It’s hard to imagine a film more filled with reverence, devotion, and inspiration than Keep on Keepin’ On, a tribute to jazz legend Clark Terry lovingly crafted by Alan Hicks, one of Terry’s former students (a set that includes Quincy Jones and Miles Davis). When the master started to lose his sight, Hicks introduced him to a young blind pianist named Justin Kauflin. The bond between these two malsighted musicians was instant and profound, and we are grateful to Hicks for catching it on film. For his efforts, Hicks won Best New Documentary Director at the Tribeca Film Festival, where the film received its world premiere with a post-screening concert featuring Herbie Hancock, Dianne Reeves, and Justin Kauflin. Produced by Quincy Jones. •Availability: See RADiUS-TWC. •Thanks to Susan Engel, PMK-BNC for arranging this interview.•
DT: How did you meet Clark Terry?
AH: When I was eighteen I moved from Australia to Brooklyn to study jazz. I got into William Paterson University, and I was there for a year, but I was young and hadn’t planned things well. It was pretty tough, and I was going to move back to Australia when the pianist James Williams, who was a teacher there, said, “Before you move back I’ve got you on the door of this gig.” It was a gig at the Blue Note with the Oscar Peterson Trio.
DT: Not bad.
AH: I couldn’t even afford to go into the city, and he walked me into the gig and sat me down between Clark Terry and Gwen Terry. They turned around and said, “You must be Al.” It blew my mind, because Clark was one of my idols growing up. My dad bought me the Quincy Jones autobiography for my flight from Australia to America, and in that autobiography Quincy wrote a chapter about Clark, and I remember going, That is so cool.
DT: You’re a drummer.
AH: I’m a drummer. So by fate I met Clark, and he said, “I heard you were planning on moving back to Australia. I heard that you can play, and I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to move.” Then he said, “I’m having dinner next week.” That was past the date where I was going to fly, but I called my mom and said, “Cancel my flight home. Clark Terry invited me over for dinner.” We had dinner. He said, come next week. Another dinner. I came the next week, and the week after, then he said, Bring your sticks, so I brought my sticks, and it turned into every other day and then I was just over there every other day for years. Then I joined his band and we traveled a lot, too. Me and Clark spent a lot of great time together, and it started as a friendship before anything else.
DT: But a friendship based on music.
AH: James Williams obviously thought I shouldn’t go home, and he talked to Clark and Gwen. I didn’t know that compassionate side of Clark Terry, I just knew him as this master trumpet player. Clark and I became really, really good friends, and during the time when Clark was starting to lose his sight, Justin Kauflin happened to start coming to the university. Clark was fretting—he was having a hard time adjusting, and he was getting real nervous about everything getting dimmer, so one night I said to Clark, “There’s this young blind kid who just started at the college. Maybe I could bring him along.” Clark said yeah, so I brought him over, and it was amazing to see those two connect. Justin lost his sight when he was eleven, and he explained to Clark that it wan’t so bad losing your sight. He said it doesn’t go pitch black, that your brain fills in the gaps, and it really calmed Clark down. Chilled him out. So they started a beautiful relationship. Years later I had moved back to Australia, and an Australian documentary channel wanted to do a story about my relationship with Clark.
DT: So you were approached by someone else about making a film?
AH: Yeah, and then they pulled the funding. I was bummed. One day I was surfing with my high school mate, a bloke called Adam Hart, and I said, “Mate, they pulled the pin. They’re not going to go ahead with it, and it’s a bugger of a thing.” He happened to be a cameraman, and he just said, “Mate, I reckon we can save up and do it ourselves. Let’s just go for it.” So we saved up for a year and bought our airfares and some equipment and just started shooting. I wasn’t in the story—it was just about Clark. I’d never done anything in film before, and Adam had worked on surf films, so we both had very little experience, and we just started shooting. Once we started shooting we realized how strong Justin and Clark’s relationship still is. Justin would be down at Clark’s house in Arkansas all the time. We asked Justin if we could start shooting with him too and he was like, Yeah, no worries. Because we were all such good mates it was never a problem.
