(GET JAZZED! It’s National Jazz Appreciation Month!)
Legendary jazz trumpeter, Clark Terry, 90-plus years old, lies in a hospital bed and appears near death. At his side, Clark’s student, apprentice, admirer and friend, Justin Kauflin, in his early twenties, sits ready with his keyboard. Justin’s seeing eye dog, Candy, also keeps company with the two.
Clark Terry and Justin Kauflin share a powerful bond — a common love for music and a common challenge with losing their eyesight. Justin has been blind since he was eleven years old. Clark Terry is losing his sight and legs to advanced diabetes.
The love and respect between the two men is palpable. As bedridden Clark softly scat sings (scat singing is vocal improvisation with nonsense syllables) “Ahdobadoodle…liddle de doodle ee doodle da doo…..,” Justin immediately translates it into a keyboard melody.
This is the opening scene of producers Alan Hicks’ and Quincy Jones’ “Keep On Keepin’ On” (Netflix). This 90-minute documentary is a brief biopic of the phenom jazz trumpeter, Clark Terry, and his mentorship to his special friend, Justin, as well as his impact to countless artists over the decades of jazz history. (Well worth the watch.) Although there are seventy years between them, the bright lights of Terry’s mentoring shines through in every moment.
In the world of jazz, mentoring has largely come by way of an apprenticeship arrangement. The students listened to, hung out with and jammed with the idols they admired. Clark Terry played in Duke Ellington and Count Basie’s bands. He’d had friendships with Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday and regaled his students with stories of those legends. Clark mentored jazz greats, including Miles Davis, Quincy Jones and Wynton Marsalis. What jazz student wouldn’t want to spend significant time with a man like that?
Jazz guitarist, Bobby Broom, shares, “The practice of mentoring and apprenticeship between jazz veteran practitioners and fledgling jazz musicians remains a cornerstone of the art form. And though, to some degree apprenticeship and mentoring are being replaced by the institutions of jazz education, it nonetheless remains the most authentic way that jazz performance information is passed along from one generation to the next.“
As a society and in the workplace we have moved away from the apprenticeship model and the close collaboration it brought. Still, Clark’s mentoring tips to his mentee, Justin, carry the message all mentors need communicate generously.
Here are Clark Terry’s Six Great Mentoring Tips to Justin through letters, tapes and in person:
- “Challenges are a part of life.”
- Justin was extremely nervous about entering the Thelonius Monk Institute International Jazz Competition, the world’s most prestigious jazz competition.
- “Your mind is a powerful asset. Use it for positive thoughts.”
- Justin had said, “My biggest enemy has always been my mind. It’s such a barrier.”
- Whatever you do musically, do it well. Whatever else you do in life will follow suit.”
- Clark pressed the importance of hard work and excellence in all aspects of life.
- “I believe in your talent and I believe in you.”
- Clark generously offered personal encouragement and belief in Justin’s abilities at every turn.
- “It’s gonna be alright, it was just one little episode. You learned some things.”
- He gave Justin perspective and built him up after Justin didn’t make the Monk competition finals
- “God bless you, keep well, and keep on keepin’ on.”
- Clark always encouraged Justin to look and move forward
Aren’t these powerful words? They make me ask myself, “Do I use these mentoring encouragements often enough with my mentees?”
How about you?
You might be wondering, “What was the outcome of this apprenticeship type mentoring from Clark Terry to Justin?” As mentioned, much to Justin’s chagrin, he didn’t end up in the top three in the Thelonius Monk Institute Competition. But down the line, after Clark had introduced Justin to his friend and colleague, Quincy Jones, and showcased his talent to him, within a few years, Quincy took Justin with him and featured his talent on his world tour and signed him on his record label!
If the measure of a man is the testimony of others, then Clark Terry stands tall.
- Quincy jones: “He was my idol. Clark is the man.”
- Miles Davis: “Clark was my first idol. It’s in me, like osmosis.”
- Dizzy Gillespie: “He is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, ever.”
- Herbie Hancock: “It’s almost like being pulled by a magnet. You feel this desire to excel from [Clark.]
- Wynton Marsalis: “Clark invited me to sit in [with his band.] I played something kind of sad and Clark said, ‘You’ve got to work on that!” But he said it with some love!” The 9-time Grammy Award winner laughs as he remembers.
- Dianne Reeves, 4-time Grammy-winning vocalist: “[Clark] has something inside of him that helps him reach inside and make you do what you need to do. You wanted to live up to what this man knows you have. He just pulled it out of you and you just wanted to do right by him.”
At age 89, when Clark Terry was presented with the 2010 Grammy Awards’ prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award, his response was, “I’m going to keep doing it till I get it right.”
What a legacy. He got it right. He had a FOREVER spirit of learning and teaching.
Clark Terry passed on in 2015 at the age of 94. He left one man, among many, who will never be the same.
NOTE: Ever since I watched Ken Burn’s “Jazz” miniseries, (three times) I fell in love with the art form. I adorned my music library with a dozen jazz CDs from Louis Armstrong to Coleman Hawkins to Miles Davis, set my radio dial to our local jazz station, KUVO, and even tried my hand at a little jazz piano…move over, Herbie Hancock!
Herbie’s job is safe, no worries. I’m happy, though, to celebrate what jazz aficionados and amateurs alike are celebrating all across the country this month, as April is Jazz Appreciation month.
Why do I take the time to recognize it?
Because I love mentoring and music and I believe both
elevate the human soul.