Vail Jazz: How one musician paid it forward for decades
Special to the Daily
Jazz musician Clark Terry lived his life by the credo of “keep on keepin’ on,” in short, “don’t give up.”
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 Terry vowed to never turn away anyone who might seek his help, beginning a lifelong quest to aid others.
In a seven decade-long career playing the trumpet and flugelhorn, he 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 sideman with the who’s who of jazz. As a member of the Tonight Show Band, he became the first black 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, Terry made an even bigger impact as a teacher, mentor and advocate for music education. The recipient of 16 honorary doctorates, he “paid it forward” for decades. He was always willing to share his wealth of jazz knowledge and encourage students. He taught legions of young musicians, mentoring and inspiring them. Quincy Jones sought out Terry when he was only 12, and as things have a way of turning out, years later Terry left the Duke Ellington Orchestra and played in Jones’ 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.
Coming full circle
Enter Justin Kauflin (Vail Jazz Workshop alumnus, 2003), an extremely talented blind pianist who was mentored by Terry during his college years. After graduating, Kauflin embarked upon a career as a jazz pianist, but he began to develop career-threatening stage fright and he once again turned to Terry for help and guidance. Unfortunately, by this time Terry’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 Terry, he once again was the beneficiary of Terry’s counsel and inspiration and he overcame his stage fright. 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 gained strength from their relationship and vowed to “keep on keepin’ on.”
However, the story still doesn’t end here. Fortuitously, Jones and Kauflin met when they both were visiting Terry. Jones was captivated by Kauflin’s pianistic talent and decided he wanted to help Kauflin just like Terry had helped him. Jones, a force in the world of music, both jazz and pop, is a record producer (he produced Michael Jackson’s mega-hit albums), record company owner and international concert promoter. He paid it forward and propelled Kauflin on to the world stage and Kauflin’s career is now skyrocketing. This remarkable story has now been told in an award winning documenty titled, “Keep On Keepin’ On.”
Howard Stone is the founder and artistic director of Vail Jazz, the presenter of the annual Vail Jazz Festival each summer and an annual Winter Jazz Series, both of which feature internationally renowned artists. In addition, Vail Jazz presents educational programs throughout the year with a special focus on young musicians and young audiences. Many of Vail Jazz’ performances and educational programs are presented free of charge. This column is readapted from the original archived edition, republished to commemorate Vail Jazz’ 25th anniversary season in 2019. For information about upcoming performances, visit http://www.vailjazz.org.