DT: I assume that the editing became critical to really shaping and making the film.
AH: Yes. Us being naive worked in our favor, because we just shot and shot and shot and shot. I can’t even tell you how many hard drives we filled up. There’s 350 hours of vérité footage, then there’s 100 hours of archival footage. We watched every minute of it and then we started editing. I had a real good idea of how the story should go cause I was there for the whole thing, but it wasn’t until we got to editing that we could really start honing in.
DT: When did Quincy Jones come on?
AH: Quincy literally walked into the film. Justin was going back down to Clark’s place in Arkansas, and we were going to shoot them for three weeks. While we were there, Clark and Gwen got this call saying Quincy and Snoop Dogg wanted to come down and record this album that they’d been planning on doing for years, with Clark doing his mumbles and Snoop Dogg rapping, because Snoop’s a huge fan of Clark’s. Snoop sprained his ankle playing basketball with his son and couldn’t come down, so the recording session was canceled, and it ended up being Quincy just coming to hang out with his teacher. Then he got to hear Justin play and loved it. We were still following Clark and Justin the whole way, and as Quincy took Justin on, that just grew. But it wasn’t until we got into postproduction that Quincy was able to really come on board and help us, because we’ve got more music in our film than I think almost any other documentary. There’s fifty-two music cues, then score by two composers. Everything needed to be cleared, and we’re an independent film. There’s music from Miles Davis, from Duke Ellington. With Quincy’s relationship with all these people, he was really able to help us keep that music in the film.
DT: Let’s talk about Clark. Can you pinpoint why his teaching is so extraordinary?
AH: With Clark it’s not like you walk in and it’s time to teach, the lesson’s started, the hour’s up. The moment you walk into his house, you’re studying. It’s every single aspect about the guy. Everything he says is a piece of wisdom, even if you’re just eating dinner. If you sit down and have a meal with Clark, he’ll tell you all these old jokes, and then you finish the meal and he’ll start talking about Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra, Charlie Parker, Clifford Brown…there’s jazz history lessons all over the place. You’re always studying. If I was driving to a gig with him, in the car he’d be singing rhythms and telling me about these old drummers and these little things you can do. It’s a hundred percent of the time. That’s what’s interesting about Clark, and the way that he leads by example as well. I’ve seen him handle some really tough situations, and that’s helped me navigate through a lot of tough situations of my own, because I think, How would Clark handle that? So it’s not conventional, as far as you’ve got your lesson time. He’s never charged a student in his life, either. He’s not trying to charge kids to learn about jazz. He just wants to get it out.
DT: Can you talk about the dynamics of the small ensemble group Clark formed at William Paterson University? It sounds like a life-changing experience.
AH: It started off with just a few students jamming at his house. That went on for a long time, then the university invited him to start an ensemble at the school, and Clark would select students to be in this ensemble. For years, every Monday night we’d rehearse with Clark; the rehearsals would be four, five, six hours, and Clark would always be the last one standing. It was crazy. That became a really cool group of kids, and then we started working with Clark outside the school. The craziest bit is we’d do these huge sessions with Clark every Monday night, and then he’d say, “Oh Gwen’s cooked up a huge feed, you guys should come over.” We’d go over and hang out and eat and learn some more jazz history, and then we’d have jam sessions after that in his living room. That went on for years. We’d be falling asleep in jazz history class the next day because we were up all night getting the jazz history from Clark, but it was just this really special time. We’re all so lucky to have been in that guy’s presence, and especially at that part of his career, too, cause he was still really strong on the horn.
DT: At the Q&A after the Tribeca premiere, someone asked about the process of getting your own sound. As a musician, how do you describe the process of getting your own sound, which was so important to Justin? I mean, it’s important to every musician, but that was really the crux of Justin’s issue in the film.
