Jazz fans will remember fall 2014 as the season the music made an important impression on the big screen.
First, there is the drama of “Whiplash,” Damien Chazelle’s tale of a jazz instructor whose teaching methods border on the sadistic. Now comes “Keep On Keepin’ On,” Alan Hicks’s acclaimed documentary examining the relationship between trumpet great Clark Terry and a talented young pianist, Justin Kauflin. The film opens October 31 in San Francisco. Here is an excerpt from the New York Times review.
“Keep On Keepin’ On” offers something much richer and more unusual than the biography of an eminent musician. Mr. Terry was a pioneer in jazz education, and his first student was a 12-year-old horn player named Quincy Jones, “so skinny he could ride a rooster,” in Mr. Clark’s words. Now in his 80s, Mr. Jones is a producer of this film and also, especially toward the end, a crucial on-screen presence. He is one bookend of Mr. Terry’s career as a teacher, and Mr. Kauflin, a quiet young man with an irrepressible smile and evident talent, is the other.
Mr. Kauflin, who was born in 1986 with impaired vision, lost his eyesight completely when he was 11 and became serious about the piano around the same time. At the start of the movie, he is living in New York, trying to break into the professional jazz scene and having a hard time. We follow him through various setbacks and triumphs – a move back to his parents’ home in Virginia Beach, a tense appearance at the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Piano Competition – but the one constant is his friendship with Mr. Terry.
Learning is a basic and universal human process, but it’s also mysterious. How does one person communicate complex knowledge and technique to another? To see Mr. Terry and his student together is to experience a moving and revelatory answer to this question. Mr. Kauflin sits at a keyboard, working on passages of melody and rhythm, while Mr. Terry, trained in a completely different kind of instrument, answers with scat singing that homes in on fine points of phrasing and articulation. This method, known as doodle-tonguing (and related to Mr. Terry’s vocal performance of “Mumbles”), is musical discipline masquerading as verbal nonsense. Occasionally, Mr. Terry will look up from his bed and ask what time it is; it’s long after midnight, and he and Mr. Kauflin have been working for hours, oblivious to the passage of time.
The old-timer and the young striver are a wonderful pair, and the privilege of their company is not something you should refuse.
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