Aspen Times Weekly: The Dedicated Justin Kauflin
If You Go …
What: ‘Keep On Keepin’ On’
Where: Wheeler Opera House
When: Monday, March 23, 7:30 p.m.
More info: www.wheeleroperahouse.com
Who: Justin Kauflin
Where: Wheeler Opera House
When: Friday, March 27, 8 p.m.
More info: www.wheeleroperahouse.com
Before there were school programs for jazz, instruction books on playing it, and a professional class of musicians teaching it, there was Clark Terry.
The exuberant trumpet player, from the end of World War II into the 21st century, took on students and helped them find their own voices. Among his first pupils were music-legends-to-be like Miles Davis and Quincy Jones. His last was Justin Kauflin.
Terry’s relationship with Kauflin, an ascendant 28-year-old pianist, was chronicled in the acclaimed 2014 documentary “Keep On Keepin’ On,” which let the world know about Kauflin, and helped the world celebrate Terry in the final months of his life. Terry died in February.
A few days after Terry’s funeral in Harlem, Kauflin reflected on his mentor’s rich life and incalculable impact on jazz.
“It’s been tough but also you can’t help but be grateful for everything,” Kauflin told me. “It was a beautiful life. It was great to see all the people out there to honor Clark. I actually felt happy for him. … At the end of folks’ lives, they tend to feel forgotten. But for Clark to have been surrounded by love for the last six months, I thank God that was able to happen before he left, when he was able to appreciate it.”
Kauflin has been listening to Terry’s records, he says, “non-stop” since Terry died to keep his mentor — and his mentor’s ebullient spirit — around the young pianist as he prepares for some big steps in his own career and the honor of carrying on Terry’s legacy.
On the heels of the popular run of “Keep On Keepin’ On” — which won plaudits on the film festival circuit, including the Best Documentary prize at Aspen Filmfest in October — Kauflin released the album “Dedication” in January. He comes to the Wheeler Opera House March 27 in support of the record, four days after an encore presentation of “Keep On Keepin’ On” at the historic Aspen theater.
Director Alan Hicks, a drummer and classmate of Kauflin’s at William Paterson University in New Jersey, undertook the film to capture Terry’s impact on jazz — specifically, the ripple effect of his thousands of students, many greats among them, teaching thousands more. But as Hicks started filming, it evolved into a warm portrait of Terry’s friendship with his protégé Kauflin.
As Terry’s diabetes progressed, and his health failed as he neared age 90, Terry began losing his eyesight. His vision dimming, Terry looked to his student, Kauflin, who has been blind since age 11 from a hereditary disorder, for strength.
Kauflin was most grateful that Terry lived to see the film completed, and to experience its worldwide reception. Its popularity, Kauflin says, inspired Terry’s past students, and people he touched, to track him down and thank him in what turned out to be his final days. A group of his old bandmates traveled to Arkansas, where Terry settled in his later years, to play for him, in December, for his 94th birthday.
“Clark’s students from over 50 years and people that he met at workshops started reaching out to him to tell him what he meant to them personally,” Kauflin recalls. “That was really incredible.”
With Kauflin and Terry at its center, “Keep On Keepin’ On” becomes a feature length testament to the importance of mentorship, both for teacher and student. It begins with Kauflin, at age 23, struggling to make it as a jazz musician in New York, and looking to Terry for guidance.
“Right now I’m just a nobody, trying to figure things out,” Kauflin says early on.
The film weaves in the highlights of Terry’s unparalleled career. He played with Duke Ellington and Count Basie’s orchestra in the 1940s and ’50s, and became the first black staff musician on network television, playing with “The Tonight Show” band. He recorded with legends from Charles Mingus to Thelonious Monk, in his instantly recognizable, buoyant blowing style on the trumpet and flugelhorn, often described as “the happiest sound in jazz,” and became best known for his 1964 scat hit “Mumbles.”
But his largest lasting impact, the film suggests, may be in those he taught. An early champion of jazz education, Terry recalls how when he was a kid in St. Louis, he had nowhere to learn how to play.
After hearing Duke Ellington for the first time at age 10, he made a trumpet out of junkyard parts. Neighbors chipped in to buy him a real trumpet, he claimed, to save them from the racket of the junk horn. As he tells it in the film, back then, in the 1930s, with no jazz instruction books and no school programs, a young person would have to seek out “old-timers” to teach them. And it was difficult to get them to open up about the tricks of the trade.
“I realized that was some jive ass shit,” he says in the film. “And I decided that if I ever learned jazz, I wouldn’t keep it from anybody. … To help young musicians make their dreams come true, that became my supreme joy and my greatest aspiration.”
In the decades that followed, he would teach a 12-year-old Quincy Jones, and later the likes Dianne Reeves and Wynton Marsalis.
“Every icon in jazz since Clark Terry has had to learn something from Clark Terry,” jazz bassist Christian McBride says in the film.
The genius of his instruction, students say, was his ability to help them find their own style.
“He doesn’t want you to copy, he wants you to find your own voice,” says Jones.
Over the course of “Keep On Keepin’ On,” you watch Terry do just that with Kauflin, inspiring the young musician to match his talent with soul.
