At a young age, Kauflin was diagnosed with familial exudative vitreoretinopathy, a hereditary disorder that can cause progressive vision loss. “I had low vision in my right eye, and very low vision in my left eye,” he explains. “I was able to see well enough to wear glasses and be in
school. And then, by the time I was nine, my sight started to decline. And over a two-year period, it just went.”
Kauflin began his musical journey at age four, when he began violin lessons, learning the Suzuki Method, which emphasizes learning music by ear over
reading musical notation. By the time he was six, Kauflin was performing in concert halls. As his vision deteriorated, he adapted by learning five grades of Braille, cane mobility and switching to, or rather, dedicating himself to the piano.
He was soon accepted to attend the Governor’s School for the Arts in Norfolk, Virginia, where the instructors thought he would be a good fit for jazz as, unlike classical music, which requires sight-reading, jazz has a lot of improvisation. That was something Kauflin could do –
“I was low vision and my teacher sort of customized the Suzuki for me, where
she focused a lot on memorization and learning by ear because I couldn’t sight-
read even when I was able to see,” Kauflin explains. “When I lost my sight, I needed
to memorize everything, even if I learned by Braille. It’s sort of like exercising a
muscle. Learning a new song just stays with me. Everybody is always surprised,
but I say, if you were to exercise just like I did, you could do the same thing.”
“His brain is like a computer,” Kauflin’s mother, Phyllis, once told a reporter. In
fact, he was able to do calculus and AP physics without a calculator, much to the
surprise of his teachers.
No longer able to play sports after losing his sight, Kauflin dedicated himself to the piano. “Everybody was Rollerblading and running around, so I naturally found
myself at the piano, really for lack of anything better to do,” Kauflin said in an interview with Distinction Magazine. “In a weird way, losing my sight helped me realize how important music was for me.”
And, Kauflin was hungry to learn and push himself to develop his talent.
Eventually, he was so accomplished that, in 2003, he was accepted to the Vail Jazz Foundation’s jazz workshop, a program that brings together the twelve best high school jazz musicians in the nation, for a ten-day jazz intensive.
It was while attending William Paterson University of New Jersey that Kauflin met the legendary Clark Terry who had played with Duke Ellington and Count
Basie. Terry was an adjunct professor at the university and Kauflin and his friends would go to Terry’s home, in New Jersey, IN A WEIRD WAY LOSING MY SIGHT HELPED ME REALIZE HOW
IMPORTANT MUSIC WAS FOR ME to play music and glean from a master. So began Kauflin’s kinship with his celebrated mentor.
After finishing school, Kauflin moved to Brooklyn with the intention of becoming a professional musician. But life became tougher than Kauflin imagined. Living in the city, that, in many aspects, could be unforgiving was not an easy feat. Taking a subway or even walking the streets
could be challenging. As well, people assumed that because Kauflin was blind, it was harder for him to learn the music. He couldn’t get much work. So, after three years, Kauflin moved back home to Virginia Beach and, slowly, began to get some gigs.
Throughout it all, Kauflin stayed in touch with Terry who, although now bedridden, continued to share his wisdom and inspiration about music and life with the young man and navigate the early stages of his career. Terry was a master and, in fact, had mentored many notable musicians including Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and Quincy Jones, to name a few.
One day, last year, Kauflin flew to visit Terry, who had moved to Arkansas to be with family. It was there that Kauflin met Quincy Jones. “That was quite a moment for me, to sit there between those two,“ says Kauflin. “This teacher and his student. And then, me. All I could do was just soak it in and be grateful. Being around those guys was a blessing for me.”
Now, Quincy Jones, once the student, is paying it forward by taking Kauflin
under his wing. Jones was so impressed with Kauflin, that he invited him to Los
Angeles to do some studio work, where Kauflin was given the opportunity to work
on some of his own compositions. Jones also booked the Justin Kauflin Trio (which
includes Kauflin’s childhood friends, Billy Williams and Christopher Smith) for
gigs in Brazil and throughout the United States.
“Clark’s legacy and the things that he holds so dear must be preserved,” says Kauflin, thoughtfully. “And that’s my responsibility, as somebody who gains more experience and makes more mistakes – and learns from them – to share that with the younger generation.
It’s something that I want to be a part of now, as I had the opportunity to spend
time with Clark. Now it will be my turn.
“My life is very exciting. It’s a new experience. I always thought just being where I was was exciting. So, you know, it’s come and I’m thrilled and it’s a new chapter for me. “If you stay focused things end up turning out okay.”