RASHOD OLLISON, The Virginian-Pilot
NORFOLK, Va. (AP) — What happened to Justin Kauflin a year ago is a musician’s dream come to life.
Blind since age 11, the Virginia Beach jazz pianist befriended trumpet legend Clark Terry, one of Kauflin’s professors at William Paterson University in New Jersey. The elder musician was reaching the end of his teaching and performing career as diabetes started to take away his sight.
The friendship between Kauflin, an ebullient millennial, and Terry, a bawdy jazz master born a decade before the Great Depression, was beautifully captured in last year’s documentary, “Keep On Keepin’ On.” During filming, Kauflin met Terry’s first student and biggest fan, Quincy Jones. The legendary jazz-pop impresario, who also produced the film, signed the young musician to his management company. Kauflin’s debut, “Dedication,” was released in January.
Two months before the record hit the streets, Kauflin was profiled in The Pilot’s Sunday Magazine. Buzz around him was building. He performed on “The Queen Latifah Show,” and reviews for “Keep On Keepin’ On” were favorable.
In nearly a year since the 29-year-old artist appeared in The Pilot, his world has been something of a whirlwind, with tours across the country and in parts of Europe.
“We’ve been playing a lot of clubs that are quite renowned,” said Kauflin, calling from his hotel room in New York City. “I got to play at the Jazz Standard in New York City, which is one of my favorite clubs where I enjoy just being an audience member. Keeping busy on the road is a new change for me.”
The reception so far has been more enthusiastic in Europe, Kauflin said.
“Without the movie, many of the audiences had no clue who I was. But in Amsterdam, they made us feel like rock stars, all the hootin’ and hollerin’.”
Traveling as a Kauflin trio plus a guitarist, the musician performs a mix of jazz standards and self-penned tunes from the album.
“We’re able to discover new things in the music,” Kauflin said. “The way I map out each song is definitely structured, but that’s not to say that when we’re performing new things don’t open up. The way jazz works is that it’s improvisational but at the same time it must have structure. It’s not just freedom and no boundaries, and that’s how I like to have it. That’s where the magic can really happen.”
Kauflin was at home in Virginia Beach on Feb. 21, the day Clark died at age 94.
“His health had been declining very fast,” Kauflin said. “I called him the day of and told him I was thinking about him and that I loved him very much. Then he passed that night. He had family and a few students there in the hospital. I think he was at peace and that’s something to be grateful for.”
Kauflin performed at Clark’s funeral in Harlem, which was also attended by jazz veteran Wynton Marsalis, who closed the program with a “New Orleans-type thing that was really warm and beautiful,” Kauflin said.
As he tours behind “Dedication,” mostly playing dates in Europe, Kauflin works to extend the idea of family that Clark embodied in class and on stage.
“I want to carry the spirit of community he had. It’s important to cultivate that,” Kauflin said. “Clark did that very deliberately. He genuinely cared, and there was such a great sense of camaraderie with that generation of musicians. With the way society is these days, with everything being so digital, that spirit of community has gone by the wayside. Just quality time with people, no agenda — that’s something that I very much hope I can bring into my life.”
Information from: The Virginian-Pilot, http://pilotonline.com
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