Alan Hicks, a native Australian and trained jazz musician, never thought he would be directing a documentary film about the jazz legend Clark Terry, but that’s exactly what he ended up doing in “Keep On Keepin’ On,” the next film in the Hamptons International Film Festival’s SummerDocs series at Guild Hall.
The film follows the mentorship between Mr. Terry — a trumpeter and flugelhornist who taught Quincy Jones and Miles Davis — and Justin Kauflin, a blind jazz pianist in his mid 20s. Mr. Hicks is another one of Mr. Terry’s proteges, which gave him the connections he needed to properly tell the story of Mr. Terry and Mr. Kauflin’s relationship.
The director and Mr. Terry, known as C.T., met at a jazz club in New York City and have been friends for about 13 years. “One of my teachers sat me next to him,” Mr. Hicks said, “and I was just totally starstruck. . . . Clark invited me for dinner, and I ended up studying with him for a while, and eventually ended up joining his band.”
It was during his time playing drums in Mr. Terry’s band that Mr. Hicks met Mr. Kauflin, who had been born with a rare eye disease and was completely blind by the time he was 11. The loss of his eyesight inspired him to begin playing piano, which eventually led to a career as a jazz musician.
Initially, a documentary film channel in Australia was going to produce a short film about Mr. Hicks’s work with Mr. Terry, but the project was dropped because of a lack of financing. He and his friend Adam Hart decided that they could make the movie themselves.
“My love and appreciation for Clark is what drove this film to be made,” Mr. Hicks said. “It’s a thank-you to my teacher for believing in me as a person and as a student.”
There were, however, quite a few problems with funding, and it was challenging for both Mr. Hicks and Mr. Hart to learn how to make a documentary film. Mr. Hicks explained that they had to shoot the film in three-month increments, taking time off in between to raise more money.
“There were a lot of parallels that I discovered along the way between making the film and playing jazz music. Clark’s motivational voice was in the back of my head the whole way.”
Mr. Terry’s role as a mentor and motivator is demonstrated through multiple relationships and interviews. Mr. Terry’s first student, Quincy Jones, a jazz musician and producer, is featured in the movie. Their relationship is one that has spanned several decades, beginning years ago when a nervous Mr. Jones approached Mr. Terry and asked to be his student. Gone now is the student-teacher dynamic, and in its place is a friendship between two men who remember what it was like to play during jazz’s golden age.
Mr. Terry and his current prodigy, Mr. Kauflin, are united through more than just music. While Mr. Kauflin is completely blind, Mr. Terry’s eyesight has also been failing for many years due to diabetes. During the film, he struggles through many treatments and surgeries, while Mr. Kauflin is shown navigating life with his guide dog, Candy. Despite medical limitations, Mr. Terry never strays from his duties as a mentor, constantly putting in late-night hours with Mr. Kauflin before big performances.
The documentary is more about interpersonal relationships and less about jazz itself. This was Mr. Hicks’s intent. “Going into this I didn’t want to make a jazz documentary, because Clark as a person is so interesting and there’s this other side to him besides jazz. The movie is not a history lesson by any means.”
He is also sure that the movie will appeal to those who are uninterested in jazz, and said, “People have been telling me that it’s such a universal theme, that it’s inspired them, that your everyday person can get a lot from the film. The jazz lover will love it but so can anyone else.”
“Keep On Keepin’ On” will play at Guild Hall on Friday, July 25, at 7:30 p.m. Mr. Hicks will be present, and a question-and-answer session will follow the movie. Tickets can be purchased on Guild Hall’s website for $23.