Stefon Harris: Authenticity and Audacity
Harris says jazz could use a perception change in order to grow more and be accepted by the public. He referenced a recent Wall Street Journal article that ruffled some feathers in the jazz community during the past summer. "Can Jazz Be Saved?" claimed the jazz audience is dwindling, a familiar refrain of articles penned over the decades, sounding the death knell for the art form. Harris disagrees with the article, as does the jazz community in general, but feels there are issued to be addressed for the art form.
"This neo-classical movement is not something that brought jazz to its pinnacle. It's that spontaneity, that authenticity that brought jazz to its pinnacle. If we're going to make sure this art form is OK in the long run, we have to make sure the integrity and the core values of the art form remain in tact," he says.
"I think we're in good shape. I'm not afraid that the music is going to disappear. This art form is far too flexible, far too pliable to disappear. It will continue to adjust. It is one of America's greatest contributions to the world of art. This is a jewel. All over the world it's greatly appreciated. I'm not afraid that it will disappear. I'm very much concerned about the perception. The key word for me, again, is authenticity. Once you lose that core cultural value of what makes jazz special, I can understand why some people may not gravitate to it."
l:r: Marc Cary, Casey Benjamin, Stefon Harris, Ben Willians, Terreon Gully
He adds, "I have no problem with a consumer not liking jazz that is not authentic. I don't like jazz that is not authentic from my perspective. We're looking for life stories. It's not about jazz, it's about art. All great art is a reflection of a group of people, of an era, of a time. If you look at jazz now, we have to be very careful and make sure we ask ourselves the question, 'What story are we telling right now?' And are we telling the story of the people? If we are, the people will love us. They'll love us because they hear themselves in what we do. As they hear themselves in what they hear in pop music. As they hear themselves, hopefully, in theory, in politicians that they get behind, the literature that they read. That's what art is supposed to do.
"In the end, the record [Urbanus] is just fun. We can get into these discussions, but in the end, we just had a great time making this record. Incredibly inspiring," he says with a smile. "These conversations are great and interesting, but the most important thing is to put it on, and if you move your body, go ahead and move a little bit. We don't have a problem."
Harris composes with those thoughts in mind, influenced by various factors, including his classical background.
"My writing, ironically, seems to be very separate from my performing element," he says. "When I'm performing, nothing else matters, other than being there in the moment. It's much more spiritual than it is anything else. When I'm at the piano (composing), I'm peeking around corners and starting to discover new music, writing just comes to me. It's not like I sit down and say, 'I'm going to write this huge thing, 90 minutes long.' I sit down and I study and try to figure out the mechanics of music and how it works. I open one little door. It's so beautiful. 'What is that?' I start to discover something that I didn't know about before. That's so inspiring that it needs to expand and it turns into music. I think it's a critical part of the artist's inspiration.
"When you look at improvising and composition, I don't know that they're any different. They're pretty much the same thing. Composing is very, very slow. Improvisation is extremely fast composition. But the mindset, the mentality, the authenticity should be the same."
Harris also challenges himself, composing sometimes in areas outside his comfort zone. One such project is writing material recently for a classical woodwind quartet, Imani Winds. He will do some touring with the group this fall, playing the music. "I hadn't written for oboe or anything like that. So it was quite the challenge. I had to listen to a lot of the European classical tradition and learn about the instruments and how they work. And find a way to maintain my own niche in this writing... I take on those challenges and the growth that I get from that, and my understanding of music, of course comes out when I'm making my own records. You can hear on this record the use of woodwinds and tell that my voicings are definitely influenced from my classical background."
Harris, a native of Albany, N.Y., the state's capital some 160 miles or so north of New York City, says he's been interested in music going back as long as his memory will allow. When he watched cartoons as a child, he listened with fascination to the music, uninvolved with the antics of the drawn characters. Once in the music program in he public school system, he took advantage of the opportunity to bring home instruments and play themeven if he knew nothing about them.
"I used to take instruments home from school, instruments I couldn't even play. The trombone. No lessons or anything. The Pink Panther [cartoon] used to come on. I would go home and put it on and try to play along by ear. I'd turn on the radio and try to figure out what was going on. Music is a part of my soul. It's part of who I am."
He got so he could play most any instrument he got his hands on, to a certain extent. "I played all the band instruments. Clarinet was one of my best instruments. I played trombone and flute. I played bassoon. It was just about the love of music."
He ended up playing the vibraphone because through Richard Albagli, a percussionist with the Albany Symphony and who was Harris' private teacher beginning in junior high school. "He is pure genius and shared his love of music with me in a way that I could never repay him for. I am forever grateful for the love that this guy shared. He happened to be a percussionist, so, okay, I learned to play that instrument [vibes], so I'm comfortable expressing myself through it."
