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Interviews

Terell Stafford: Pushing Music and Community

By Published: October 8, 2003
Terell Stafford plays the trumpet with remarkable technique, a great sense of melody and swing, and a lot of heart — a combination that makes him stand out on today's scene and a reason it's easy to find him performing with people like Cedar Walton, the Clayton Brothers, Kenny Barron, Matt Wilson, the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band, the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, the Mingus Big Band and the Village Vanguard Jazz Orchestra when he's not fronting his own band on gigs. But it doesn't tell the whole story.

Stafford, who came to jazz relatively late in his young life after studying classical music in college, is much more than that. Soft spoken and unassuming, he speaks with a quiet calm, his mannerisms at ease even though he was below the weather, health-wise, when he sat down for a chat. His smile is warm and easy. He had played a concert at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, NY, two nights before and tended to business like nuthin', blowing clean, funky, melodic and hot in a session with other musicians/educators, even though he had a stool to rely on when he wasn't soloing.

Sitting down a couple days later, it's the same thing. Though he's obviously in some discomfort, and had been teaching students all day, he's warm and at ease. He speaks clear and concise, as if everything's cool. Cause he makes everything cool. Quick with a grin and not quick to sing his own praises. Humility.

Stafford, at the age of 36, has his stuff goin' on. His latest outstanding CD, New Beginnings , is out, and he's not going to panic if it doesn't go through the roof. He's getting gigs, but won't get flustered if there suddenly comes a dry spell. He's more concerned with keeping the ship moving ahead, the sails picking up whatever wind is blowing, and if it isn't gusting now, it will be later.

What's more impressive is his concern for the jazz musicians around him.

In an era where newspaper columnists write about the loss of neighborhoods and the sense of community across the United States — neighbors don't know each other anymore and people don't watch out for each other — Terell Stafford doesn't see it that way.

"I like to try as much as I can, and I want to do a better job of it, in supporting my peers," he said. "Clark Terry is a huge mentor of mine and I talk to him. Talking to him, you hear how those guys used to go out and support one another. Pops would come and hear him, and he'd go out and hear somebody. And I really want to do that more. If I'm home and I see Jon Faddis playing or if I see Jeremy Pelt's playing, if I see Randy Brecker playing, or Lew Soloff or anybody, I want to get out and support them. I want to say, 'Hey, man. It's a community. It's a family. We got to bring it back to the way it used to be.' Because you hear all these stories and you don't hear the reality of it now. That's all they are: stories. It kind of bothers me. 'Remember when? Remember when?' I don't want it to be like that. Let's go. Let's do it."

"The other day I called Faddis. He and I are great friends. I said, 'What are you doing?' He said he and his wife were about to go to Clark Terry's house just to hang out. I was so touched. I wish I would have been around to go do that. I was like, 'Oh man, I wanna go hang out with C.T.!' I thought that was so great. I just played a Jazzmobile in New York and Jimmy Heath came to the concert. We were talking and he was like, 'We used to hang out and do this.' Man! It's like, why can't we say, 'When I hung out' instead of 'used to'"

That's pretty cool from a guy who, though he started playing trumpet at the age of 13 in Chicago, where his family had moved from his native Miami, had not given much credence to jazz. He dabbled in it through high school and his college education at the University of Maryland, but nothing more than that. "I never studied it. My undergrad degree is in classical trumpet and my graduate degree is in classical trumpet," he said. Rather than digging Miles or Lee Morgan or Kenny Dorham, he was into Maurice Andre from the classical realm.

"When I was in graduate school was when I really started taking things seriously. I had played jazz before, but I played in a jazz band in high school, but I don't think we ever played one Basie chart. So I don't know if you can call it jazz band. Then I played in the jazz band when I was in college as well. But it wasn't anything steady."

Then it was on to Rutgers for his master's degree, and things started to click. "It wasn't really until graduate school that I got into it. Kenny Barron was teaching at Rutgers so I went to Kenny and I said 'I want to learn how to play jazz.' He said 'Get a Dizzy record, get a Miles record and get a Clifford record and listen to them.' And I did. And Miles was the first music for me to start to learn. I learned the solos. The technique was there. The fundamentals. But there's much, much, much more than that. It's still a life-long quest for me."

Part of that quest has led him to New Beginnings, a sharp CD with pianist Mulgrew Miller, drummer Dana Hall, and bassist Derrick Hodge at the core, with help from alto saxophonists Steve Wilson, Dick Oatts and Jesse Davis, and tenor man Harry Allen. The recording is sweet, staring with a couple standards, segueing into a three-song "New Beginnings Suite," which kicks, and then into a few more familiar tunes.

"Originally, I wanted to do an all-alto project, so I was going to have Dick and Steve and Jesse Davis and Bobby Watson. Bobby couldn't get out of his teaching schedule. All these guys have played in my quintet from time to time. When people play, you hear certain people on songs and you say, 'I like the way they just played this song.' I mean, they play every song well. It was my opportunity to have the people that I hear on certain songs play those certain songs. And it was really cool."

The suite segment came from a work he was previously commissioned to do for a New York City-based organization, but it became personal as he wrote it. And it's the highlight of the recording, moving, intense at times, with adventuresome playing for all involved.

"Because of things I was going through with my life, the movements of the suite make up the new beginnings. The first movement, which is when I thought back and reflected on where I've come from. And the second movement is about my good friend Faddis introducing me to my soulmate now, getting me back on track. And the last movement is dedicated to my soulmate. That's how that suite came about and it's pretty much the theme of the record."

Not bad for a guy who hadn't been on the scene as long as his peers. It was right out of Rutgers that he got his first big break, joining Bobby Watson's Horizons band. His debut as a leader came in 1995 with Time to Let Go, followed in 1997 by Centripedal Force and then Fields of Gold.

"After my first year in jazz I met Bobby Watson. And I was in his band Horizon for seven years. I never thought that after one year in jazz I'd be playing at the Village Vanguard. That's how I got huge opportunities. That was my first big break. Because of that, I met so many people. Bobby exposed me to so many people. When the band disbanded, I thought that was it. My career was over. But I met a lot of different people and played with them. McCoy Tyner. Cedar Walton called. A lot of people started calling."



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