Pianist Justin Kauflin on how going blind led him to a love of jazz

Kauflin has signed for a two-month residency at Q’s Bar and Lounge, the Palazzo Versace Dubai

Justin Kauflin had a three-month residency at Quincy Jones’s Dubai bar in 2017. Courtesy Q’s Bar and Lounge
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A word of advice: dig deep into your Netflix catalogue and unearth the gem that is Keep On Keepin' On.

The 2014 documentary is a deeply moving and celebratory account of the final years of legendary trumpeter Clark Terry and his relationship with gifted pianist Justin Kauflin.

The lauded film sensitively examines the relationship between the pair over a period of five years.

Director Alan Hicks showcases their shared enthusiasm for their craft and the strangely parallel nature of their personal lives. Terry, who passed away five months after the film was released, at the age of 94, had deteriorating eyesight due to complications from diabetes.

Kauflin, who was in his mid-twenties during the filming, was coming to terms with losing his eyesight at the age of 11 to a hereditary disease of the retina.

Through belief in each other, the duo escaped their respective straitjackets. By mentoring Kauflin, Terry found the energy to tackle his ailing health. Through the wisdom and encouragement of a master, Kauflin conquered his fears of self-expression.

Rounding it off is the addition of the trailblazing music producer Quincy Jones. The former student of Terry not only produced the film but also took Kauflin under his wing by signing him to a management deal that spawned two albums and numerous world tours.

It all comes together in Kauflin's debut in the UAE. Signed for a two-month residency at Q's Bar and Lounge, the Palazzo Versace Dubai, Kauflin's swing-heavy set with his trio includes material by Terry and Jones at a venue where the programme is curated by the latter.

 "It's all kind of neat," Kauflin says. "I have been blessed to be taught by these two legends and not in just how to be a better musician, but also how to become a better human being. By playing at my best and trying to be a good person I feel that I am paying them respect."

It is not a term of endearment. Respect and paying tribute to the generation before you is an integral part of the jazz tradition, Kauflin says.

More so than most major genres, jazz music is never created in a vacuum.

"That's where the foundation is," he says. "To spend time with Clark Terry and Mulgrew Miller [the late esteemed jazz pianist who passed away in 2013] and learn from them personally adds a whole other aspect to it. You not only learn about the music but the people they also are. It provides context and more heart to what I have to offer. This is as opposed to me going to school and practicing and then saying, 'I can play all these licks'."

Yet it was the prodigious skills in music school that landed Kauflin a scholarship to William Paterson University in New Jersey, where he was subsequently introduced to Terry and, in turn, Jones.

It was a path formed by adversity. Kauflin first began playing the violin at the age of four before performing professionally two years later. It was at the age of three when he started showing serious problems with his eyes. After 11 surgeries, eight years later, he lost his sight completely. The new reality forced Kauflin to be more practical when it came to creative passions.

"When something like that happens, your priorities change. I couldn't do things like go outside and play basketball," he recalls.

"In response to that I just kinda found myself at the piano and that was down to my love for music, which at first was classical."

However, that also came with its own set of limitations, chiefly the learning of music theory which was hampered by Kauflin's disability. It was through his discovery of jazz as a 14-year-old that Kauflin felt able to keep up.

"A lot of this was also about myself dealing with my identity as a blind individual.

"I was worried about, how am I going to make this music thing work. And really, classical music wasn't going to work out and I didn't see myself being that for the rest of my life," he says. Then jazz came along and that opened up all sorts of new possibilities. Because [of] jazz being an oral tradition, all of a sudden I was on equal playing ground with my peers. I was thinking, I can do this. The more I learned, the more freedom I gained."

Kauflin cools any notion that his blindness is the bane of his existence.

"For sure, I look at losing my sight as sort of a difficult thing to deal with. But it was also very advantageous in that it brought the more important things into focus," he explains. "So essentially for me, that brought music to the forefront and also my faith. And those things very much coincide. They all influence each other."

This is best illustrated in his two albums, the 2010 debut, Introducing Justin Kauflin, and 2015's Quincy Jones-produced Dedication. The latter is a beautifully fluid body of work with cuts like Elusive displaying powerful yet effortless virtuosity, while the soulful ballad For Clark aches with love and gratitude for his departed teacher.

With a packed Q's Bar and Lounge programme in which he will perform three sets a night, five nights a week, Kauflin welcomes the regimented lifestyle that comes with a long residency.

"You can't find these opportunities anymore," he says.

"In New York you can find probably a week-long stint at most but over here you have a lot of time to stretch out. It is kind of like boot camp, but a five-star one."

Unlike other long running gigs, jazz residencies offer discerning music fans the opportunity to see a band or musician develop on stage.

"This is why people come back a few times," Kauflin says. "At the beginning of a residency, there is a lot of energy on stage because it's a new band in a new place. But after a while the music grows.

"The energy is still there because of the calibre of the players but it also becomes more fluid because we know each other more. You can actually see the music evolve over time and that is exciting to see."

Justin Kauflin performs at Q's Bar and Lounge at Palazzo Versace Dubai, Tuesdays to Saturdays, until October 28. Doors are open from 7pm. For reservations, call 04 556 8888 or email qs@palazzoversace.ae


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