Blind jazz pianist finds the keys to success

Justin Kauflin, a jazz pianist from Virginia Beach, was in an eye doctors waiting room when he got the call that invited him to join the elite ranks of jazz players.At that moment, last month, he also was being filmed by a camera crew for a documentary.He recalled his reaction this week: It was kind of a bit of a shock. The anxiety already settled in. My hands started to shake a little bit.The caller told Kauflin he had made it into the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz International Jazz Competition. Each year the institute changes the instrument; this year its piano.On Sunday afternoon Kauflin will be among 12 semifinalists slated to perform for 15 minutes in a theater at the Smithsonian Institutions National Museum of Natural History in Washington. Legendary jazz pianists such as Herbie Hancock and Ellis Marsalis will judge.If Kauflin is named one of three finalists, hell perform Monday, too, as part of the 25th-anniversary gala celebration of the Monk Institute. He would then share a Kennedy Center stage with dozens of jazz masters.Most of the contest winners have gone on to have substantial careers. Some became famous, such as saxman Joshua Redman, who won in 1991. If Kauflin wins, besides all the likely invitations to play with top musicians, hell get $25,000 and a one-album deal with Concord Records, an elite jazz label.Kauflin has been pegged by many jazz watchers as an up-and-coming musician, including his friend Alan Hicks, who is among the documentarys creators. Hicks is featuring him as one of three emerging musicians, according to the website for the project, called Keep on Keepin On.That working title could apply to the 25-year-old pianists work ethic. His laser focus on his craft, coupled with his talent, has impressed his mentors and taken him far for his age.For that, Kauflin credits his faith. And the fact that hes blind.Kauflin was 11 when he went from low vision to no vision, owing to a degenerative disease. As he let go of some of his favorite pastimes, such as basketball and video games, he started paying more attention to music.Losing sight basically focused me, he said, speaking by phone from his familys home in Bellamy Plantation. (Kauflin lives in a Manhattan apartment with his Seeing Eye dog, Candy, but visits Virginia Beach often, because many of his engagements take place here.)Kauflin started with violin at age 4, and added piano at 8.From his piano teacher, he learned technique. He studied violin using the Suzuki method, which focuses a lot on memorization and on ear training, he said. That was really key for me being able to be as quick as I am now at learning music and being able to spit it back.In the ninth grade, he got into the Governors School for the Arts. Instructors placed him in the jazz program, rather than classical, which was his training. Teachers realized that, as a blind student, it would be pretty difficult for me to succeed in classical, he said, because its so reliant on sight reading.Whereas jazz, he said, is passed on through hearing. You buy a record, hear it and copy what you hear on the record. He knew little about jazz, but took to it quickly, listening to and absorbing as much music as he could. He was happy to discover jazz just a few years after losing his sight.To find a music where it doesnt matter whether you can see or not made a big impact.It was exciting knowing I could be on equal footing with my peers.His story built like a jazz composition enlivened by improvisation. Justin made a goal of excelling at jazz. But the relationships he attracted, and other peoples impulses regarding him, provided opportunities he could not have dreamed of as a teenager.Others dreamed of such things for him.Liz Barnes was his first jazz piano teacher, at Governors School.Very soon I realized that he had this amazing ability, she said, speaking last week from her home in Charlottesville.She taught him for three years, until he moved beyond her and she took him to a college instructor. She recalled thinking hes going to make it. He has the potential for being a name like Chick Corea.During Justins sophomore year at Governors School, veteran jazz drummer Jae Sinnett came in to direct the schools jazz groups. Justin was more advanced than probably 85 percent of the students there, Sinnett said last week.It would be funny to see Justin sit there bored, like he would have it and the other three-quarters of the band was struggling with it. He would sit there, patiently waiting.Soon, Sinnett began taking Kauflin with him on gigs; now the pianist plays regularly with Sinnett in his two ensembles.Sinnett has a jazz radio show on WHRV-FM (89.5), and Kauflin sometimes called him at night at the station, asking about a song he had just heard on his show. Hed be sitting at his piano, and playing it for me over the telephone.Kauflin entered William Paterson (N.J.) Universitys respected jazz studies program on a full scholarship. The program involves top jazz players, including famed trumpeter Clark Terry, well-known as a mentor to gifted young jazz players.Kauflin was among those singled out by Terry. He regularly visited Terry and played in the student jazz band he led at Paterson.Terry also let Kauflin sit in with his band at a storied New York jazz club, the Village Vanguard.That was a double whammy, Kauflin said. Playing in a legendary place with a legend.Kauflin was also heavily influenced by Mulgrew Miller, a pianist who teaches at Paterson. Kauflin had long admired Miller, and asked him what was important to him about performing.He said his primary goal is to make a real connection with the audience. Not by being impressive, but by being emotionally honest. Ive really taken that to heart.Part of whats real about Kauflin is his faith. He has attended Church of the Ascension in Virginia Beach since childhood. Now that hes writing more of his own compositions, he wants to express his spiritual feelings. Saxophonist John Coltrane did that with his landmark album A Love Supreme. Why not Kauflin?I want it to be an extension of prayer. Thats what Im looking for.St. Augustine said singing is praying twice, Kauflin said. If Im playing music, its with the intent of praise and worship. Its like praying twice. Its a way of saying, this is where my inspiration and my gift comes from.Teresa Annas, (757) 446-2485,