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Jahari Stampley: Winner of The 2023 Herbie Hancock Institute Competition

Jahari Stampley: Winner of The 2023 Herbie Hancock Institute Competition

Courtesy Brian Cassella

Chicago-based pianist Jahari Stampley is a prodigious talent who has won, among other accolades, the prestigious Herbie Hancock Institute of Jazz International Piano Competition. Born into a musical family (his mother D'Erania is an innovative multi-instrumentalist and educator), Stampley took up music at age 10. His self-released 2023 debut Still Listening features several up-and-coming young talents from the Chicago area as well as past classmates of his. These include the vocalist Alysha Monique, drummer Jeremiah Collier and saxophonist Stefan Haerle, among others. Stampley took some time from his busy schedule for the interview below. In this conversation Stampley discusses his roots, his influences and his future plans.

All About Jazz: Congratulations on winning the Herbie Hancock Institute of Jazz International Piano Competition. What were your thoughts and feelings when you first found out you won?

Jahari Stampley: I didn't realize I had won initially, and I was so overwhelmed with emotions because I had a friend who passed that evening. It was surreal because I didn't know I had won. I thought I was in third place, then all of a sudden Herbie Hancock came up to me and shook my hand congratulating me. He then went on stage and proceeded to announce my name to the crowd. As I was overwhelmed with emotion, it was a big conflict of high and low emotions: overwhelmed with the fact that I won, yet sadness that my friend was no longer here. It is hard to describe, but overall, I was very honored and grateful to be a part of that moment.

AAJ: Which of your other awards do you consider the most meaningful? Why?

JS: The Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra (CYSO) Alumni Award was very meaningful due to being the first non-classical artist to receive this honor.

AAJ: You have mentioned that you did not get into music until age 10. What resulted in the change of heart?

JS: I've been around music all of my life. My mom played saxophone as a band leader, and growing up, she also played piano and organ. My grandmother was also an amazing gospel pianist and organist. As a child, my earliest memories were of listening to the two of them. Along with this, I remember rhythms being a natural part of my life—I would always beat on things. So, by the time I was 10, my parents bought me a drum set, and I started playing drums at church. The drums were actually my first instrument. Everyone thought that I would become a drummer. I started playing piano at the age of 14. Although we always had upright pianos and different keyboards in the house,and I sometimes would tinker around with them, I didn't formally start playing piano more seriously until high school. I had an amazing band instructor, Mr. Henry, who teaches at Rickover Naval Academy [a Chicago public school]. He just so happened to be proficient on drums as well as piano. He would often play and demonstrate a variety of musical passages on the piano. I would watch his fingers and patterns, and I picked up things very quickly. I'd return to class having mimicked my instructor from the previous day. This would go on every day, and this inspired me to explore the instrument further. It just so happened at this same time period that my dad purchased a used baby grand Knabe piano, which helped to push me further down the musical rabbit hole. I would experiment every day after school and would try things. Along with this, I then discovered piano videos on YouTube. I was also fortunate to be in an environment through my mom where I would watch her practice piano for church because she was the musical director, and she also rehearsed with her band at the house. I was always in a fertile creative environment. At this point music was such a mystery to me and I had to discover more.

AAJ: Your mother, D'Erania, is an ingenious and imaginative musician who is an educator and performs on multiple instruments. Did she encourage you to take up the piano?

JS: Growing up, I always thought what my mother could do playing multiple instruments was completely normal, and it never occurred to me that there was something significantly special about the unimaginable talents she possessed naturally. I think because of this, and due to her never forcing me into pursuing music, I wasn't initially drawn towards music right away. Although, once I began to fathom how unusually incredible she was later in life, she has surely been such an immense inspiration to me. So once the piano came into the forefront for me and the drums sort of went into the background, she was able to connect me directly with some great pianists that she worked with. People like pianist Robert Irving III, and educators Tony Cazeau and Donald 'Buster' Woods. She also signed me up for various music programs such as After School Matters, Jazz Institute of Chicago and CYSO. Through all of these various outlets and influences I went deeper down the musical rabbit hole.

AAJ: Later this year, you are playing a duo set with your mother at Guarneri Hall in Chicago. What is it like to play with her?

JS: Obviously, we have a very intimate musical relationship. It's very intuitive and enjoyable. She inspires me and she tells me I inspire her. It's not something that either of us think consciously about, but we have a deep musical connection.

AAJ: Other than your mother, who else were your mentors and teachers?

