Living a Life That Matters

Legendary trumpeter shows the way in ‘Keep on Keepin’ On’

Darleen Ortega | 3/31/2015, 10:43 a.m.
The heralded film “Whiplash” depicts—realistically, I expect—a world of hungry aspiring jazz musicians.
Aspiring jazz pianist Justin Kauflin ( left) and Clark Terry, the legendary jazz trumpeter, are profiled in ‘Keep on Keepin’ On,’ a documentary that beautifully portrays a friendship between the men and the greatness of teachers like Terry who share their knowledge. Photo courtesy of Radius-TWC

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.

Darleen Ortega is a judge on the Oregon Court of Appeals and the first woman of color to serve in that capacity. Her movie review column Opinionated Judge appears regularly in The Portland Observer. Find her movie blog at opinionatedjudge.blogspot.com.