(Justin Kauflin performing at the Umbria Jazz Festival in Italy. Photo by Andrea Palmucci.) 

By Jerome Langston

The first time I heard acclaimed jazz pianist and composer, Justin Kauflin, actually play — was in support of legendary jazz vocalist, Sheila Jordan, whose concert closed out last June’s Vocal Jazz Summit at Zeiders American Dream Theater. Ms. Jordan was well into her nineties at the time, but was still able to deliver impressive vocals, during her concert. She exudes much charisma still… but it was her banter with Justin that really made the experience special. It became clear, at a certain point, that Ms. Jordan didn’t realize just how successful and accomplished, her young accompanist was. Justin and I laughed about that experience, during a recent phone chat. I was so impressed at the humility that he demonstrated that evening.

“I have been lucky to be able to do some pretty cool things, while at the same time, pretty much staying under the radar,” he says, early on in our conversation. “It was just fun to be able to kind of fall into a dynamic with her… because she was a firecracker, man,” he adds. “She made it feel real natural, which was cool.”

Justin flies under the radar, in part due to the typical norms of jazz fame. I remember hanging out with multiple Grammy winning and Oscar nominated trumpeter, Terence Blanchard, back in the aughts — at a club, following a big jazz show in Newport News. I was astonished that he was able to still enjoy significant anonymity, as he wasn’t recognized till the three of us were leaving. And that was by two young musicians.

Later this month, Justin will be leading his impressive jazz quartet in concert at The Z, inside their main stage theater. Featuring his normal working trio members— drummer Jimmy MacBride and bassist Evan Gregor. They are being joined by Grammy-nominated, Brazilian guitarist and composer Chico Pinheiro. The four of them played together some time ago, at a gig in NYC, and really enjoyed it. Justin tells me that they will play some of Chico’s music, and his… as well as a few compositions that an average jazz-loving audience should be able to recognize. “This is a killin’ band, man. Chico Pinheiro, he’s not known too well, but he’s one of the best cats I’ve ever heard for sure.”

And, of course, Justin himself, whose family moved to Hampton Roads when he was just 3 years old, is a big deal in the world of jazz. After graduating from Salem High School and The Governor’s School for the Arts, he went on to attend William Paterson University, where he was mentored by jazz legends like Clark Terry and Mulgrew Miller. His relationship with Mr. Terry was even chronicled in the award-winning, excellent documentary, Keep On KeepinOn, which he scored. The feature length documentary, which was released in 2014, also featured the likes of Quincy Jones and Herbie Hancock. As many people know, Quincy has mentored and managed Justin, who has performed at top jazz festivals around the world, released ten or so recordings, worked extensively in film scoring, and has been written about in publications like The New York Times. Over the years, he’s lived in both NYC and Los Angeles.

“But I came home, to say goodbye to my seeing eye dog, and hang out with her, while she had her final months,” recalls Justin. Following that loss, the musician reconnected with Deborah Thorpe at The Governor’s School, and eventually he accepted a full-time faculty teaching position there, in their jazz studies program.

Besides loving teaching, he’s very passionate about helping our local jazz scene realize its full potential. “The scene itself needs a tremendous amount of work, but it’s a good group of people. So to be able to come back and get involved in the way I’ve been able to, I’m just very grateful.”

Among Justin Kauflin’s album releases are “Dedication” (Released in 2015), “Coming Home” (Produced by Quincy Jones & Derek Hodge, released in 2018), and “Live at the EDYE Broad Stage” (Released in 2014), “Introducing Justin Kauflin” (released in 2010), and “Silent Night” (a Christmas recording released in 2017). 



Justin Kauflin Quartet 

March 22 

Zeiders American Dream Theater