Alan Hicks’ documentary chronicles the meeting between jazz legend Clark Terry and blind up-and-coming pianist Justin Kauflin. Terry played with Duke Ellington and Count Basie, and taught Quincy Jones and Miles Davis. He was the first black staff musician on NBC The Tonight Show, and he revolutionised jazz education with his doodle-tonguing technique. Throughout the film we see interviews with Dianne Reeves, Herbie Hancock, Wynton Marsallis, Terri Lyne Carrington and Bill Cosby – at some point it starts to feel like a checklist of the great names in jazz. And yet Terry was the inspiration for all of the – as Jones says to the young Kauflin – “the best that ever lived”. In the twilight of Terry’s life he takes Kauflin under his wing, mentoring him and grooming him as a musician. It is through Terry that Kauflin meets Jones, who takes him on a world tour, launching his career just as Terry did Jones’.
One of the strengths of this documentary is the combination of two very strong but potentially one-note stories. Hicks could quite simply have pursued a portrait of Terry, who gives more than enough material to work with. In addition to his own extraordinary career and innumerable contributions to jazz, Terry has also worked with so many past and present jazz greats who have made an enormous impact of the music industry and the modern jazz landscape. His story could be enough to fuel a documentary by itself, but it would be in quite a familiar form – the music documentary is by now fairly well established, and quite an easy formula follow. In the same way, Justin’s story could quite easily drive a documentary on its own – a brilliant and prodigious blind pianist struggling to make it in New York as a jazz musician is equally compelling. The combination of the two narratives – watching Justin’s career begin to blossom as Terry’s condition worsens – creates a surprisingly tender cycle. Even in the most debilitating stages of his illness, Terry still makes time for his students, playing late into the night with Kauflin when he visits. The parallel stories complement each other effectively, and the scenes between Terry and Kauflin are continually touching. Their relationship on screen is honest and unforced, effortlessly communicating a great affection between the two. By giving us this entree into the story, Hicks allows us to connect with Terry in the same way all of the jazz legends did – as an educator and an inspiration. A more conventional documentary would have given us Clark Terry, the legend. Hicks allows us to see Clark Terry, the teacher.
Hicks does well to let the music speak for itself on several occasions – one of the joys of this film is watching archival footage of Terry playing, and his mastery of the trumpet comes across every time he plays. At one moment, Hicks leaves Terry as he is going into hospital for amputation, and gently fades to black and white archival footage of Terry, in his prime, doing his thing, and doing it so very well. The music conveys volumes, but this is also a remarkably moving juxtaposition – the jazz virtuoso and the invalid side by side.
This is not just a documentary for passionate jazz fans or even music fans in general. There is a fundamentally human story about relationships at the core of this film. Whether watching the unique connection between a student and their teacher, the unwavering love between Terry and his wife Gwen, or the constant support of Kauflin’s parents, the relationships portrayed in this film hold their own against the incredible array of jazz legends appearing on screen, providing, if you’ll allow the platitude, something for everyone.
The film leaves us with Kauflin having just been signed by Jones, with an album in the works. Meanwhile Terry, still bedridden with his oxygen tank, is working late into the night with his latest protegée. As Gwen notes, “he’s like a history of jazz, a history of how to make it. And I don’t want him to go”.