JAZZ HAS NO SHORTAGE of tragic tales of abbreviated lives: Bird's heroin addiction, John Coltrane's liver cancer, Billie Holiday's woe-filled history of drink, drugs, and abusive men. What a treat, then, to examine Clark Terry's lengthy, inspiring life. The St. Louis-born trumpeter/flugelhorn player performed with Duke Ellington and Count Basie, mentored Miles Davis and Quincy Jones, and, most significantly, served as a groundbreaking educator of jazz to younger generations. Terry's almost 94 now, and if his biography is largely devoid of the dark, lurid details that typically fuel music documentaries, the new film Keep on Keepin' On focuses on the joy and passion that imbues Terry's life and music. It's richer for it.
The film's focal point is Terry's relationship with a young, blind pianist named Justin Kauflin. Terry is a kind, warm, patient educator, and Kauflin is enthusiastic and receptive; perhaps they're the happy counterparts to the characters in Whiplash. First-time director Alan Hicks gets right in between the two for a rare, intimate look at the mentor-student relationship; Terry's ongoing health problems are a factor, as is Kauflin's frustration with his struggling career. But spending time with these men is a total pleasure, and Hicks captures their personalities fully on camera.
Quick shoutout to the film's two wonderful supporting characters: Terry's wife, Gwen, whose relationship with her husband is so genuinely affectionate that you'll mist over. And Kauflin's seeing-eye black Lab, Candy, is just as heroic as any of the humans onscreen. But this film belongs to Terry and Kauflin. Terry's optimism is so potent that when his poor health dampens it, it's painful to watch. And Kauflin's participation in the Thelonius Monk International Jazz Competition is filled with more drama and excitement than all seven seasons of The Voice. This is a surprising and special movie, devoid of cynicism and mawkishness. Watch it with a person or dog you love.