Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Concert Preview - Terell Stafford Interview

Saturday, April 29
8 p.m. $30.

This weekend, Kente Arts Alliance continues their impressive series of concerts by national jazz acts, the likes of which don’t often get to Pittsburgh – or at least haven’t in quite some time. Terell Stafford plays the trumpet with the kind of edge and authority that comes from his predecessors, like Lee Morgan and Clifford Brown. But while Stafford is deeply steeped in tradition, he’s not consumed by it. The most recent recording under his own name was Brotherlee Love (Capri), a tribute to hard bop legend Morgan. While it goes for the same spirit of the man responsible for “The Sidewinder,” Stafford and his quintet make sure that they’re not merely bowing down to the masters and copying the originals. He and his longtime collaborator Tim Warfield (tenor saxophone) bring plenty of modern spark to the Morgan classics. That came a four years after This Side of Strayhorn, his salute to Pittsburgh’s native son who became Duke Ellington’s right hand man.  Stafford also recently took part in Forgive and Forget, an album composed entirely by saxophonist Herb Harris, and the second in Harris’ Jazz Masters Unlimited Series.

In addition to his work as a performer, he works in academia. At Temple University’s Bayer College of Music, he serves as Director of Jazz Studies and Chair of Instrumental Studies. He’s also the Managing and Artistic Director of the Jazz Orchestra of Philadelphia.  If all that wasn’t enough of a c.v., go to and check out the list of people he's played with, from McCoy Tyner and Jimmy Heath, just to name a couple.

He and I spoke by phone last week. Our conversation is here.

When you come to Pittsburgh, are Tim Warfield (tenor saxophone) and Bruce Barth (piano) going to be with you?

They sure will. On bass will be David Wong and on drums, Billy Williams.

You and Tim go back quite a way. How far, exactly?

Probably 24, 25 years ago.

What’s it like playing with someone and having such a deep rapport with them?

Actually it’s amazing how many people don’t know when I became interested in playing jazz, because I have two degrees in classical trumpet. Tim was the one that invited me to his house and said, “Let’s check out some records.” We transcribed together. He was just so gracious and he showed me so much. From that point, he and I started to travel in the Harrisburg area to local clubs to play together. These club owners would hear us and hire us as a team to play with local rhythm sections. And that was his game plan.
And we’ve done that for 25 years or so. Whether he works in my band or I work in his band, if we read a tune together or if we haven’t played something in a while, it doesn’t take long for us to connect, immediately, and sound like one of— whatever, one thing.

Playing with someone like Tim is like being in a great relationship, or marriage. You think you know your spouse really well but everyday you’re finding more and more and more. Tim is undoubtedly my best friend. And I love making music – and I love hanging out with him. We both love to cook. So we’re always sending each other our new dishes. It’s a great relationship.

What does Lee Morgan mean to you?

In so many ways, he was such a genius on the trumpet. I don’t feel enough people knew about Lee Morgan because he had a short time on this earth. [Morgan was shot by his common-law wife Helen More in 1972, when the trumpeter was 33 years old.] I feel like everything he played —from fiery things to ballads, the full spectrum — he always played with heart.
I remember when I joined [alto saxophonist] Bobby Watson’s band, Bobby made a statement: Every time you step on the bandstand, you should play like it’s your last opportunity to play, because you just never know. When he said that, it always reminded me of Lee Morgan because I always felt that Lee Morgan gave 150% every time he would play the music. I always admired that about him.

The years I played with Shirley Scott, she could do mothing but talk about Lee Morgan constantly. It was amazing. She and I did Bill Cosby’s show, You Bet Your Life, and we did that for three years. We’d drive together from West Chester, Pennsylvania and we both taught at this college, Cheyney University and our offices were two doors down. We’d hang out all the time and listen to records. She just loved everything that Lee Morgan did. And that was really influential. I really started to study his articulation and phrasing and how he would manipulate chord changes and the use of the diminished.

Of all the people I love and admire like Lee Morgan and Freddie Hubbard, I want to sound like them because they’ve influenced me, not just to be a carbon copy of these great artists. That’s what I really wanted to do with this project with Lee. I didn’t want to come in and just sound like Lee Morgan. I wanted to bring that spirit and intent in which he played and the intent in which I interpret his playing and put that into a CD.

Was it easy to pick the songs for the album?

Yes. There are songs that you hear that you like. The risk that you take is because some of them aren’t like the more popular songs. But they’re the songs that are fun to play over. There are songs that are fun to listen to. Choosing wasn’t so hard. I know he had a lot of great material. But this material always hit home, the songs that we picked. We probably had about eight or 10 others that we didn’t record. And of the songs that we did record, there were about two or three others that we couldn’t put on the CD because there was not enough space. So with what we chose, there was some deliberation. That’s when you lean to your producers. And [bassist/bandleader] John Clayton produced it. We sat down and decided so it wasn’t so bad.

Was “The Sidewinder” in the running, or did you avoid that one?

That was one on the list. We recorded it but there wasn’t room on the record.

Do you think you’ll do a follow-up?

It’s really funny that you say that. After I did my Strayhorn record, the Strayhorn family and I were close before we did it. After I did it, that’s when the relationship really began. Because they started to send me tunes that he had, that they really wanted me to play. They wanted me to do some vocal charts and they had suggested vocal things.
I pretty much have a second Strayhorn record because the Strayhorn family is so into it. And the same thing with Lee Morgan. I met a gentleman — I can’t remember his name right now — in D.C. He has pretty much everything Lee had ever done. He’s a total trumpet geek. He’s like, “You’ve got to do more.”

