Trumpeter Clark Terry played in Count Basie's and Duke Ellington's bands. He was the first African American hired for The Tonight Show band. He mentored the teenage prodigies Miles Davis and Quincy Jones. But Terry isn't as well known as you might think he'd be.
Thanks to the new documentary, "Keep On Keepin' On," you can see Clark Terry — or C.T., as everyone calls him — in action. The film tells the story of Terry's early love of the trumpet, his quick rise through the jazz ranks, and how he's devoted much of his life to inspiring other musicians — all with a sparkle in his eye.
The movie is directed by first time filmmaker Alan Hicks and made on a shoestring budget. Hicks is himself a drummer and had been one of Terry's students. Originally it was going to be a short film about Terry and Hicks' relationship, funded by the Australian Broadcasting Company. (Hicks is from Australia.) When that financing fell through, Hicks improvised. Determined to tell the world about Terry, he and a childhood buddy, Adam Hart, decided to do it themselves — despite having no filmmaking experience. They bought a camera and plane tickets to the U.S. and began following Terry.
For many years their schedule was to shoot until they ran out of funds, usually about three months, work for a few months to save more money, then go back to shooting. To demonstrate how Terry mentors his students, they followed one young man in particular. Justin Kauflin is a blind jazz pianist with stage fright who would spend days and nights practicing at Terry's bedside. Over the course of the film, as we learn about Terry's past, we see the aging trumpeter in the present (he's now 93) — struggling with advanced diabetes, but always composing riffs from his bed late into the night.
In one moving scene, Kauflin is riddled with anxiety as he prepares to compete in the Thelonious Monk International Jazz competition. Terry sends him an audio letter and some lucky socks for inspiration.
Years into the project, when Quincy Jones came to visit Terry, he met Kauflin and the filmmakers. Eventually Jones signed on as an executive producer of "Keep On Keepin' On" — as is only fitting given that, at age 13, he'd been Terry's first student.
Jones, Hicks and Kauflin spoke with The Frame about Terry and his unparalleled talent as a musician and as a mentor.