by / October 18th, 2016 /

Interview: Justin Kauflin..”there’s this sort of neat lineage going on”

A couple of years ago you may have caught a documentary about the late great trumpeter, Clark Terry entitled Keep On Keepin’ On.  The film was shot over the course of Terry’s final years as he mentored a gifted young pianist named Justin Kauflin. Kauflin had studied classical music as a child but switched to jazz piano when he lost his sight at the age of eleven to a disease of the retina known as proliferative exudative retinopathy. Speaking with Justin in the run up to his performance at the Guinness Cork Jazz Festival this month he recounts the enormous effect this had on his life and his music.

“When I lost my sight completely music became much more central in my life.  [Before that] I had all these other things that I was doing, playing sports and doing things that a normal kid would do, but a lot of those things went away so I was able to focus [on music] a lot more. So losing my sight helped me realise how important music was, and that’s how I developed my love for music and for performing. I was spending so much more time practicing that I was able to see the results when I was eleven, so it was a catalyst really.”

Kauflin’s academic performance throughout high-school earned him a scholarship to William Paterson University in New Jersey where he had the good fortune to be introduced to the legendary Clark Terry, a trumpet and flugel-horn player who in his time performed with some of the greatest names in jazz, including Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Oscar Peterson, and was a mentor to countless others, from Miles Davis to Wynton Marsalis.

“A buddy of mine, who was a drummer in the programme, Al Hicks, was the one that introduced me to Clark,” Kaulin recalls. “Al had already known Clark for a bit and wanted to bring me over to the house because Clark was having issues with losing his sight because of diabetes, and that’s how my relationship started with Clark. We spent time at Clark’s house once or twice a week, listening to records and just hanging. Then Clark decided to form his own class at the college where he could come in and work with a group of students.  So it started informally and became this small ensemble that Clark was able to work with.”

It was during this time that Alan Hicks began to document this shared period of the two musicians lives. “They just figured that nobody had captured Clark,” Justin explains. “So they wanted to film him and get all of his stories. One of the things that they really noticed was that he was just so passionate about mentoring and helping young musicians. I was just around, hanging around Clark’s and visiting him quite regularly down in Arkansas, so Al decided to throw me into the mix as well, to show Clark in his element, which is being a mentor. Once that happened I think the story was able to take shape.”

It was also during this period that Kauflin’s path crossed with yet another legendary jazz figure, Quincy Jones. “Each step was very unexpected,” Kauflin recollects. “The fact that the movie got finished was a surprise, Quincy getting involved was a big surprise.  He had a very strong relationship with Clark. What you see in the movie is basically what happened. Clark wanted me to play for Quincy so I went into the living room where there was a keyboard that I played on. Thankfully Quincy heard something that led him to helping me and adding me to the roster of musicians that he was working with. From my perspective I think it was largely that heard potential but also that in his way he could continue Clark’s legacy by taking me on, and, you know, there’s this sort of neat lineage going on, and maybe just as a thank you to Clark,” he laughs modestly.

This ‘neat lineage’ is something that Kauflin sees almost as a right of passage for jazz musicians, with younger players finding inspiration and guidance in the older generation. Justin fondly remembers experiencing this shared heritage with another pianist performing at the Cork Jazz Festival, Robert Glasper. “I was a huge fan, I used go see his trio any chance I got.  While I was at school I studied with him for a bit and got to spend time with him, which was really fantastic for me.  One of the first times I met him he was performing at a conference and I had to go home because I was in high-school.  He was asking me and my buddy, ‘Oh are you guys hanging around for Mulgrew Miller?’ We were like, ‘We’re going home?’  And he goes, ‘You guys are idiots.  Are you kidding me?’ Because Mulgrew was his hero, and I got to spend time with Mulgrew when he took on the head position at William Paterson. It was really special for me to see the connection. I had really, really looked up to Robert for such a long time and then was able to spend time with the person that he really, really looked up to. It’s neat to be able to see it in real life. We always talk about the lineage and who someone looked up to but it was very cool to be able to meet both people and to spend time with both of them. I’ve always been a big fan of Glasper and I learned a lot from him. His sound has always been very cool for me so that’s awesome that he’s playing at the festival.

Sharing the stage with Justin for his gig at the Cork Jazz Festival is another artist from Quincy Jones’ talent roster, the young British multi-instrumentalist Jacob Collier. “I’m thrilled to be sharing the stage with Jacob because he’s such an incredible talent but also such a wonderful human being. He’s really just a very special, special person and I’ve not been around somebody more inspiring than him. The guy just doesn’t know how to stop.  Music just flows through him.  As long as I can keep myself together for my part to perform and not be so overwhelmed by what he does then it will be great,” laughs Kauflin.

Kauflin’s modesty aside, his performance on the opening night of the Cork Jazz Festival is sure to kick proceedings off on the right foot. His pure, no-frills approach to jazz composition places melody to the fore, employing subtlety rather than virtuosic showmanship to set the groove. With Jacob Collier and his maximalist approach sharing the double bill on the night this is set to be one of the highlights of the festival.

Justin Kauflin plays Dublin’s National Concert Hall on the 26th October and The Everyman Theatre in Cork on the 28th October.

Photograph © Marc Ducrest