Keep On Keepin’ On: lessons from a jazz legend

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Justin Kauflin

I’m still reeling from the impact of the documentary Keep On Keepin’ On, about how a young jazz musician went blind when he was eleven, moved back in with his parents later when he was older when he didn’t have any money and practised the piano all night with the jazz great Clark Terry (who discovered Quincy Jones and Miles Davis, amongst others), who was even dying but kept believing and helping Justin until the end. It’s impossible to hold back the tears when confronted by so much suffering, and love. It’s a ‘must see’ about an inspirational journey that people make, never mind the joy after the film of seeing the man perform live. He was sharing his talent with a small audience of fans, of which I was one, last week in Amsterdam.

What inspiration can you draw from this true life-story? What links can you make yourself?

1. Passion is the foundation – passion for the music but also the musical brother-love between Justin and Clark, drive both men to keep enjoying themselves, to play, to try new things, to push themselves, to pick themselves up and to carry on after losing a jazz competition and to not hide their vulnerability from each other whether things go well or badly. To just adjust the approach. To speak from the heart before thinking about it.

2. Practise, practise, practise – Justin practises day and night and always finds time to practise between going to school, earning money and dealing with being blind. Even if it means practising at 4 AM in the morning, he still practises.

3. Setbacks are liberating – Justin loses at the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition for young talent in New York (jury including Wynton Marsalis and Herbie Hancock), which increases his fear that he doesn’t have any talent. Clark explains to him that losing will only strengthen his talent and is a part of his personal journey to success. Losing is a part of the learning process. and fear is a signal to take action again, bringing you closer to yourself.

4. Focus and discipline – despite all the setbacks, Justin keeps practising, improving and refining. Clark undergoes the amputation of both his legs and lies in an oxygen tank. A piano is put next to his bed and Justin plays while Clark taps the rhythms for him on the glass. “Hard work and action are the only answers to becoming better in your passion” says Clark, and very emphatically, “Talent without action doesn’t bring success”.

5. Pleasure and positivity – despite the setbacks, both men laugh at the new rhythms that they devise together, grateful for the fact that, whatever happens, ‘there’s always music”. Clark whispers in Justin’s ear how positivity always “opens the door to the new”. That there’s always a way forward, always a chance to succeed. “Positivity forms the person and thoughts”.

6. You choose luck – no-one chooses bad luck, that just happens to you, and you can see that with Justin and Clark. They didn’t choose sickness, blindness, misfortune and lack of money, but their perseverance, purpose and passion creates an environment in which Quincy Jones, sitting on Clark’s bed, hears Justin playing in another room and decides to take him with him on a world tour. “The rest is history”.

Frits Willem Bakker
Managing Partner