Terell Stafford: Trial and Inspiration
Just Say Never
AAJ: When did you really begin to immerse yourself in studying jazz?
TS: I really started to get more curious about jazz when I went to Rutgers for my master's degree. When I was doing my undergraduate degree, I did play in the jazz band. I didn't really know what I was doing when it came to improvising, but I did play in the jazz band because I got some scholarship money, and I needed it for school, to help pay for my books and things. So I played in a jazz band and I was friends with the jazz band director. I got to meet a lot of people in jazz; it just wasn't where my focus was. When I auditioned for graduate school at Rutgers, I auditioned for the classical and jazz programs and I was accepted into the classical program and rejected from the jazz program.
AAJ: What did coming to jazz at that point in your life bring to your experience with the music?
TS: In some ways I was a little bit further along on my instrument. When I started to really pursue jazz, the instrument was not as much of a struggle. The trumpet is always a struggle, and if anyone says any different I need to speak to them and figure out what they're doing [laughs].
I'm not a person that handles "you can't..." or "you won't..." very well. When I said I want to try jazz, many people said, "you'll never be able to swing, you don't know any tunes, you don't know this or that," and the classical musicians told me, "You've been preparing so much for this career in classical music, why would you want to do that?" Just hearing that spin made me say, "I'm going to do it. I'm going to ask the questions, and I'm going to pursue. I'm going to go for this, and if it doesn't work out, it doesn't work out." The jazz community is one of the most incredible communities ever, because people are just so willing to share and to spend time, and that was the bottom line in learning this music at a later age.
AAJ: You told a very inspirational (and humorous) story at Temple's commencement, when as a nine-year old viola player, a music teacher told your parents that you have no musical talent. Did those experiences hearing "can't" or "won't" influence you as an educator as well?
TS: We come to where we need to be on our own and through our life experience. There's students who come to Temple and have this passion and desire to play music, and when you hear them you say, "Okay, there's some talent there." Then you hear other students and say, "Wow, now that is unbelievable talent, this person is going to make it far." Eighty percent of the time, we're wrong, because the person that has the musical talent and for whom everything is really easy might not put the time in. The person that has that desire and has the attitude to achieve on the highest level possible is the one that truly makes it and takes the music to a whole other level.
That teacher discouraged me in one area of musicplaying an instrument that maybe I didn't identify withand I found an instrument that I could identify with. That happens at Temple, too: people come in and choose one instrument and we encourage them and say, "Tenor trombone sounds great, but have you checked out bass trombone?" People try things, and it may work or it may not work, but I'm always really open to students finding their own way. I'll guide them; if a student asks me for my opinion I'll happily give it to them, but I don't push anything that's not natural.
It's similar to my embouchure: my embouchure is not a conventional embouchure, and so many people tried to change it. So when students come in with a problem with their embouchure I'll say "Sure, let's explore options and see how we can help you." I'm not going to say, "According to page 39 of the Arban's trumpet instruction book, your embouchure is not what's described here as a conventional embouchure, so let's change it."
AAJ: You've also reached out as an educator at Temple by founding Jazz @ the Underground, a monthly forum for student and faculty musicians, and by running clinics for school band directors through Jazz at Lincoln Center. What's your vision for those outlets?
TS: When I was first approached to do those, I was super insecure about it, because I more or less learned teaching through trial and error. Even though my undergraduate degree is in music education, when it comes to jazz education I didn't formally go to any institution.
What I started to learn through the years is that most teaching experience and most experiences in general, are through trial and error: you don't pick up a manual on marriage [or] how to raise child. Through trial and error we figure out what works and we figure out what doesn't work, and many times with particular teachers some things work for them and some things happen. Many teachers come to these clinics just to find options, and to have people they can bounce ideas off of. Now I really have this passion for getting out and, I don't want to call it "teaching teachers," but I want to call it "hearing and exploring ideas and concepts."
The people I mentionedJimmy Heath and Frank Wessopened my eyes, ears and thoughts to a lot of different things. To share recordings and [harmonic and melodic] ideas from these masters is something that some of these teachers may never get the opportunity to do. So I also see myself as a messenger, to pass along some of these messages to those that are teaching, so that the students have an opportunity to gain as much knowledge as possible.
AAJ: What do you believe is the importance of jazz education in schools, especially in light of the current state of arts education?
TS: This topic is very touchy and emotional to a lot of people, especially teaching in Philadelphia, and seeing how many music programs have been eliminated, thinking that for every music program that's eliminated, they're knocking out an opportunity for the next John Coltrane or Lee Morgan.
Yet my hat goes off to these teachers and students. I was out with the Northern Illinois University Jazz Ensemble, doing a tour of the Midwest as their special guest. We did maybe five different schools, and some of the schools would invite two or three other schools, so their impact could have been fifteen different schools we were seeing through that week. What was incredible was that not only did the students have the dedication and hunger to show up at ungodly hours, maybe 5:30 or 6:00 a.m. to learn jazz, but if the students are there at 5:30, then the teachers had to be up at 4:30, and they have families and lives too. So my hat's really off to these students and these educators, because it's hard to get jazz inside the curriculum, and the fact that's it's happening means that we live in a much easier and better world in some ways.
It's teaching students a very strong work ethic, to say, "If you want something and you love something, wake up out of your bed and go learn it." I really respect that work ethic and this desire from these young people. I wish this same work ethic could be seen by other administrators in different areas, in other words, maybe Philadelphia, to see how these students' lives are truly changed by learning about jazz, learning the history of jazz, learning how jazz impacts people, and then having guest artists speak to students. The students are often shocked to realize, "Wow, we have a very similar upbringing; I'm just starting to really learn jazz now, and you didn't start to learn it until you were in your twenties, so there may be hope for me."
AAJ: You've also emphasized the importance of music education even though many students may not pursue music as a career, and the network of support for the arts that arises from music education.
TS: The support for the arts is incredible. For example at Temple University, we have students who recently graduated and some of them have gone into law, accounting, investing and other fields. Many of them are now coming back to provide services to the students who are just starting out after graduating. To me, that what's education is about, and that's what community in music has done. Not everybody is meant to play music on the level [where] you can make a living playing music. They find other outlets and then they come back and share this knowledge with other people and try to continue this community. That's what I think is really holding this community up.
AAJ: What do you advise those students who want to pursue music?
TS: Everyone has to have a passion for it. You can't pursue this music and do it just because your parents or your grandparents did it, or because you think it's really cool. There has to be a passion and desire there. That's the first thing I look for.
When students ask what to work on, we give them fundamentals and exercises, things to strengthen and build them. The thing that I like to encourageand I learned this from John Clayton in a master class and I never forgot itis the importance of saying, "Find a tune that you truly love and describe to me what you love inside of that tune." When a student expresses how much they love a tune, no matter what level that tune may bethe student may be at grade one and the solo may be at grade twowhen they find something they love they're going to go all out to pursue that solo, and pursue that tune, and pursue those changes and pursue that artist. So you never want to limit anyone on their growth in that area too. I always encourage students to find stuff they love, because if the solo they really love is above their head right now, they'll figure out where that solo came from, and who influenced that particular artist. You're already teaching them a history lesson, because they're going to start to research every artist they listen to.