In just one of the many powerful scenes that coalesce and cook like big band sections to make up the lustrous, tight score of Alan Hicks’ doco Keep on keepin’ on, we see Clark Terry declare that, referring to a melody he’s singing to his protégé Justin Kauflin, “all that shit’s based on the same story.” It’s a quote, in an eminently quotable film, that marvellously captures both the irreverence and profound wisdom of Clark Terry, legendary jazz trumpeter and pedagogue. But as a breathing, corporeal embodiment of Jazz, it is a quote that testifies singly, as this film does, to the ethos and verve of this most miraculous of 20th century musical achievements: all those dazzling melodies are one story, as we are one story.
Arguably the most important cultural offering from African America, Jazz means many things to the people that love it, but the human commonality that animates its swung quavers is its staggering ability to find unbounded joy and purpose in creation, in defiance of the manifold social ills that weighed heavily on Black America. Like the blues, from which it germinated, it is a music that has always defied fate. And how alive and kicking this music is! Clark Terry is Jazz, and this movie is Jazz. I had the pleasure to ask Alan Hicks, the director, a few questions about his movie, and about the man and music that inspired it.
Good afternoon Alan, thank you for your beautiful and touching film. One of my favourite words in the jazz patois is “real”, as in, man that cat’s “real”. I think this film is “real”, a fitting and reverential homage to a jazz legend. How did you come across jazz, and where does your evident love for it come from?
I studied drums at the Wollongong conservatorium, where my mates and I joined the con band, and that’s where I got hooked.
I’ve only ever been familiar with Terry’s work as a sideman, on such classics as Duke Ellington’s Such Sweet Thunder, and it’s been great to have a film dedicated to him, as a man and artist. What drew you to Clark as a subject for a film, and how did it all come about?
I tried out for the con in Sydney, and missed out by one spot, and all my mates got in to the con. I was devastated. So I decided, bugger it, I’ll go to New York and try to get immersed in it there. I went there when I was 18, and started trying out for different colleges, and studying with guys around town. I got into a college called William Pattison University, in New Jersey. I studied there for a year, but I hadn’t planned any of it well, and I was dead broke, I thought I’ve got to go back home to Australia and regroup. A teacher from that school, the late James Williams, told me before you fly home I want you to come to the Blue Note Jazz Club with me. So I went to the Blue Note with him, and he sat me right in between Clark Terry and his wife Gwen. The concert was the Oscar Peterson Trio. I sat right next to Clark, and I couldn’t believe it, I idolised him. He then said to me – “You must be Al…James has told us about you, and he said you’re planning on moving back to Australia, and I think it’s a bad idea. You can play, and I think you should keep your shoe in in Jazz, and stay here”. So I cancelled my flight and he started inviting me to his place and we’d hang out. Eventually he asked me to bring my drum sticks. This went on for a long time, and then I ended up joining his band! That’s how I met Clark, through this crazy turn of events.
It wasn’t until years after that, when I moved back to Australia, that Australian Story cottoned on to mine and Clark’s relationship, and they wanted to do a little piece on it. It was all going ahead, but as seems to be a frequent thing, the Aus govt funding got pulled. I told my mate, Adam Hart, the cinematographer of the film, about this. And he told me, we’ll do it ourselves, so we started. And that was 5 years ago.
So have you just been working on the film for the last 5 years intermittently?
Yeah. We saved up for a year, booked some tickets, got our cameras and a How-to-make-a doco for dummies book, and tried to work out how to do it. Then we started shooting. We’d shoot in increments. We’d shoot for 3 months then run out of money. I’d jump on a tour playing drums with some band, shoot for 3 months, run out of money and we did that for years, and that’s how the movie got made.
That’s extraordinary. One of the great parts of the film is its respect for Terry, not only as a musician and his influence on such people as Miles Davis and Quincy Jones, but also a human being, in particular his prodigious teaching capacity and his effect on others. The film could almost have been about you, and that serendipitous meeting you had with him! Tell us more about him, and his influence on people and his capacity to motivate them.
