Film critic Denerstein: Learning jazz from a master

Movies that buoy the spirit without insulting our intelligence aren’t easy to come by. That’s part of the reason why Keep on Keepin’ On proves so special. This documentary about the relationship between jazz great Clark Terry and a young blind pianist stands out as one of the year’s most affecting movies.

At last, a movie that’s inspiring without drowning us in the gooey sap of sentiment, a story that reminds us of the importance of mentorship in developing talent and of the nourishing powers of friendship.

As jazz fans know, Terry is recognized as one of the world’s great trumpet players, having plied his trade with Count Basie and Duke Ellington. No less a light than Miles Davis paid homage to Tracy.

Terry also became the first African-American musician to work with the National Broadcasting Company orchestra, famed as theTonight Show band under Johnny Carson.

Although the movie scans Terry’s career, its real subject is Terry’s relationship with budding jazz pianist, Justin Kauflin, who was 23 when filming began.

Terry offers Kauflin advice and wisdom when the young man visits Terry’s Arkansas home. Terry instructs Kauflin about how to play a variety of musical licks, often scat singing them for his eager protege. He encourages Kauflin to find his own voice.

Terry, who’ll be 94 later this month, is not in the best of health. He has lost both legs to diabetes, and has begun to lose his eyesight, as well.

Yet, throughout the filming, his spirit remains undiminished. Even during a hospital visit, Kauflin receives instruction from Terry. The two always seem to talk well past midnight, neither being eager to end their encounters.

First-time Australian director Alan Hicks, who’s also a drummer and a student of Terry’s, has hold of a story with a strong emotional core. Wisely, his film never loses touch with it.

The story, of course, has its low points. A jittery Kauflin suffers from stage fright. He loses an important jazz competition. And, yes, it’s painful to watch Terry’s health — frail at the outset — deteriorate ever further.

Keep on Keepin’ On includes an appearance by Quincy Jones, who credits Terry with having given him his start. A reunion between Jones and Terry is expectedly touching, but, then, so is almost everything in this engaging documentary.

It’s worth knowing that Keep on Keepin’ On has some serious Colorado connections. It was edited by Denverite Davis Coombe, who also received credit for the movie’s screenplay, and produced by Paula DuPre Pesmen, who resides in Boulder.

Both Davis and Pesmen have serious credentials, Coombe having edited many of director Daniel Junge‘s films — including the Oscar-winning documentary short Saving Face — and Pesmen having worked on several Harry Potter movies, as well as important documentaries such as The Cove and Chasing Ice.

Equally important: Keep on Keepin’On last week made Oscar’s short-list for documentaries, 15 films from which five final nominees will be selected. Look for an announcement on Jan. 15.

But when I tell you that I was moved by Keep on Keepin’ On, it’s not because I feel compelled to support the home team or because I’m overly impressed by possible Academy Award nominations. It’s because I’m grateful to these filmmakers for having given us the opportunity to hang out with Terry and Kauflin, two men who go a long way toward proving that when it comes to music, there’s no such thing as an odd couple.