[A version of this review appears in the Portland Observer, here: http://portlandobserver.com/news/2015/mar/25/living-life-matters/.]
The heralded film “Whiplash” depicts—realistically, I expect—a world of hungry aspiring jazz musicians who are easy prey for a brutal, sadistic conductor who deliberately pits them against each other, feeds and then assaults their fragile egos, and continually moves success just beyond their reach.The conductor justifies his abusive methods as being necessary to the cultivation of true greatness; “There are no two words in the English language more harmful,” he opines, than “good job.”
Such thinking is certainly not limited to the worlds of music or the arts. But there is no better rejoinder than the beautiful documentary, "Keep On Keepin’On.” Primarily an exploration of the friendship between legendary jazz trumpeter Clark Terry, who recently died at the age of 94, and aspiring jazz pianist Justin Kauflin, the film is also about greatness that teachers like the one in “Whiplash” can never hope to evoke or achieve. Because as Terry’s example illustrates, how you live your life matters. And it would be hard to find better instruction for how to live your life well than can be found in this film.
Terry, one of the most recorded musicians in the history of jazz, played with Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, and Duke Ellington early in his career. He grew up “dead poor” in a family of 11 children in St. Louis, and so longed to play the trumpet as a child that he assembled his first horn using scrap metal from a junkyard (a process beautifully rendered in an animated sequence). He recalls how hard it was to find anyone to teach him and help him find his voice as a musician, and says he determined as a young person that if he ever learned to play, he would not be stingy in teaching others what he learned.
Terry’s passion for carrying out that intention was apparently unlimited. As a young man, he took a boy named Quincy Jones under his wing, and the love between him and Jones, his first pupil, 70 years later is palpable. Over time, Terry mentored literally thousands more young musicians, including everyone from Miles Davis to Wynton Marsalis, and several of them speak affectionately on camera of his life-changing effect on their lives. Herbie Hancock emphasizes the impossibility of calculating the influence that Terry has had on several generations of musicians; “it’s almost like being pulled by a magnet,” he says, and the film contains a wealth of footage demonstrating Terry’s unrelenting energy for investing in people and his unfailing good humor.
The film’s first-time director, Alan Hicks, is himself a jazz drummer who played with Terry and benefited from his tutelage. Though he doesn’t feature himself in the film, the film reflects his lived-in sense of Terry’s influence. He wisely finds in Kauflin’s relationship with Terry a worthy focus for the film, as it is such a good illustration of Terry’s approach to life.
Kauflin, who lost his sight at age 11, met Terry while a student at William Paterson University, and was among scores of students who worked with him there. The relationship between the two deepened over a period when Kauflin struggled to make it as a musician and Terry was dealing with significant complications from diabetes, including the loss of his eyesight. Over a five-year period, the film depicts a number of setbacks for both men: Kauflin is forced to abandon his dreams of forging a career in New York City and moves home with his parents in Virginia, and he struggles with stage fright at a major competition; Terry faces increasingly debilitating symptoms and the amputation of both his legs.
Through these challenges, the two serve as lifelines for one another. They stay up for hours into the night as Terry feeds Kauflin melodies and complex rhythms. The old man mumbles sounds that are unintelligible to the rest of us (though they are actually “doodle-tonguing,” a method of scat singing meant to convey fine points of rhythm and articulation)--and Kauflin picks up the nuance and translates the sounds into notes on the piano. There’s a kind of electricity between the two that both clearly find restorative; occasionally Terry asks Kauflin the time, and grins when he learns that it’s hours after midnight. Terry understands something about mentoring that few people do: the gifts go both directions. And both men approach their friendship with a kind of reverence. “Thank you so much, CT,” Kauflin says as he departs in the wee hours one morning—and Terry responds, “Oh, thank you, man. Thank God for you.”
Although Terry remains relentlessly positive, the way he responds to Kauflin’s challenges and his own conveys an expectation that struggles are to be expected. But the man often described as the creator of the “happiest sound in jazz” didn’t come by that sound by accident. As he explains, “They say that you can always sense through a person’s music the type of person he is … and there’s something to that because I know there’s some guys who are vicious, uptight, and evil, and they sound vicious, uptight, and evil. I would like not to sound vicious, uptight, and evil; I’d like to sound relaxed, and enjoyable, and even in some cases beautiful … Although I’m an old, ugly ham … I’d like to think of at least my soul as being beautiful.”
Terry clearly succeeded in that aim. And we owe him thanks for a lot of other beautiful music, too. His avowed aim was not to instruct people on how to play his way, by his own criteria of success, but rather to help them find their own voices. The film allows us to watch Kauflin struggle with that very thing, sometimes recognizing that he gets in his own way; that struggle felt so familiar to me—and deepened the pleasure of watching the many little ways that Terry calls him forth. “I believe in your talent, and I believe in you,” he tells the young man. Terry focused his energy on teaching people what they could do. “Most of the time,” he says, “they don’t even know what they can do till you get it out of them.”
What a staggering legacy to leave behind: thousands of voices who Terry coaxed into full and confident expression, and now a wonderful film that captures his inspiring example of how to bring others along.