JS: There were many great instructors at the programs I took part in while I was in high school during my formative years. There were people like the great [pianist] Willie Pickens who has left a deep legacy on the Chicago jazz scene, Mr. Henry, my high school band instructor, [trumpeter] Pharez Whitted jazz director at CYSO, pianist Robert Irving III, Tony Cazeau... I could go on and on. There are musicians that I met at different churches who have shared knowledge with me, and just gave me creative inspiration. Then when I attended Manhattan School of Music in New York there was a whole world of mentors and teachers there as well. People like Jeremy Manasia and vibraphonist Stefon Harris. And by just being in New York City I was fortunate to be in such a fertile creative environment meeting people like pianist Robert Glasper, multi-instrumentalist Derrick Hodge and trumpeter Keyon Harrold to name a few. So, I've definitely been fortunate enough to have many mentors and teachers.

AAJ: At one of your shows, I believe at Space in Evanston IL, someone remarked to me that your style was a cross between pianists Chick Corea and Oscar Peterson. Do you agree?

JS: I could never thank Chick Corea and Oscar Peterson enough for what they left behind—their creative legacy. When I worked with bassist Stanley Clarke, I had the privilege of learning some of the music from Return to Forever. As a bandleader Mr. Clarke wanted us to bring our individuality to the band. But it was such a rare experience to walk in Chick's footsteps. So, I feel an intimate connection with Chick Corea. Oscar Peterson is someone who has always amazed me since I first heard him. I remember learning his song "Peace [For South Africa]" and was enamored by his phrasing as well as the emotional depth and range of his playing. His vocabulary reminds me of gospel music and blues, but his technique was richly influenced by classical music. I also feel an intimate connection with him. I love them both and spent lots of time with their music, and I always look forward to spending more time with their music. So, I would definitely agree they are both a part of my musical DNA, but it's not something that I consciously think about.

AAJ: Who else has influenced you?

JS: The list is enormous, however, if I were to consolidate, I'd say names like Art Tatum, Herbie Hancock, Geri Allen, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Glenn Gibson, Tigran Hamasyan, Quennel Gaskin, Robert Glasper, Cory Henry, Taylor Eigsti, James Francies among many others.

AAJ: What is your educational background musically speaking? Do you have more of a Western classical background or specifically jazz?

JS: If I were to look at music like a language, I first learned to speak music by listening to my mom and grandmother talk. But naturally, as I got older, I was introduced to a more formal Western music education—playing in a band in high school for all four years, joining jazz ensembles through different programs, and being introduced to classical music as well. But by the time I got to higher education—Manhattan School of Music—more information poured in from different perspectives. Ironically, I considered jazz to be American classical music. In today's society, especially with the internet, it's possible to be exposed to so many things from so many places. I love so much different music from different times and different places. I love singer-songwriter Stevie Wonder, I love classical composer [Frederic] Chopin, I love pianist Herbie Hancock, I love pianist Jon Batiste... Good music is good music.

AAJ: Do you plan on getting a graduate degree in music? And if so from where?

JS: Yes, from The School of Life [laughs]—but if and when I was to return, it would probably be my alma mater, Manhattan School of Music

AAJ: What inspired your album Still Listening?

JS: The inspiration of this album came from the concept of staying in touch with your youthful imagination and to never stop listening to your creative self. On the front of the album is a younger version of myself staring out, which is a parallel to the back side (the opposite: an older version of myself staring towards the viewer).

AAJ: Do you have a specific process while composing new music? What is it?

JS: A lot of times music comes to me very suddenly. There isn't a specific method that I go about when it comes to composition, but rather, it tends to flood into my mind at moments I never expect. In general, it isn't always a consistent pattern, but rather varies depending on the moment. I may hear melodies at times, but usually, I find that I tend to hear the rhythms in my mind (which piece together the remaining of the piece). Upon sitting down with these ideas, I'm able to piece together fragments which then convert into the finality of the piece.

AAJ: Do you write specific passages with improvisation in mind, or do you improvise in the moment without any preparation?

JS: Both. As a composer often the music comes first and as an improviser, I strive to convey the intention of the music through raw improvisation. The recording process allows for creative editing; however, I usually follow my first creative impression—in the spirit of the moment.

AAJ: Are you working on any new recordings?

JS: Yes, I am currently working on my second album—I try to write new music every day and I'm constantly recording.

AAJ: What are your future plans?

JS: To continue sharing my music with the world and to grow as a player and composer. I am so grateful to be able to do music and share it with others. I look forward to also collaborating with other inspiring artists.

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