Kauflin began playing classical music as a child, but teachers steered him toward jazz as he lost his eyesight, because it would require less reading.
“When I finally lost my sight, I didn’t have video games anymore, I didn’t have basketball, playing with my friends. That all went away. I said, ‘What do I have left to do? What is there?’ And I gravitated to the piano,” Kauflin says in the film.
Kauflin prepares to compete in the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz competition in the movie, making regular pilgrimages to see Terry in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. From his sick bed, with an oxygen tube in is nose, Terry coaches Kauflin and pushes him, singing melodies to inspire the young pianist, talking and playing into the early morning hours (Terry, like many jazz musicians, was nocturnal).
As Terry inspires Kauflin to find his own sound, Kauflin helps Terry through the hardships of his failing health. At one point in the film, Terry is being treated in a hyperbaric chamber, and Kauflin speaks to him through a phone, talking music and getting Terry to sing for him from inside the tube.
“I think he’s one of the most talented pianists that has ever walked the face of this earth,” Terry says of Kauflin.
The film captures Quincy Jones coming to visit Terry as he recovers from a surgery, spending time with his teacher during his last days. Terry uses the opportunity to tell Jones, the legendary record producer, about his latest protégé.
“You didn’t hear that little blind piano player yet did you?” Terry asks Jones.
Kauflin plays for Jones at Terry’s bedside. The discovery led Jones to take Kauflin with him on tours of the world over the last three years, and to sign on as his manager. He also produced “Dedication.”
At the Montreaux Jazz Festival last year, Jones introduced Kauflin, saying he was Terry’s first student and Kauflin was his last.
“When we all want to listen to something well, we close our eyes,” Jones said. “Justin doesn’t have to worry about that. … He can hear, and he can play like you’ve never heard in your life.”
Along with bringing Terry wide recognition at the end of his life, the film gave Kauflin an audience — a wide one by jazz standards — as his own career begins.
“It gave both Clark and me an exposure to an audience that really wasn’t aware of jazz or had no interest in it,” Kauflin says. “I don’t think I ever would have been able to be in front of that many people and share my life as a musician.”
Along with Terry and Kauflin, the film has something of a third star: Kauflin’s animated seeing eye dog, Candy, who has become a minor celebrity herself. Candy, as has become her custom, will be with him on-stage at the Wheeler when Kauflin performs with his quartet.
“Clark and I are the subject of the film, but Candy has turned out to be the star and she knows it,” Kauflin says with a laugh. “She’ll be right under the piano. She’s a showman for sure.”
The 12 original compositions that make up Kauflin’s new album are all dedicated to people he wants to thank and honor.
Naturally, it includes a song titled “For Clark.” Kauflin says he made sure, when he wrote this tribute to Terry, that he left space for improvisation, and room for the song to grow and evolve over time.
“I wrote it simply, with a simple melody and harmony, so that it could be open to the moment and how I’m feeling particularly about Clark in the moment,” he explains. “It’s going to continue. And now that I’ve been playing it for awhile I feel like I need to write another one — one song doesn’t feel like enough for Clark.”
Kauflin’s jazz piano on the record includes hints of gospel and classical meeting sweetly in the be-bop spirit imparted by Terry.
It includes songs for other mentors — professor Muldrew Miller, piano teacher John Toomey — and for friends, and “Mother’s Song,” for his mom. The music, he says, allowed him to express all the gratitude he’s felt for those who have shaped him. Performing the songs on tour, perhaps more importantly, keeps him grateful.
“The concept of the record was to basically allow me to say ‘Thank you’ in the music I wrote, but also to be able to do that in every performance,” he explains. “It’s something that I feel very strongly about.”
The new album also includes a suite of songs thanking God. Kauflin, a practicing Catholic, uses music as an expression of his faith.
“As an artist, who I am is reflected in the music that I perform and compose,” he says. “The most evident thing about me that I identify with is my faith and my life as a Catholic. That is my source of inspiration. Even though these songs are all written for different people, they’re really about faith.”
The Wheeler show marks Kauflin’s Aspen debut, though he’s been in the Colorado high country previously as a high school student at the Vail Jazz Workshop in 2003, and has returned there to perform twice as an alumnus.
If spreading joy through song is what fans will most remember Clark Terry for, it’s a legacy Kauflin wants to continue. But, Kauflin notes, he also learned from Terry that there’s much more to being a good musician than playing good music.
“You get so stuck in being proficient on your instrument, in being technically sound, and that’s great,” he says. “But it’s nothing without the heart and the desire to actually connect with people. That’s something I got from Clark and that I hope to pass on.”
Working with Terry inspired Kauflin to want to teach, as well, and to look beyond the stage to make an impact.
“I’ve had incredible teachers, especially Clark, and that taught me to realize, yes, I want to be a performer, I want to share my music and my story with people. But I also want to create opportunities for anyone else, like Clark did. He made that his mission. … I have a lot of experience to gain, a lot of things to learn, and people to learn from, but I am in a position where I can help younger musicians and I think that’s going to be a big part of what I do from here out.”
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