Seeing a living legend laid up in an oxygen tent shouldn't be fun. But in Alan Hicks's doc Keep On Keepin' On, it somehow is. Now in his nineties, diabetic and facing the possible amputation of a leg, the great jazz trumpeter Clark Terry lies there jamming. He doesn't have his horn, but that's never been a problem; when he was a kid, he improvised one from a funnel, a hose, a lead pipe he'd blow into. In the hospital, Terry parumphs and doodle-oos bursts of cheery, conversational scat, tossing out melodies to Justin Kauflin, a skinny young musician finding his voice under Clark's tutelage. Kauflin answers Clark's improvisations on a keyboard. It's part Live at Birdland, part Boy in the Plastic Bubble, all warmly thrilling.
Terry has long been celebrated as the master soloist with the merriest tone in the Ellington orchestra or in Doc Severinsen's Tonight Show band. His bop always smiled; his ballads were melting honey. Less well known outside jazz circles is just how much of himself Terry has given to generations of musicians like Kauflin, promising up-and-comers still finding themselves on their instruments. As Terry tells it, students like a young Quincy Jones were almost always tall-tale scrawny: Of protégé Miles Davis Terry says, "He was so thin that if he had turned sideways, they would have marked him absent."
Hicks's film shows us Terry, in better health, rehearsing with college musicians in 2007. He would work them for four hours at a time, blowing sugar himself on his horn, pausing sometimes to dish advice and anecdotes I hope those kids wrote down.
Jones, Christian McBride, Herbie Hancock and others pop up with testimonials to Terry's talent and generosity. The movie's packed with wonderful talk: "Simplicity is the most complex form," Terry says, passing on a gnomic truth he got from Ellington. Early on, he's asked a question no other human has ever been asked: "Was it Duke or Count Basie who gave you these shoes?"
The film's title comes from Terry: "Keep on keepin' on," he says to Kauflin after the rookie suffers a setback. He's always saying things like that to everyone, including himself as his health worsens: "Stay strong." "Keep battling."
Terry plays the English language with superb style. He reads aloud from his autobiography, recounting a violent confrontation with white folks way back when. His wife marvels that, hearing it, she feels as if she had been there herself. Then, knowing something about memory and time, she asks, "You feel like you was there?"
"I was there," Terry says.
Whether he means that he feels the moment itself or his summation of the moment is immaterial. What matters is that he puts you there, just as Hicks's film puts you in his life, in his home, in his hospital rooms, and even — briefly, as he talks Kauflin through gorgeous flutters of notes, or leaves a heartening voice-mail message before the kid's performance in the Thelonious Monk Jazz Competition — in his tutelage. Kauflin often drops by to talk or make music; at some point in each visit, Terry invariably asks what time it is. The answer, again and again, is well after midnight. They've carried on into the small hours, just like in the old days. Keep On Keepin' On affords us the wonderful privilege of sitting in with them.