Terell Stafford: Trial and Inspiration
AAJ: You've expressed a deep interest in the history of the music and your predecessors, while always pursuing your own voice. What's the relationship between influence and innovation for you?
TS: I started playing jazz so late that I really thought what I needed to do was listen to my peers and contemporaries, see where they were, and see if I could go in a different direction [...], to provide my own voice and be an innovator. I'll never forget this encounter to this day (and I thank Stanley Crouch for this day every time I see him), but when I first started playing jazz I was playing at Bradley's one night, and Crouch just pulled me aside and he just let me know my playing had no depth, it had no foundation. It was humbling for him to say that. I asked him why he said that, and he replied, "Have you transcribed any Cootie Williams? Have you checked out any Bubber Miley? Have you listened to any Ray Nance or Roy Eldridge? How much Louis Armstrong have you listened to?"
He just started going down this list of trumpet players, and I hadn't listened to anyone! I was so focused on the present and taking what I heard being played right now to another direction that I didn't take the opportunity to really learn where my instrument comes from, where the sound of the trumpet comes from, where the vocabulary comes from. When we go back and really study the history of our instrument, then we can have a voice of innovation because we can understand where things have come from.
I relate it a lot to cooking, because I love to cook! Growing up with my grandparents, watching them cook and them teaching me how to cook, [and now] some twenty to twenty-five years later I've taken their same recipes [...] to a different place. Not intentionally maybe, but just [from] having my palate change. One's musical palate changes just like one's taste palate.
AAJ: What's your process for engaging that history with your own palate?
TS: I never really think about it. I transcribe a lot but I have no photographic memory, it doesn't stay in my head forever, so some things I transcribe may be right on my mind or right on my fingertips, as time goes on I may forget things. As you improvise certain things come back to you. They may not come back to you verbatim, but they come back to you in different ways. That's how the innovation happens: when you're in the moment, and you're improvising, and you get to a point where you say "I love this color," and you go for a certain sound and realize, "Wow! I transcribed that years ago, but I can't remember the exact melody or the exact rhythm." All of a sudden you've created a vocabulary.
I'm a creature of habit, so if I figure out that [particular sound] works, in time I may use it again over another sound. You find different ways to use some of the same things, and that's the true innovation. If you listen to Woody Shaw, he could apply similar pentatonic sounds over different chords and it would bring out really unique colors! That was innovative, just from his thought process.
AAJ: You often discuss sound and color, and many listeners have drawn attention to your very powerful, very personal tone on trumpet, as well as flugelhorn. Is that a conscious aspect of your playing, or have you always had that tone?
TS: When I was growing up I always studied classical music, and I'll never forget when I was at the University of Maryland there was a horn section player and conductor who always told me while I was playing in the wind ensemble, "Terell, you have that jazz sound. It's too bright, it's too thin," and he was absolutely right. I was using a whole lot of pressure, and I wasn't using any air or any wind, however you want to refer to it.
My teacher in college was really good; there were a lot of fundamentals he worked on and helped me with. But it wasn't until I met [Dr.] Wayne Fielder, by the suggestion of Wynton [Marsalis], and when I started to study with Fielder, he spoke only about sound. All he spoke about was sound, and wind, and that if you take in enough air you turn that air into wind, and when you can alleviate as much compression as possible, then you can start to get a freer and more open sound. He was the person that really made sound one of my number one priorities.
Then I'd go listen to examples. Fielder played one of the most beautiful trumpet sounds I think I ever heard, from "Bud" Herseth, who was principal trumpet of the Chicago Symphony [Orchestra]. After hearing that sound, the fullness and the colors that came out of that sound, that really attracted me. If you listen to Booker Little you hear those similar colors and similar sound. I heard that from Art Farmer too [...]. Many trumpet players get that sound, those are just a few that come to my mind right now.
AAJ: Besides your tone, is there anything else from your classical training that you've brought to your jazz playing?
TS: One of my favorite composers is Chopin, and I love melody. You hear Chopin and you hear how a person can write such beautiful melodies, and then how people can interpret such beautiful melodies. That really guided me down a path to relate with melody. There's great composers, people always talk about Stravinsky and the harmony, and that's really interesting, but I'm a melody person, and a fundamentals person. The process that it takes to prepare for a concerto is a process that I sometimes use to prepare for a concert, because I want to have that endurance. From the endurance comes the power, so if I need to emote in a certain place I don't want to be unable to express myself because of limitations on my instrument. Don't think that I have it mastered! That's not what I'm saying, but I want as much freedom to express as much as possible. Practicing those fundamentals I got from classical music for so long helps.
AAJ: There's a great video of you explaining tonguing and articulation to a group of young students at a Swing Central Jazz Workshop...
TS: I like to speak about fundamentals. Oftentimes when I practice I like to practice jazz doing tunes that I'm working on, but I'm a real fundamentalist, so I can easily spend hours and hours just working on different articulations. So when people ask me a question about articulation, they're opening up a can of worms, because I can talk about it all day! They're thinking, "Oh god, I'm sorry I asked that question!" [laughs]