Jazz great Clark Terry performs at the celebration of the 20th anniversary of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz in the East Room of the White House Sept. 14, 2006, in Washington, D.C.  
Dennis Brack-Pool/Getty Images

In 1984, my junior year as undergrad at Hamilton College, I had the distinct honor of playing with trumpet legend and educator Clark Terry. I held the first alto-saxophone chair in the school’s jazz big band. The evening before the concert, band director Don Cantwell, Terry, a few select band members and I had dinner at a quaint, cozy restaurant in Clinton, N.Y., a college town downhill from campus.

I was nervous. In awe of one of the greatest, most beloved jazz musicians in the world, I couldn’t think of anything to say. Fortunately, Terry set me at ease, calling me by my first name and making small talk. The following night, in the college chapel, he and I shared a melody line, totally blowing my mind. His warm, full-bodied tone infused the acoustics of the intimate space; his sound soared over the big band while surrounding me like a billowy aura of light.

Advertisement

Multiply that experience by hundreds of thousands and you’ll have an inkling of the broad influence of Clark Terry, who has provided a deep transmission of the history of jazz to students and audiences for more than 70 years. That tale and more is told in the recently released documentary Keep on Keepin’ On, a touching cinematic ode to the power of the apprentice-master relationship and, as well, to companionship and love that transcends and uplifts.

Currently running in select theaters in New York City; Washington, D.C.; and Silver Spring, Md., the film will open this weekend in Atlanta; Asbury Park, N.J.; and Chicago, followed by cities including Scottsdale, Ariz.; St. Louis; Nashville and Memphis, Tenn.; Boston and Cambridge, Mass.; Philly; Sante Fe, N.M.; and Denver.

The film centers on the bond between Terry and Justin Kauflin, a talented young jazz pianist who is aspiring to greatness and yet who, as an apprentice, is in search of his voice. Kauflin, blind from a rare eye condition, also endures stage fright. The two met at William Paterson University, where, during master classes, Terry would not only relate the nuances of jazz phrasing through his patented doodle method but also share stories about the jazz greats and relay ageless wisdom.

Now 93, Clark Terry experienced his own apprenticeship in St. Louis during the height of the post-Depression big band era and through the dizzying days of bebop circa World War II. Terry was exceptional, so future greats were drawn to him. His very first student was a skinny kid named Quincy Jones: “He was thin enough to ride a rooster,” jokes Terry in the film. “C.T.” was an idol to a young Miles Davis: “He was so thin that if he had turned sideways, they’d have marked him absent!”

Advertisement

Terry’s good humor imbues the film and lightens the burden of his own physical travails and Kauflin’s insecurity. Terry’s ultrasupportive wife, Gwen, explains that he has suffered from diabetes for 60 years. Complications from the disease usher in some of the most poignant moments in the film as Kauflin’s devotion lifts Terry’s spirit, and Gwen’s unconditional love helps save him from the brink of death. Her role in the film enshrines the archetype of the jazz wife giving her all to ensure that her husband’s creative and educational mission continues to bring joy to the world. Gwen Terry is the quiet and steady heroine of the film, an oasis of compassion allowing Terry  to keep on keepin’ on.

Bill Cosby, Christian McBride, Wynton Marsalis, Dianne Reeves, Johnny Carson, Duke Ellington, Terri Lyne Carrington, Herbie Hancock and others sing Terry’s praises in the award-winning documentary, not only as one of the greatest trumpeters—Quincy and Dizzy Gillespie suggest that he may be the best ever—but as a man and as a guide for young people, too. Having played in the Count Basie and Duke Ellington orchestras—the reputed Cadillac and Roll Royce of jazz big bands—Terry pioneered as the first black staff musician at NBC and ventured on to a marvelous career as a soloist. But that wasn’t enough.

“I’ve learned that dreams do come true,” Terry says in the film. “I’ve also learned that dreams change. I always thought that the most important thing was to play my horn. But later on I had a new dream: to help young musicians have their dreams come true. That became my supreme joy and my greatest aspiration.”

As a master of masters, Clark Terry is a grand master artist, entertainer and teacher. His wise advice to Kauflin and other students about facing challenges and the requirements for mastery is timeless. He helped Kauflin adjust to the disappointment of not placing as a finalist winner at the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Piano Competition, for instance, by putting the experience in perspective: “Just keep on steppin’ … that’s just one little episode. If at first you don’t succeed, keep on sucking until you do suck a seed!”

The seeds of talent and practice, mentorship and camaraderie, love and joy, do bear fruit for Kauflin by the film’s end as Quincy Jones keeps the circle unbroken by taking the gifted young man under his wing. Keep on Keepin’ On is a must-see.

Greg Thomas is a cultural journalist and frequent contributor to The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook