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Terell Stafford: Pushing Music and Community

By Published: October 8, 2003

Stafford also had to play catch-up in his development, moving from the classical realm into jazz. He started listening to everything he could. "Early on, I would say Freddie, Miles, Lee Morgan. I learned a lot from studying them. But there were still things that were missing. I needed to go back and study the legacy. Louis Armstrong, Bubber Miley, Cootie Williams, Rex Stewart. All the masters. So I did that. And then I had a whole new understanding about the trumpet and where the history had come from. I appreciated Miles more. I appreciated Dizzy more. I appreciated Clifford more. Freddie Hubbard. Woody Shaw. Because I didn't pay much attention. Since I came in so late, I listened to what everybody else was listening to, so I could catch up to them. Then when I went back and did the homework, I saw that there is so much happening, it's refreshing. A lot of people don't see it. They say that stuff is old. It's been done. But there's so much conception behind it."

Through it all, he has little desire to dig back into classical music performance.

The trumpeter still practices classical music, and teaches some of it, but he doesn't miss performing it. A classical performance last fall made him "a nervous wreck," and made him appreciate the land of jazz.

"It's a different type of preparation. With jazz, the way I prepare myself for a concert is I make sure all my tools are there so I can use different vehicles to get out of things, out of changes. But in classical music, it's not about tools. It's just about the music, cut and dried. Do you have this passage down? Is this passage down? Is this passage down? And it has to be the same way. People that come to hear the music are listening for that. Is this passage down? Is this passage down? Whereas people that come to hear jazz are listening to see, 'Man, let me hear what I can feel.' Not to say there's no feeling in classical music. I'm not saying that. But I was a nervous wreck getting up on that stage in front of that orchestra. The day after that concert, I went on the road in jazz. I went up on the stage and it was a packed room and I never felt so comfortable in all my life. It was like being in a bathtub with bubbles, you know what I mean?"

Another big part of Stafford, his life and career, is teaching. It's important to him, he said, and he tries to impart the history of the trumpet and the music on those he tutors. Terell had an undergraduate degree in education, but hadn't really applied it until he got some advice from one of his bosses — Bill Cosby — when he was on the musical staff, under the direction of Shirley Scott, for the TV show "You Bet Your Life." Cosby suggested teaching at his alma mater, Temple University in Philadelphia. "He's the guy that signed my paychecks every two weeks, so I said, 'good suggestion,'" Stafford chuckled, "and I did it."

"I teach a good amount," he said. "I teach at Temple University now. I'm there three days a week. My schedule's fairly flexible there. They're very supportive of what I do. And then in the summer, since I have my summers off, I do a couple camps. This week I'm doing this [Skidmore]. Next week I do a camp with Christian McBride in Aspen. I'm off for a week. Then I go off on the road to Spain for a week. I'm doing a record, a CD and a concert with a local band. Then I'm going on the QE2 with Slide Hampton, a Dizzy Gillespie alumni group. So I try to get all my heavy touring done in the summer, and dedicate the fall and spring to teaching, but I still do tours then.

"But I really enjoy it. There are times that I don't. When I'm not reaching the students, or I feel like the students don't want to be reached. It goes both ways. Those times I don't and I appreciate my playing part. I can leave that and go do a concert with some great musicians and feel totally inspired, and go out on the road for a week and come home and say, 'OK. Let me try this concept again. Let me try this approach. Let me work on this.' And it's a great balance because it I think it's expanding me as a person. To teach and to share. Plus I learn a lot from the students. It challenges me. If they can't do something, how do I show them how to do it? How do I know how to do it? Have I ever tried it? All these questions go through my head and it challenges me. When you go home tonight, you better try to work on this in case this question comes up in the future. Which helps me, because I go play with someone else and whatever we were working on with this particular student may come out on the road with Kenny Barron. It may come up in some music."

That's a healthy outlook for a musician. Especially one of Stafford's caliber, and one who has an affect on young musicians coming up. (It might be worthy to note that bassist Hodge on the new CD is a young former student of Stafford, getting his chance to shine a bit.) Stafford also doesn't rest on his laurels as a player. He's a guy with great technique, but don't tell him that. He's got more work to do.

"I want to make more opportunities for practicing. I love to practice. The trumpet does not come easy for me. First of all, it's not an easy instrument. It's not something I just put to my lips. I love to practice. Dedicate myself to it, so I just want to keep doing that. Get better and better and better."

His outlook helps him deal with the jazz industry as a whole, which is not very friendly of late for most of the working folk. There are a lot of complaints. And a lot of people not working. But Stafford is staying away from the negative.

"Things have been OK for me, but it's not always about me. I wish the whole community were a lot happier. I think that everything is a cycle. Time is a cycle, music is a cycle, swing is a cycle. Right now, we're just going through a cycle. I think if we can hang in there, we can make it through this. But right now it is hard. Opportunities aren't there like they have been. It's funny because musicians have months that are called our dark months. Not much work comes in. Right now those dark months have just been extended. But you always know, like Bobby Watson always told me, you always know when a dark month comes there's gonna be a good one coming up, so just try to hang in there.

"That's what I feel like. This summer isn't what other summers have been, but it's going to come around. This month may have been better then last month. I always try to be as optimistic as I can. Because right now everybody's bashing it, and the more you bash it the more you discourage the people who are trying to support it. That's how I look at it. If I can lift it, encourage it, and keep supporting it, we can make it a positive thing. I just see all the bashing from all the musicians and everyone so down on it. It's not this and it's not that. The listeners are going to say, 'If it's not that anymore, then I might as well just go.' And the scene goes down the hill.

"I think things will come around. I don't feel totally discouraged, like I'm going to give up. We just have to make it through these hard times. Hang in there. Look out for one another. If a gig comes up and somebody's not working that much, hook em up. Try to make some opportunities for everyone.

"I talk to a lot of friends who say, 'I wish I were moving more product.' I never worry about that. I take it day to day. Here, I sold a box of CDs. I'm happy about that. I would have brought two boxes of CDs. If I sold a box and a half, it's more than I sold last week. More people hearing the music and passing the word along. I feel good.

"I have no complaints, and when I do start to complain — there've been worse months. There've been worse times. I feel blessed, I feel good."

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