Keep On Keepin’ On: Australian filmmaker on a friendship with a legend

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Musical mentor: Clark Terry and Justin Kauflin in Keep On Keepin’ On. Musical mentor: Clark Terry and Justin Kauflin in Keep On Keepin’ On.

Piano prodigy Justin Kauflin, producer Quincy Jones, director Alan Hicks and cinematographer Adam Hart, the crew of Oscar-nominated documentary Keep on Keepin’ On. Photo: Rory Anderson

Musical mentor: Clark Terry and Justin Kauflin in Keep On Keepin’ On.

Musical mentor: Clark Terry and Justin Kauflin in Keep On Keepin’ On.

A meeting 12 years ago in New York’s Blue Note Jazz Club changed everything for Alan Hicks. At the time, he says, he was a drummer and a surfer from Wollongong who had moved to the United States to study jazz; now his first movie, Keep On Keepin’ On, has been selected for this year’s Oscar documentary shortlist.

Yet back then, Hicks says, an encounter with Clark Terry was marvellous in itself. “If I had just met him for that one night, I would have remembered it forever.” Terry, now in his nineties, is a jazz trumpeter who is counted among the greats, and a teacher with a far-reaching influence. His first pupil was Quincy Jones; Miles Davis regarded him as an inspiration. He’s a  joyous, playful presence, increasingly frail but no less vital and energetic.

After that first meeting, Terry invited Hicks to dinner. “And a bit later he said, ‘Bring your sticks along.”‘ Hicks, who had been about to leave the US, stayed on, studying with Terry and playing in one of his bands, until he returned to Australia in 2008. “It was time to move back and spend some time at home and start playing on the Sydney scene.” To his surprise, he was contacted by Australian Story; there was interest in doing a TV program about his relationship with Terry.  “I thought it would be great for Aussies to be aware of Clark,” he says, but the project fell through.

A short time afterwards,  he was out surfing with his friend Adam Hart, telling him about this missed opportunity. “And Ad said, ‘Mate, bugger it, we’ll just do it ourselves, we’ll save some money, and work out to make a film. Let’s go.” Hart is a camera operator; later, they brought another cinematographer, Rory Anderson, on board. Clark and his wife, Gwen – “she’s the mother of the jazz community, she’ll help you any way she  can” – were happy to agree to the filming.  “Clark’s just very supportive of his students, no matter what they do.”

“We’d work three months, save some money, shoot for three months, go broke, work some more.” During that time, Justin Kauflin was there, studying and visiting Terry, and gradually it became clear to the filmmakers that the friendship between these two would be the centre of their film. Kauflin is a talented pianist in his twenties who has been blind since the age of 11; Terry is a mentor and friend, who’s not only passing on some of his favourite songs, but also building up Kauflin’s confidence and bolstering him when he feels anxious.

Another music legend, Quincy Jones, “literally walked into the movie”, according to Hicks. Jones decided to drop in to see his old friend and he had intended to bring rapper Snoop Dogg with him, to record him with Terry singing a trademark song, Mumbles. But the rapper twisted his ankle playing basketball with his son, and didn’t make the trip, so Jones spent the day there alone, hanging out with Terry. getting to know the filmmakers, and hearing Kauflin play. “At the end of the day he came up to me and Ad and said, I appreciate what you guys are doing for Clark,” Hicks remembers. “He signed the release form and said ‘Let me know if there’s anything else I can do.'”

Jones later came on board as executive producer, helping with all kinds of things, from obtaining permission for the scores of music cues in the film to assisting with the storytelling. There has been a lot of goodwill with the film, Hicks says. “Lots of people helped clear archival clips, because they love Clark so much. And he’s got students all over the world. I’d send messages to ask for help looking for photos, and I’d get a flood of them back.”

When I spoke to Hicks, he was about to go to Arkansas the next day, to visit Terry for his 94th birthday. He’s still elated about the Oscar shortlisting, still keen to spread the word about the film, which is showing in cinemas in the US. Kauflin has been playing after some of the screenings, but his career has taken off recently; and he’s a harder man to pin down than he once was, Hicks is happy to say. Maybe a career change awaits him too, he adds. “I’ve been getting offers for documentary work. But nothing as compelling as Clark has come my way yet.”

Keep On Keepin’ On is at Cinema Nova from December 18.

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