VAIL — In 2003, Justin Kauflin was one of 12 students selected from a large group of high schoolers from across the country — all musical prodigies — to partake in the Vail Jazz Workshop. The teenage pianist had already performed with orchestras and spent his youth playing at weddings and in nursing homes, but at age 11, he encountered an obstacle few other musicians have had to overcome — losing his eyesight to a rare disease.
In 2008, he met and began studying under iconic jazz trumpeter Clark Terry. The two musicians each faced their own profound physical challenges but magically steered through their struggles into a fresh energy through which a new sound emerged as well as a mutually endearing relationship.
That relationship is documented in the heart-tugging film, “Keep On, Keepin’ On,” which makes its Vail debut during the 20th annual Vail Labor Day Weekend Jazz Party at 2 p.m. on Friday.
The highly acclaimed documentary has won awards at the Tribeca Film Festival, the Newport Film Festival, the Maui Film Festival and the Boulder Film Festival.
Kauflin himself will be on hand for a discussion with the audience following the screening. The 25 year old is now part of Vail Jazz’s elite Alumni Quintet (along with fellow workshop graduates-turned-pros Katie Thiroux, Bryan Carter, Grace Kelly and Alphonso Horne) that will perform in a unique free jam session at Shakedown Bar at 9 p.m. tonight.
The Quintet then plays Jazz @ Vail Square at 6 p.m. Thursday with the current Vail Jazz All-Stars and their mentors, the Vail Jazz Party House Band (John and Jeff Clayton, Bill Cunlifee, Terell Stafford, Lewis Nash and Wycliffe Gordon) and throughout the Vail Jazz Party.
For schedule, tickets and more information, visit www.vailjazz.org.
Vail Jazz Festival organizers caught up with Kauflin to ask a few questions before he rolls into town.
Vail Jazz Festival: What is it like to return to Vail in this capacity, starring in your own documentary and now a premier performer in the Jazz Party?
Justin Kauflin: I’m thrilled to be returning to Vail. I have such fond memories of my time there as a student, and its so wonderful to be a part of a documentary that illustrates exactly the type of relationships that are nurtured at the Vail Jazz Workshop.
VJF: What did the Vail Jazz Workshop do for you and your career?
JK: Firstly, the Jazz Workshop allowed me to learn from some of the greatest jazz musicians around. Secondly, it gave me the chance to learn alongside peers that challenged and inspired me to strive to always improve. Additionally, I’ve been able to keep in contact with faculty and students after the workshop and am so fortunate to be a part of such an elite network of musicians.
VJF: What sort of reaction do you hope viewers have to “Keep On Keepin’ On”? Ideally, what would you like them to take from it?
JK: The thing I hope for most is that people are inspired by Clark’s story. This is a man who has dedicated himself to sharing his knowledge and experience with countless students no matter the circumstance. I know that in my own relationship with Clark, I am constantly inspired by his selflessness and passion for music and the joy it brings. If people can walk away with just a little bit of that, I’d be happy.
VJF: Do you feel as if your loss of vision has made you a better pianist? Why or why not?
JK: When I lost my vision at age 11, it allowed me to realize what was truly important in my life. Music, alongside faith, quickly took center stage for me. Because I gained a greater focus at a young age, I spent more time practicing and falling in love with music. If I hadn’t lost my sight, I don’t know if I would have discovered music in such a profound way.
VJF: Where would you like your talent to take you from here? In 5 years? 10 years? 20 year?
JK: I feel my ambitions are pretty simple with regards to my career. If I’m able to create music and share it with an appreciative audience, no matter the size, I’d be pretty content. As a performer, my main goal is to make a connection with people. I’d love to continue doing that in any capacity.