Documentary puts jazz trumpeter Clark Terry in Denver film fest spotlight

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Clark Terry and Justin Kauflin
Clark Terry (right) and his student, blind pianist Justin Kauflin.

First-time director Alan Hicks could have made a conventional documentary about trumpeter Clark Terry. After all, Terry, now 93, is one of the pioneers of jazz. He’s worked with just about everyone in the business, including Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Oscar Peterson, Dianne Reeves, and many more. He even had something of a hit record back in 1964 with a song called, “Mumbles,” which featured Terry’s distinctive scat singing instead of his trumpet playing.

Terry, who lives in Pine Bluff, Ark., is more than a music legend. He also mentors jazz students, something he’s done throughout much of his career. His first student was trumpeter and music producer Quincy Jones. It’s this side of Terry that’s the real story of the film "Keep On Keepin' On," which shows on Saturday, Nov. 22, at the Starz Denver Film Festival.

Hicks, who studied music with Terry and played drums for several years in the trumpeter’s band, worked with Denver-based editor Davis Coombe (“Chasing Ice,” “Hanna Ranch”). The film captures the special relationship that develops between Terry -- who is struggling with diabetes and losing his eyesight -- and pianist Justin Kauflin, who has been blind since he was 11.

In his review of the film, New York Times film critic A.O. Scott wrote, “The old-timer and the young striver are a wonderful pair, and the privilege of their company is not something you should refuse … Like other stories of musical tutelage, ‘Keep On Keepin’ On’ is ultimately an examination of the pursuit of greatness. It is a grueling and demanding endeavor, for sure, but also, for Mr. Terry and anyone lucky enough to enter his orbit, a source of unending joy.”