Losing his sight at age 11, Justin Kauflin’s ascent to world-renowned pianist built on blind faith
Kauflin, who attended the Vail Jazz Workshop in 2003, has traveled the world educating other countries about jazz
Special to the Daily
Talk about the gift of sight and listeners immediately understand. Talk about the “gift of blindness” and prepare for confusion. When Justin Kauflin chatted with Vail Jazz Board member JoAnn Hickey about his ascent to that of world-renowned jazz pianist, he credits his visual impairment as an unconventional blessing.
“I’m grateful for it in a weird way,” he said. “It was a catalyst. Otherwise, I don’t think I would have realized music to be so important at such a young age.”
The 34-year-old Kauflin started Suzuki violin and piano lessons at age 4. His early training was classical. At the same time, he was dealing with a genetic disorder, exudative retinopathy, that required 13 childhood surgeries before rendering him completely blind at age 11. The loss of sight drove him to practice more fervently, and also to cultivate his innate curiosity about music improvisation and composition.
As a high school student at the Governor’s School for Performing Arts in Virginia, a new world opened up for Kauflin: He discovered jazz. The art form was perfectly suited for his penchant for exploration, compelling him to concentrate his studies on jazz piano. By age 15 he was performing professionally, primarily as a member of the Jae Sinnett Trio in Virginia.
In 2003, Kauflin attended the Vail Jazz Workshop.
“When Justin was at the Vail Jazz Workshop it was clear that he was different from his peers, but not because he was blind,” said Vail Jazz founder Howard Stone. “Justin seemed to have an inner peace that you don’t generally observe in a teenager, or for that matter most adults. His calmness and serenity could be heard when he played.”
Indeed, Kauflin acknowledges that his spirituality and faith are closely intertwined with his music.
The Vail Jazz Workshop accepts the dozen most promising high school musicians and pairs them with six jazz professionals for 10 days of intense instruction. The pros also impart what to expect from a career in music and reflect on their own experiences. Because of the COVID-19 virus, the 2020 Vail Jazz Workshop took place over the internet.
Kauflin was relieved when workshop leader, bassist John Clayton, told students to “burn your sheet music.” They would learn their pieces with their ears and not their eyes. That put Kauflin, with his blindness, at an advantage.
The Vail Jazz Workshop experience opened doors for Kauflin that serve him to this day.
“I’ve stayed in touch with a lot of the faculty through the years,” he said. “I run into them in various capacities. It’s remarkable. Now I get the chance to play with John Clayton in different places. In fact, we were both faculty at another jazz workshop.”
It was a college experience, however, that proved transformational. As a student at William Paterson University in New Jersey, a fellow student invited him to the home of one of the instructors, trumpeter Clark Terry. Terry, recipient of the 2010 Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, had enjoyed a stellar career performing with the likes of the Count Basie and Duke Ellington. Then in the 1980s, Terry began to lose his eyesight due to diabetes. Bonding over blindness as well as their shared passion for jazz, the two struck up an abiding relationship, captured in the award-winning 2014 documentary “Keep on Keeping On.” The film’s score was composed by Kauflin. (Visit his website, http://www.justinkauflin.com, to view the trailer.)
As if tutelage by Terry was not enough, Kauflin caught the attention of another jazz great — composer, trumpeter and producer Quincy Jones. Of the five albums that Kauflin has released, Jones produced two and also serves as the Kauflin’s management agency. No one can argue with Kauflin’s considerable talent. In 2012, he won the VSA International Young Soloist Award for musicians with disabilities, was named Jazz Artist of the Year by Veer Magazine and placed as a semifinalist in the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Piano Competition.
Prior to COVID-19, Kauflin traveled extensively as a performer and educator. He was appointed a U.S. State Department Envoy, bringing jazz education to countries around the world. He has recorded 86 original compositions, appeared on 25 albums in addition to his own and worked on the scores of documentaries and promos, film composition being something he is eager to explore.
Today, Kauflin lives in Los Angeles. He has produced a generous range of online content for his audiences, including curated playlists, snippets of past performances, and thrice-weekly streaming of live performances with themes such as “Hymns and Things,” “JK’s Wednesday Hang” and “Music for Advent and Christmas.”
“The thing that will always play a central role in the music that I create is my spirituality,” Kauflin said when asked what distinguishes him as a musician. “It’s music and spirituality for me, hand in hand. That’s the cornerstone of my music.”
For more information about Vail Jazz — perpetuating the genre with a focus on the next generation — and the Vail Jazz Workshop, visit http://www.vailjazz.org.