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Giving jazz its due

Jazz Notes

David Goodson | 5/1/2014, 1:22 p.m.

It’s a mystery how certain things get embraced by society like adages. How and when did they become ingrained? There’s one in particular that’s quite irksome—the one that says, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” Word? It’s like that? Well, to squelch that thought, peep the accomplishments of Clark Terry.

As a pioneering trumpeter, he is among a select few performers ever to have played in both Count Basie’s and Duke Ellington’s bands. In the 1960s, Terry broke the color barrier as the first African-American staff musician at NBC on “The Tonight Show.” He won the National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master Award (1991), the 2010 Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and was inducted into the Jazz at Lincoln Center Nesuhi Ertegun Jazz Hall of Fame (2013). Add that to the hundreds of recordings he created. That’s doing some things. Yet it all pales when measured against his work as a teacher.

His wife, Gwen, shared, “Clark has taught at least 50,000 students at the University of New Hampshire—50,000 students whose lives have been changed because he wasn’t just there to teach; he was there to reach down into their spirit, into their souls and into their desires and motivations and then lift them into seeing potential in themselves that they didn’t even recognize.”

Alan Hicks, a drum student of his who hails from Australia, saw an opportunity to document his time around a jazz legend and convinced his surfing homie and cinematographer Adam Hart to travel to the U.S. to follow and film the 89-year-old jazz legend over a span of four years to document an unlikely mentorship between Terry and a driven, blind piano prodigy, Justin Kauflin, 23. The end result is a full-length feature film, “Keep on Keepin’ On.”

As a first-time director, Hicks had no real course for the project other than to preserve a master in action. Yet life has a way of interjecting.

“It wasn’t about us trying to create a scenario; it was about us trying to keep up with the story that was unfolding,” said Hicks. “The organic story sprung forth was Justin receiving an invite to compete in an elite, international competition while battling terrible stage fright while Clark’s health takes a critical turn for the worse. Over the course of filming, Clark loses his sight, which deepens his bond with Justin where we are suddenly witnesses to two great friends tackling the toughest challenges of their interwoven lives.”

With the names of all-time greats on your list of pupils and mentees (Dianne Reeves, Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis), to have one of those names participate was a coup. Explained Hicks, “We got a phone call that we were going to have Snoop Dogg, who’s a big fan of Clark’s, come down to the studio and record along with Quincy [Jones]. Turns out that Snoop sprained his ankle in a basketball game and couldn’t come down, so we got a chance to spend a magical day with Quincy. He fell in love with the way that Justin played, and he’s taken us under his wing ever since.”