‘Keep on Keepin’ On’: Jazz documentary repeats its stanzas

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By Bill Stamets/For Sun-Times Media

Australian drummer Al Hicks makes his documentary directorial debut by observing two jazz musicians bond. Seventy years separate aging trumpeter Clark Terry and up-and-coming pianist Justin Kauflin. Devotion to craft and each other connect them.

“Keep on Keepin’ On” chronicles five years of mutual aid and admiration as the pair boost each other’s spirits. Blind since age 11, Kauflin coaches Terry when his own sight fails. He suffers medical reversals, and his protege overcomes professional obstacles.

Their rapport is uplifting. Hicks keeps on showing us that, over and over.

The better passages of the film trace Terry’s decades as a professional artist. He played in the bands of Count Basie and Duke Ellington. One long gig was with the NBC Orchestra on “The Tonight Show.” In Chicago he played at the Regal Theater, Brass Rail and Blue Note, according to his 2011 book “Clark: The Autobiography of Clark Terry.”

Archival testimony in the documentary comes from Miles Davis and other peers. One of the film’s producers is Quincy Jones, who was just 12 years old when Terry gave him his first lessons. In his press notes, Hicks reveals Terry was his own jazz mentor, and that he and Kauflin toured with Terry before the film was started.

Like too many films on athletes and artists, “Keep on Keepin’ On” seems afraid of going over our heads by examining the technique of its two musicians. Terry is sampled in recordings and vintage TV clips. Kauflin practices intensely. Are their talents untranslatable to outsiders? What is special about Terry, besides his generosity toward younger generations of musicians? One insider offers: “He possesses the happiest sound in jazz.”

Hicks may devote too much time on hospital errands and bedside moments as Terry’s health declines. But he succeeds at honoring the career of one man who is helping another’s.

[s3r star=2/4]

Radius-TWC presents a documentary directed by Al Hicks. Running time: 86 minutes. No MPAA rating. Opens Friday at the Music Box.

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