But, he reveals, expression of the music is more important than the medium though which it is created.
"For me, instruments aren't that important. If you look at instruments, it's just a bunch of metal and wood. It doesn't really matter," he says gleefully. "It's about the story that the artist is tellingwhat's coming through the instrument... If you look at my practice regimen, the first thing that I do is practice singing for about two hours in the morning, away from my instrument. I don't even come down into my music room. I just work on tuning and hearing sounds in my head first. Then I'll come down and do some physical work on the instrument. The vast majority of my work is actually at the piano. It's not about instruments."
In high school, Harris had access to instruments and encouragement to pursue music whole-heartedly. His formal training was geared to classical music and the music he heard around him was pop music of the day, especially Stevie Wonder, "the soundtrack to my upbringing... Jazz came a little later for me. But primarily, I was playing classical music. My mother's a minister, so I grew up in the church. I heard a lot of gospel music. Around the house, when I went to my aunt's, I remember hearing the blues all the time. B.B. King, Muddy Waters and all the classics."
Harris was a classical major in his freshman year at Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., which didn't have a formal jazz program at the time. But he encountered other students heavily into jazz. "I would hang out with them. 'Show me this. Show me that. What record should I buy?' I was completely fascinated, not only spiritually, what I was hearing, but also intellectually into the music and how complex it was," he recalls. "I had never heard Charlie Parker, Dexter Gordon or anyone like that."
His inquisitive mind and keen musical sensibilities enabled him to absorb these new discoveriesthese audacious soundsquickly. He took them to heart.
Naturally, as he got into jazz, he listened to the important vibraphonists. "My initial influence on the vibraphone is Milt Jackson, hands down. My freshman year, I bought this record people told me to get called Things Are Getting Better (OJC, 1958), with Milt Jackson and Julian "Cannonball" Adderley. I transcribed every note that Milt Jackson played on that record and did my best to learn that stuff. I was all about Milt Jackson."
"After one year I knew I needed to move to New York City and be part of a school that had an established jazz program and be closer to the culture of jazz. So I left Eastman and moved to New York" and the Manhattan School of Music [He graduated with a bachelor's degree in classical music and a master's in jazz performance]. "I don't think I was even good enough to get into a jazz program at the time, so I continued in classical music. But the bug was in my head immediately, as soon as I heard Charlie Parker's 'Now's the Time.' That record in particular completely blew me away."
"When I moved to New York a year later, a funny thing happened. Around the corner from where I lived, they had a jazz festival. I came home one day and someone said Milt Jackson was playing two blocks away," he says, still animated about the memory. "I went up there and I got a chance to see him play and watch him walk and shake his hand. It was so clear to me that everything about this guywhy he played the way he played. It was how he walked. It was the clothes he wore; the way he spoke. It was very clear to me, immediately, that I could never be that. I came from a whole other era, a whole other background. At that point I knew to sit around transcribing the past, that's not really what jazz is about. It's about your story. My seriousness went to a whole other level.
"The same thing was reiterated when I met Bobby Hutcherson. When I got to play with Joe Henderson. It's the authenticity and individuality that is the most striking in being on the stage with people like that."
Picking up the jazz feeling rapidly, he began playing gigs. An early gig was with a Latin band. "I played in salsa bands, African dance companies. I just love music. Any style of music. It doesn't matter. It's not about style."
One particular gig with the Latin group was witnessed, however, by legendary drummer Max Roach, who happened to be in the audience, "but I didn't know. I flew back to New York and I checked my answering machine, and Max Roach was on my answering machine saying, 'Hey, young boy. I heard you play. Call me.' Of course, I called all my friends trying to find out who left the message," says Harris with a soft laugh. "So I called (Roach), and sure enough he left the message. I started playing with M'Boom."
Shortly after that, he had the opportunity to play with Bobby Watson and Wynton Marsalis, all while still in school. But basically, he says his career rise has been "a slow burn." he said overnight sensations in music are not a reality and those situations aren't good for the music or the musician.
"Understanding the spiritual depth is something that comes in time. Understanding how to be on stage. You just don't get that from practicing in a practice room. For me, to be able to be on stage with Max Roach is a breakthrough. That's one of many breaks I had along the way," he explains. "Playing with Buster Williams, who's a great friend of mine, helped me get signed to a record company. I was at the Village Vanguard with him, with Geri Allen on piano and Lenny White on drums and Buster on bass. That kind of company. People from the record company were there and heard me play. And being on the road with Joe Henderson, people would talk about me, so I had a little buzz going. All of these things are a confluence of events that led me to a point where I was able to be signed [by Blue Note]."