Jazz pianist Justin Kauflin is quick to laugh and down to earth, taking his national success in stride, especially for a 28-year-old musician. Kauflin has a CD of his original music coming out in January, is currently promoting a documentary film about his friendship with noted jazz trumpeter Clark Terry and has toured with the likes of Quincy Jones, who also signed him to his production company.
While Kauflin’s accomplishments are noteworthy, his rise to acclaim hasn’t been without difficulty. The young musician suffered from low vision his entire childhood and became completely blind by age 11 due to a rare eye disease. Despite these circumstances, he showed musical promise as early as 2 years old, playing the piano as soon as he could reach the keys. He also studied the violin.
“I was interested but not dedicated,” Kauflin admitted of his musical education. Still holding his attention were things like basketball, video games and, in general, being a kid.
Once he completely lost his sight, music and the piano became central to his life. He shifted his focus from classical to jazz when he enrolled in the Governor’s School for the Arts in Norfolk, Va., and began performing jazz professionally at age 15 while still in school.
In 2004, Kauflin graduated as valedictorian at the Governor’s School and received a presidential scholarship at William Paterson University in New Jersey, where he received a degree in music. While at WPU, he counted Terry and the late Mulgrew Miller among his mentors – both would also help him realize a full-time career as a jazz pianist.
“They both taught me that who you are as a person comes out in your music,” Kauflin said.
While Miller passed away last year, Kauflin and Terry’s relationship is stronger than ever. The two are featured in the 2014 documentary, “Keep on Keepin’ On,” which has won multiple film festival awards.
On Wednesday, Kauflin took to the Library’s Coolidge Auditorium stage in a special concert presented by the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) at the Library of Congress. His was the third concert presented by NLS to highlight the Music Section and its services.
In high school, Kauflin became a patron of NLS. He began borrowing instructional braille music materials but soon moved on to easy and then intermediate piano works in braille by classical composers. By 2007, he had started borrowing more advanced material. Among his favorites then and now are works by Bach and Chopin.
“It’s been a wonderful process,” he said of using NLS. “It enabled me to work on what one should while studying the piano – how to interpret music and make it your own.”
Kauflin is particularly excited about NLS’s Braille and Audio Reading Download (BARD) app.
“It allows me to sync up my iPhone with braille music scores,” he explained. “I’m thrilled at that because it’s another way of getting music.
“The service NLS provides is invaluable. The difference from before I used the service to now is staggering. There is so much more I can consume.”