Clark’s got this…The great thing about Clark is he doesn’t need to be a teacher. He’s one of the greatest on his instrument of all time. It’s this heavy thing, where he developed his own sound, and he’s masterful on his instrument. There’s so many musicians that live off that, they’re the greats. But Clark has this innate ability to relate to kids, and cared enough to want to pass on the language. He’s got this magic thing where he really cares about his students, and he gets so much joy out of his student succeeding or trying harder. All the people I bring to meet Clark, they all say, he’s got this energy about him. He’s 93 at the moment, but he still gives off this aura. It’s just positivity, that’s what he’s pushing out there. I’ve never come across anyone like Clark, and lots of people say that.
I really like one quote in the film from Herbie Hancock, the legendary piano player. There’s a scene of Clark scatting, and Herbie says: “You don’t know what he’s saying, but you can understand all of it”. Does this encapsulate the meaning of jazz for you? Is that what jazz is to you?
Clark is teaching a language, and part of his teaching is singing, which is why he can teach any instrument. To teach me drums, he’d sung rhythms and so on. For Clark it’s all about the phrasing and simplicity, and he’s teaching these guys this language. It’s infectious, if you’re around him, you just feel like singing yourself.
That’s one of the amazing things about Clark. Whether he’s in a hyperbaric chamber, or in the lift after his obviously painful amputation of his legs, he’s still singing… I really enjoyed the inter-generational element in this movie. It’s of course just as much about Justin Kauflin, the young piano player. You emphasise Justin’s development as a musician and person a lot in the film. Why was this element important for you? Was it to focus on Clark’s teaching achievements, or to show how Jazz lives on as an oral tradition, and in the work of the new generation?
It’s just what happened! Justin and Clark have this relationship that’s so strong. And Justin was always around, studying with Clark. While we were shooting with Clark, we only shot Clark, it was almost gonna be like a biopic, but Justin was there, all the time. We asked Justin if we could follow him to, to bring this other side of Clark out, this nurturing master-teacher side. And we kept shooting, not trying to interfere with anything, let things play out.
It was interesting for me to follow Justin as an artist, trying to find his own sound. Having a guy like him, working with one of the greats who has found his sound, was a real treat for us to watch that go down.
There is a slight melancholy to this film. As Clark’s wife Gwen says – “He is the history of Jazz”. I couldn’t help but think of all the greats who have passed away… How strong do you think Jazz is today, and what does the future of Jazz look like to you?
I’m biased cause I love it! But just been showing the movie around, these past couple of months, seeing how many young people are drawn to it, it’s a really encouraging thing. I don’t think it’ll ever go away. So I think it’s still very strong. One of the problems with Jazz, is its such a broad term. Some people hear some of it that’s only made for musician’s to enjoy, and not for the general public, and that turns people off I feel. But if people can be introduced to jazz the right way, they could be hooked. One of the goals with this movie was, by having a human story as the lead, and having jazz all throughout it, it might inspire people to check it out and understand it a bit more. And that’s been happening a lot. People have been telling me – “Oh man I’ve got to go out and get some Clark Terry, Duke Ellington records”, and I’m stoked.
Before we wrap it up, can you tell us what Clark and Justin are up to these days?
I just talked to Clark yesterday. He’s doing really good. Clark is still teaching, and has students from all over the world. He’s one of those people…it feels like he’s going to live for ever, he’s so strong. And Justin is doing really good. He’s touring a lot. He’s got his own band, and he’s working a lot.
Do you plan on releasing a soundtrack?
Yes! It’ll be out later this year. And we’re also doing a theatrical release later August, early September. I’m locked in. We’ve been travelling now for a couple of months, and I reckon it’ll be another year of just solid travel. It’s only apt that Alan should be, as his mentor Clark would have it, “keep on keepin’ on”. This attitude, this shining resilience is, to me at least, the moral force of Jazz, where art and life converge in a holy inversion of a B flat minor 9 chord. Much has been written about Jazz, but I think one aphorism stands out. The superlative Thelonious Monk, composer and pianist, once said that “It’s always night, or we wouldn’t need light”. This film does its little bit to keep that flickering flame alive.