I’m torn. Do I keep pursuing the path of creating all this music that’s been lost? Do I say okay, I’m going to sit down and write some tunes? Part of me wants to keep recreating because it’s great music. That’s an area where I have to really sit down and figure out what’s the next step. 

What kind of teaching are you doing these days? Classroom settings?

15-16 years ago, I did a lot of classroom things. But then the Dean came to me and said, “We want you to continue your performing and maintain a high profile as a performer. The only way you can do that is if you became Director of these programs. It’ll give you some freedom. It’s a little more paperwork, but you have freedom and you can travel as much as you want.”

When he dangled that carrot in front of me I went, woah! So I did that and I became Director of Jazz Studies. That program has grown. It’s doing really well. Then six years ago, [I became] Chair of Instrumental Studies. It’s growing. It’s a great program. That’s the more challenging out of the two. A lot more personalities to deal with.
But as far as what I teach, I teach trumpet students and I conduct a top big band. And there are five big bands at this school.

What’s it like teaching now, with kids who have a chance to be exposed to so much music before the come in? Do they know what they want, or are they looking for direction?

The ones that know what they want are usually deficient in other areas because, it’s like tunnelvision. They know what they’re pursuing, this – I can’t say false reality – but this dream to be a famous jazz musician. I always let them know that I think the outcome should be of you someday being a famous jazz musician. But on the way there, I think maybe you should get your fundamentals on the instrument together so that you can play all [the music] and not just a few things. Make sure you study the history of your instrument. Those two are the biggest [issues] when it comes to a lot of students. Many of them have studied modern players of their time. The Nicholas Paytons, and Sean Jones, who are all my favorites. But none of them have taken the time to go back and check out Cootie Williams and Roy Eldridge and Louis Armstrong or anyone of those guys. So there’s a deficient part of their playing.
A lot of trumpet players these days put that “jazz” label on their forehead and they don’t spend time with [different chord changes]. And they should because maintaining your fundamentals allows you to get over the instrument with as much ease as you can.

It seems like now there’s so much music readily available that you can explore.

They do. They come in with more knowledge than I came in with. But sometimes with all that at your fingertips, it can make you somewhat lazy. We had to work finding a recording or getting this or getting that. They have a lot there. They need a good strong work ethic. It’s something that I see necessary.

Now, you’re involved with the Jazz Orchestra of Philadelphia – is it four years old?

Yes. My title is artistic and managing director of it. We’ve been trying to program a couple concerts a year at the Kimmel [Center for the Performing Arts]  and then we play two or three times outside the Kimmel, at different venues. This year we’re going to be doing the International Trumpet Guild, but that’ll be in Hershey, PA. Every trumpet player in the world will be at this trumpet conference.

Sounds like heaven!

Yeah, well…. It depends on how much you like the trumpet!

How many trumpet players are we talking?

Thousands. It’s a four-day conference, people fly in from all over the world. There’s tons of performances. It’s crazy, absolutely crazy. That happens the first week in June.
Then we’re doing our program on June 10,  A Night in Havana. It’s going to celebrate Cuban music and it’s also going to celebration the merging of Afro-Cuban music. Things seem to be going well, there’s always a need for more funding. But we’ve made it through a few years now so we’re doing alright.

I did wonder if the current administration has you worrying about your funding.

Absolutely. But what I say for everything is, if the Jazz Orchestra is meant to be, it’ll make it through even this administration. If it’s not, then it was good while it lasted.

Does Philadelphia have a built-in support system for the music – audience?

You know what, we have. For every concert that we’ve done, they’ve been sold out. There’s a good amount of people that come out and support it. They’re very loyal, they’re very educated and they’re sophisticated listeners. They appreciate the artists that come in. From that perspective it’s great.

In Philly now there’s a couple clubs who get an international artist, national. And they’re smaller, more local clubs. So from that perspective things are starting to come back. For a while it was really, really dismal. It feels pretty good right now.

The Forgive and Forget album – all the tunes were by Herb Harris?

Yeah. Very interesting proposition – he called me and said, “I wrote a bunch of tunes and I want you to play them.” I said sure. So Tim Warfield and Kevin Hays [piano], Rodney Green [drums] and Greg Williams [bass], we all came to the studio. We recorded it. When he said he wanted me to record his tunes, I totally envisioned he’d be the leader of the session. I thought it would be “Herb Harris featuring these guys.” But it’s my record! My father called me and say, “Hey, you didn’t tell me you had a new record out.” I said, “I don’t think I do!” Then he took a picture of it and I said, “Oh I guess I do!”

That was probably one of the most challenging record dates I’ve done, in many ways. I have this philosophy like a lot of people: You play the material for a week or two and then you go into the studio. Pretty much with all that material, we walked into the studio that morning, got it, played it. Nine hours later that record was done.
[Herb] had a concept. He picked the guys in the band. He did it all. He picked the studio. He decided on the solos, the lengths of the solo. The only thing I did for this record was I came in and played. Which is like a vacation compared to my other records!

Are you working any of that into your live set?

We’re sticking with our own stuff for now. That stuff would take a lot of rehearsal to get it together. It’s hard to assemble the ensemble that recorded it. But maybe we’ll work a couple tunes up and play them in the future.

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