, but its Clark Terry that we love. For years he would regularly headline one of the major New York clubs every other month or so, giving us a chance to recharge our spiritual batteries. It is hard to accept we probably will not be see lead that familiar quintet again (featuring David Glasser on alto, Don Friedman on piano, Marcus McLaurine on bass, and Sylvia Cuenca on drums), but that appears to be the case. If you missed them, you missed out.

Clearly, Hicks understands Terry’s musical significance and appreciates the dedication of his wife Gwen. Keep On is definitely a happy-sad kind of film, instilling optimism in the next generation, while paying tribute to those who came before them. You will probably need to listen to a good dose of Terry after viewing Keep On Keepin’ On to cheer yourself up, but it is still highly recommended for jazz fans when it screens again this Friday (4/25) during the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival.