Justin Kauflin is a young twentysomething pianist who, at age 11, lost his eyesight.
Jazz legend Clark Terry — the revolutionary flugelhornist who played with Count Basie and Duke Ellington, and mentored Quincy Jones and Miles Davis — shares something with Kauflin. Diabetes claimed his eyesight.
But that’s not the only reason the two musicians, who are separated by nearly 70 years, became close friends. The story of the bond between teacher and mentee is told in the new documentary “Keep On Keepin’ On,” which is being shown at this year’s Seattle International Film Festival. The film also celebrates Terry, who, even from his hospital bed, coaches Kauflin as he sets out to forge his own jazz career.
First-time director Alan Hicks is the one who brought the pair together. Just 18 and studying jazz himself in New York, a teacher of his happened to introduce him to Terry.
“Clark really took me under his wing. I started studying with Clark and I ended up joining his band,” Hicks said. “Clark was gradually losing his sight at the time and it just so happened that Justin had started coming to the college. Clark said, ‘Yeah, bring him around.’”
When Kauflin and Terry met, they immediately realized they shared something: a deep love of jazz.
“I think that’s the beautiful thing about music: it really does bring together unlikely pairings or groups together. It never occurred to me that it was something strange. But it really is the universal nature of music,” Kauflin said.
The fact that both had lost their eyesight was secondary, said Kauflin.
“I think that’s what initially brought us together. But that’s how he is with so many students. He just cares that much about everybody. That’s the remarkable thing,” he said. “It’s such a privilege to be around somebody like that who’s a wealth of knowledge, someone so humble and willing to share his knowledge.
“He’s influenced so many people. He’s dedicated to teaching. But he’s been so selfless in it that he’s never called attention to himself. People always wonder, ‘How come Clark isn’t more widely recognized?’ He’s an absolute legend and a beautiful soul.”
Helping students rise is Terry’s gift, says Hicks.
“It’s an amazing thing. Part of the reason why I made the film is I was trying to find out: What’s that process? What is it that he passes on to his students that makes them soar?” he said.
Hicks himself has felt this connection with Terry, which made the experience of filmmaking especially intimate for this first-timer.
“We were part of the family,” he said. “We had a couple of little cameras and when tough stuff was happening, we were the first to jump in and give Clark a hug. It wasn’t like a filmmaker-subject relationship."
Even through the filmmaking process, Hicks says he often turned to the lessons he himself had imparted from Terry.
“Being a drummer, the main thing you think about is pacing and shape. You want to shape the tune. You want to make sure it peaks at the right times. That same thing applies to filmmaking,” he said. “A lot of what Clark would teach is repetition and stick-with-it. And when I was having a tough moment, it never came to my mind that I should stop. That was definitely Clark saying, ‘Keep going. Keep going.’”
"Keep On Keepin' On" plays at SIFF Uptown Cinema on Friday, June 6 at 4 p.m. It will be released across the country this summer.