AH: Being a musician myself, I struggle with the same thing. That’s what made it a comfortable thing for me to approach in the film, because I get it. Everybody is looking to find their own voice or own sound, but Justin is a very special case because he’s so talented and doesn’t see it. The thing with Clark…Herbie Hancock says it in the movie: Clark doesn’t want you to copy him, he wants you to find your own sound. I’ve been trying just as hard as I can with Clark to excel on my instrument, but transitioning into doing this film, so much of the advice that Clark has given me musically has been able to transcend to this process—that whole thing of trusting what you’re doing and just working really hard. And repetition, especially with the editing process. Doing those fifteen-hour editing sessions, I would always think about Clark: with the small ensemble, we would do one phrase for two hours, over and over and over. I feel lucky that I had that training with Clark, because I was able to apply those methods to making a film and navigating through something I’ve never done and didn’t know how to do. So in a sense he’s helped me find the possibility of a voice in another medium.
DT: When you were doing the same phrase for two hours, would Clark tell you what he was looking for?
AH: He’s very specific, and he wouldn’t move on until we’d nailed it.
DT: What would he say? The timing is off here, or—
AH: He’d sing rhythms and melodies, and the way it’s phrased is so important. In the film you hear that doodle system. It’s real subtle but superimportant, and he would make the rhythm section play a hundred percent of the time. He’d just tell us to play softer while he worked with the horn sections, and then he’d sing rhythms to us. It taught me to not be afraid to keep going until it’s right and pushing the people around you to make sure they do it right. I was always a bit tentative about making an editor work as hard as they can, but through Clark doing that to us, I felt confident and comfortable pushing people to work harder. And that’s how this whole thing has been, pushing people with good intention: that’s something Clark has done his whole life.
DT: What does he say to someone to encourage them to bring out their own voice?
AH: He simplifies everything. He’ll slow down a phrase, and then repeat it for an hour. It makes it clearer because it’s so simple. He’s got a quote, I think it’s “Imitation, assimilation, and that leads to innovation”—that’s what Clark would always tell us. You’ve got to imitate the people around you and then start to see where you fit. Then you can start to innovate. It’s all about the basics with his teaching, but then he could teach anyone, and he has.
DT: For readers who don’t know Clark Terry—he’s not a household name the way Duke Ellington is—why is he so important in the history of jazz?
AH: He’s at the root of the tree. He’s right at the beginning. I’m not a historian, so you’re better off having an historian answer that, but from what I know about Clark’s life, it’s his influence on these major people in music, like Miles Davis, Clifford Brown, Quincy Jones, and playing through the swing era into the bebop era, and moving forward. Musically he’s a huge influence. Christian McBride says in the film that almost every major jazz musician in our time has learned something from Clark Terry, whether it’s just listening to his records or learning from him personally. But one of my theories about the reason he’s not a household name like Dizzy Gillespie or Miles Davis is that he didn’t pursue that. He was always focused on mastering his craft and also giving it back to the kids. From the beginning he was like that, so he just didn’t have time to be self-promoting. He was busy promoting the artform. And I think in the film something that comes across is how selfless he is. He’s always thinking about other people. Even when he’s having those life-or-death moments, he’s thinking about the people he wants to help.
DT: Last question: Are you going to continue playing drums, and are you going to keep making films?
AH: I’ll definitely continue playing drums. Clark’s been on my case about it, saying that once you get finished with this, you’ve got some work to do. But I’ve really enjoyed this process. It was a total discovery that we were able to make a movie. I didn’t know. With me and Adam it’s just two blokes from Australia who love surfing and playing music, so it’s a total discovery for me. But I’d really love to get into the narrative world of directing. It really intrigues me. I know in jazz you can study with the masters, and I was fortunate to study with Clark.
DT: I’m sure not everyone can study with the masters.
AH: Maybe, but I’d love to study with a master director. I’d love to really get into the process and learn a lot more about it. I have a lot of ideas swimming around at the moment, but we’ll see how we go.
DT: You’re hooked.
AH: I think I am.
Copyright © Director Talk 2014