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Interview: Quincy Jones on his 'Keep on Keepin' On' mentor Clark Terry, plus his first film

Quincy Jones and filmmaker Alan Hicks discuss the documentary "Keep on Keepin' On," about jazz legend Clark Terry, as well as the first film Jones scored.

Quincy Jones is one of the producers on "Keep on Keepin' On," a documentary about one of his mentors, jazz trumpeter Clark Terry. Credit: Getty Images Quincy Jones is one of the producers on "Keep on Keepin' On," a documentary about one of his mentors, jazz trumpeter Clark Terry.
Credit: Getty Images

Quincy Jones is in town to talk about Clark Terry, the jazz trumpeter who mentored him, Miles Davis and scores of others. But the discussion roams all over. We talk Miles, we talk about his early film scoring work, we talk about an IMAX film he’s producing about Rio’s favelas, which he promises will give an appropriate-sized screen to “big, beautiful, Brazilian booties.” When he returns after nipping off to the restroom, we even talk about that. (“That’s the number one on the hierarchy: peeing. Food, sex, music, anything — you gotta pee, man, nothing matters.”)

But after the man who produced the number one selling record of all time asks this journalist if he’s ever had to go when having sex, we get to the real reason we’re speaking: Clark Terry, a jazz musician’s jazz musician — who, as it happens, is unaccountably underknown among the general population. The mainstream today seemingly has limited mental room to know jazz giants. Most of those — Jones, Herbie Hancock, etc. — testify to Terry’s genius in “Keep on Keepin’ On,” a new documentary that looks at him then and now.

Terry just turned 94, and isn’t doing too hot in the film, where he’s seen mentoring Justin Kaulfin, a young, blind pianist, while undergoing numerous medical procedures. Terry himself is blind in one eye, can half see in the other. “We’re calling him today,” Jones says, sitting next to Alan Hicks, the film’s director. “He’s been through a lot, man.”

In “Keep on Keepin’ On,” Jones, who’s also one of the producers, goes into detail about introducing himself to Clark when he was a young, aspiring musician living in Washington State. “He wasn’t mentoring a lot back then — not like he is now. It’s a passion he realized as he got older,” he tells us. “He was with Charlie Barnet and Basie and Duke. He didn’t have too much free time. He was on the road with those cats.”

Jones used to meet with him before school, because Terry would be sleeping in the afternoon for the night’s show. “This was the only opportunity I had,” Jones says. “If I didn’t say it I might never get it. I had to beg for it.”

You can actually see in the film when Jones became involved with it: A scene halfway through shows him visiting Terry’s home while Hicks was filming him with Kaulfin. Jones not only joined as a producer — and as someone lending his name to a small documentary — but was quickly taken with Kaulfin’s skills. Jones just finished producing the pianist’s first album, due for sale soon.

Pianist Justin Kaulfin and jazz legend Clark Terry play in the doc "Keep on Keepin' On." Credit: RADiUS-TWC Pianist Justin Kaulfin and jazz legend Clark Terry play in the doc "Keep on Keepin' On."
Credit: RADiUS-TWC

Hicks too is a musician. He was a drummer from Australia who years ago had a chance meeting with Terry at a jazz club, where he was sat between he and his wife. “One of my first albums when I was a kid was a Clark Terry album. It was ‘Oscar Peterson & Clark Terry,” Hicks says, referring to the 1975 album Terry recorded with the noted pianist. Hicks trained with him and played in one of his groups, and soon decided Terry deserved a documentary that set the record straight. After issues with getting it going, he decided to do it himself, despite no filmmaking experience.

“I didn’t want to make a film that’s just for jazz musicians,” Hicks says. “I wanted to make something that could go across the boundaries, into the general audience, who would hopefully be inspired by Clark and Justin’s relationship.” He wound up getting storytelling help from producer Paula DuPre Pesmen, who had had luck getting docs like “The Cove” and “Chasing Ice” out into the world.

Jones himself is no stranger to working in film. He’s scored many of them, starting with 1964’s “The Pawnbroker,” a harrowing portrait of a concentration camp survivor (Rod Steiger) who works in Harlem. Quincy met the director, Sidney Lumet, through Lena Horne, who had just done the liner notes for one of his albums.

“Lumet used to be over there flirting with her daughter,” he says, referring to Gail Horne, who Lumet soon married. Lumet hired Jones to score his film, then showed him how it looked without music. “He said, ‘What do you think?’ I said, ‘I don’t think it needs music.’ He said, ‘Bulls—, you’re doing it,” Jones recalls. He got paid $8,000 for the job; for the last couple films he scored he was paid half a million.

One of the highlights of “Keep on Keepin’ On” is a brief interview with Miles Davis from 1991, shortly before his death. Emaciated and wild-haired, he talks about his early days, learning from Terry. At the time it was filmed, Jones had just conducted Davis’ final concert at Montreux — a gig that took 15 years to convince him to do. “He didn’t want to do his old stuff,” Jones remembers. “Miles is funny. He’s the funniest businessman you ever saw in your life. He used to do business like, ‘Hey, man, don’t give me money. Just buy me a Ferrari.’”

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

 

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