Songwriter Curtis Mayfield implores us in “Keep On Keeping On”:
We who are young, should now take a stand
Don’t run from the burdens of women and men
Continue to give, continue to live
For what you know is right ...
We just keep on keeping on
Jazz musician Clark Terry has lived by this credo for 93 years. One of 10 children, born into poverty in St. Louis in 1920, a very young “CT” fashioned a trumpet from a length of hose, a funnel and a pipe for the mouthpiece, later saying “… the neighbors got sick of me blowing that horrendous noise on that gadget, so they chipped in and collected the $12.50 and bought me a trumpet from a pawn shop.” Shortly thereafter he sought guidance from a professional musician, but was instead the victim of a mean-spirited joke and CT vowed to never turn away anyone who might seek his help, beginning a lifelong quest to aid others.
In a career that spanned seven decades playing the trumpet and flugelhorn, CT combined a unique sound, flawless technique and impeccable taste with artistry and humor while playing with exuberance, becoming the most highly recorded trumpeter in history. He recorded and performed as a leader and sidemen with the who’s who of jazz. As a member of the “Tonight Show Band” he became the first African-American staff musician at NBC and went on to receive over 250 awards and citations including a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and NEA Jazz Master award.
His artistic achievements notwithstanding, CT has made an even bigger impact as a teacher, mentor and advocate for music education. The recipient of 16 honorary doctorates, he has been “paying it forward” for decades by engaging youth of all ages in the world of jazz. Always willing to share his wealth of jazz knowledge and encourage students, he has taught legions of young musicians, while mentoring and inspiring them. Quincy Jones, known as “Q,” sought out CT when Q was only 12, and as things have a way of turning out, years later CT left the Duke Ellington Orchestra and played in Q’s band.
If the story ended here, it would be poetic justice — mentor helps student, student becomes successful and hires mentor. But this is just the beginning of the story.
Enter Justin Kauflin (Vail Jazz Workshop alumnus, 2003), an extremely talented blind pianist who was mentored by CT during his college years. Upon graduation, Justin embarked upon a career as a jazz pianist, but he began to develop a career threatening stage fright and he once again turned to CT for help and guidance. Unfortunately, by this time CT’s health was in a steep decline (diabetes claimed his legs and sight), but even under these circumstances something very special happened. As Kauflin spent more and more time with CT, he once again was the beneficiary of CT’s counsel and inspiration and he overcame his stage fright, but ironically this time it was Kauflin that got to pay it forward, as he was able to give his teacher a purpose and meaning in his life and they both keep on keepin’ on.
However, the story doesn’t end here. Fortuitously, Q and Kauflin meet when they both visit CT. Q is captivated by Kauflin’s pianistic talent and decides he wants to help Kauflin, just like CT helped him. Q is a force in the world of music, both jazz and pop, as a record producer (he produced Michael Jackson’s mega-hit albums), record company owner and international concert promoter; he pays it forward and propels Kauflin onto the world stage and Kauflin’s career is now skyrocketing. Keep on keepin’ on!
On Aug. 29, as part of the 20th annual Vail Jazz Festival, we will present a screening of the documentary film “Keep On Keepin’ On” about the remarkable life of Clark Terry and his mentoring of Justin Kauflin and Quincy Jones. That evening, the great trumpeter Byron Stripling will pay tribute to Terry in a multimedia tribute that combines vintage video, narrative and the music of CT. Kauflin will also appear and perform on Aug. 28, 29 and 30.
Howard Stone is the founder and artistic director of The Vail Jazz Foundation, which produces the annual Vail Jazz Festival. Celebrating its 20th year, the Vail Jazz Festival is a summer-long celebration of jazz music, culminating with the Labor Day weekend Vail Jazz Party. Visit vailjazz.org for more information.