Clark Terry, the Grammy Award-winning trumpeter whose career spans 70 years, played in Count Basie’s and Duke Ellington’s bands, performed with Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson, Dizzy Gillespie and Dinah Washington, and mentored Miles Davis and Quincy Jones — the latter when he was just 13.
The documentary “Keep On Keepin’ On,” which opens Friday, chronicles Terry’s relationship with a different pupil: young, blind pianist Justin Kauflin, who has been invited to participate in a prestigious competition but fears stage fright will get the best of him.
The film marks the directorial debut of Alan Hicks, who won the new documentary director award at the Tribeca Film Festival. The Australian jazz drummer by trade had been taken under Terry’s wing as a music student at William Paterson University in Wayne, N.J., where the trumpeter taught.
“I was studying there for a year,” Hicks, 31, recalled during a recent interview with Kauflin, 28, at the Four Seasons hotel in Beverly Hills. “I hadn’t planned too well and had run out of money and was going to move back to Australia.”
But fate intervened when a pianist at the music school invited Hicks to see the Oscar Peterson Trio at the famed New York jazz club the Blue Note. Much to Hicks’ surprise, he was seated at Terry’s table.
Terry immediately took an interest in Hicks. “He said, ‘You are moving home. I think that’s a bad idea. You should stay here,’” Hicks said.
Terry invited Hicks to dinner, and after dinner, Terry told Hicks to come back the following week.
“I started studying with him and joined his band,” Hicks said. “I was able to get a scholarship.”
In an email interview, Terry said the reason he mentored jazz artists was simple.
“Perpetuating our craft is what it’s all about,” said Terry, who more than 50 years ago became the first African American staff musician on NBC’s “The Tonight Show.” “They are our future, and we have to help them prepare for their future. You have to be committed and practice. You can never be too hip, because you can always learn something new.”
Around the time Hicks became Terry’s student, Kauflin, who lost his vision at age 11 due to a degenerative eye disease, was beginning at William Paterson.
“Al took care of me when I was at school,” said Kauflin, petting his guide dog, a black Lab named Candy, who is prominent in the film.
Terry, who suffers diabetes, was starting to fret over losing his sight, Hicks said. He though Kauflin could talk to the older musician about blindness.
“I said to Clark, ‘It’s not so bad to lose your sight,’” Kauflin said."There are a lot of things to do. I have been able to keep busy. It obviously was special to spend time with him as a student, but it was a mutual thing.... I could say, ‘It’s all good, don’t worry so much.’”
Hicks eventually moved back to Australia, where he was contacted by a documentary channel interested in his friendship with Terry. But after the funding was pulled, Hicks’ good friend, Adam (“Ad”) Hart, the cinematographer on “Keep On Keepin’ On,” suggested they make a documentary themselves.
“We bought some cameras and saved up for about a year and moved to the States and started shooting,” Hicks said. “We would shoot for three months, run out of money and then Ad would go back to Australia and work some jobs, and I’d jump on a tour.”
Kickstarter got them through an additional six months. Then Hicks went to Sundance looking for a producer and found Paula DuPré Pesman.
Hicks, who shot “Keep On Keepin’ On” over four years, initially focused on Terry. But the director shifted gears when he saw Kauflin’s relationship with the jazz legend.
“We asked Justin if we could shoot him as well,” Hicks said. “We had no idea where it would lead. Thankfully, Justin was open to it. It has been a great thing to step back from being a student to just watching and seeing this relationship unfold. It’s cool to be able to share this with the world.”
Kauflin recalled the day Hicks came to his New York apartment to ask him to become part of the documentary.
“I said ‘Man, you have nothing,’” Kauflin recalled, laughing. “You are going to follow this mopey blind guy around with a cute dog.”
But it didn’t turn out that way. The film chronicles pivotal moments in Kauflin’s life as well as Terry’s. After struggling in New York as a musician, Kauflin and Candy moved back home to Virginia. And Terry, who was helping him prepare for the competition, ended up in a hospital because of complications with his diabetes. He eventually had his legs amputated.
Hicks and Kauflin recently visited Terry.
“We brought Paula’s son Josh,” Kauflin said. “He’s 12 years old and starting the violin and guitar. Clark always comes alive when he has another student.”
Terry hopes the film “impacts everyone in a positive way to help more people,” he said. “It’s a big honor.”
Kauflin’s career has blossomed. Jones saw him perform at Terry’s birthday party two years ago and included him in his world tour in 2013. The pianist is working on a CD, and he also composed the “Keep On Keepin’ On” score with veteran Dave Grusin.
Kauflin and Hicks
Justin Kauflin will play piano in theater and director Al Hicks will conduct an audience Q&A after select opening weekend screenings of “Keep On Keepin’ On":
At the Landmark in L.A.: 7 p.m. Friday; 2, 4:30 and 9:30 p.m. Saturday; and 4:30 and 7 p.m. Sunday
At Arclight Hollywood: 9:15 p.m. Friday: 7:10 p.m. Saturday