Happy Notes

'Keep On Keepin' On' chronicles jazz great Clark Terry

In the last few years, it seems that music documentaries about iconic people, places and things have been popping up every six months. There’s been 20 Feet from Stardom (about back-up singers), Beware of Mr. Baker (about drumming legend and notorious asshole Ginger Baker), Sound City (Foo Fighters mastermind Dave Grohl’s tribute to Sound City Studios in Van Nuys, Calif.) and Muscle Shoals (about the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio and its famous players).

Keep On Keepin’ On takes as its subject Clark Terry—one of the most prolific jazz trumpeters who ever lived—and his latest protégé, Justin Kauflin, a pianist with extraordinary gifts who’s on the verge of breaking big. At first, it seems as if these two men have little in common other than the music. Terry is nearly 90 as the documentary begins, and Kauflin is in his early 20s.

But the music is just one way they’re connected. Kauflin is blind; Terry lost his sight as a result of a nearly lifelong struggle with diabetes. And they develop a friendship that transcends their surface-level differences.

Keep On Keepin’ On begins as a portrait of Terry and evolves into a simultaneous portrait of Kauflin (and by extension, his black lab seeing-eye-dog Candy). Like many effusive documentaries, there are people who sing Terry’s praises (most notably Quincy Jones, who mentions several times and with great reverence that he was Terry’s first student), but the warmth and affection for its subject makes some of the film’s softer moments charming instead of irritating. It’s not that effusive documentaries can’t be great (see: Sound City). But love fests can wear on you if you’re not part of the inner circle.

Keep On Keepin’ On has no such problems. Terry is one of the happiest presences to ever appear in a documentary, and he explains (in archival footage) the reason: He’s a happy guy and he likes happy music.

And everyone likes him. That’s why old friends and jazz legends pop up at Terry’s home in Pine Bluff, Ark., to check in on his health (throughout the film, Terry deals with a circulation problem in his legs brought on by diabetes).

Each time Kauflin stops by, the two stay up well past midnight talking jazz, running through old standards and writing new melodies; it’s amazing the energy Terry has despite being bedridden and constrained by an oxygen tank. Kauflin is an amiable presence, too, and his seemingly effortless piano work powers much of the film’s soundtrack.

What a fascinating double bill Keep On Keepin’ On would make with Whiplash, Damien Chazelle’s dramatic feature about a jazz mentor and his star pupil. Whereas Whiplash shows the darker side of such a relationship—the star pupil physically attacks the mentor at one point— Keep On Keepin’ On showcases a relationship built on mutual love and support.

It’s only fitting, then, that Keep On Keepin’ On has a happy ending for its subjects. Its celebration of friendship (and music) is a welcome respite in a season full of movies about the darker sides of human nature.


Directed by Alan Hicks
With Terry, Kauflin and Quincy Jones
CCA Cinematheque
84 min.

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