Stefon Harris: Pursuing the Tradition


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The idea that we should just copy and recreate music from the past is not actually the cultural tradition of the art form.
—Stefon Harris
Musician and composer Stefon Harris wears many hats. But he wears them all well.

He is a composer, performer, bandleader, businessman, educator and leadership trainer. He handles each with a clear head, confidence and sense of purpose. He's bright, articulate and relates to people on any level.

Harris' to-do list on any given day can involve the fact that he is associate dean and director of the Arts Department at the Manhattan School of Music. He also runs an app company called the Melodic Progression Institute that has produced an app for musicians called Harmony Cloud. In January 2019, the company will release a major update to that software. It's dedicated to helping musicians learn how to play by ear, "so that they can connect with human beings all over the world in unfamiliar environments," says Harris.

Meanwhile, his leadership training is done in the corporate world. Harris talks about team dynamics and how to get the best out of a business team, usually illustrating those ideas by bringing a band with him.

"It's fascinating, because it's one thing to talk to someone about an idea and it's another when you demonstrate in music," says Harris. "Not only do we show what goes right, we show when things go wrong. Then we show how to change your approach in how you are communicating with other people. You can immediately feel the change in the music and you feel much more connected emotionally. Art has the potential to create an 'A-ha' moment in a way that words seem to fall short of."

Then there's his life calling as a musician. He plays vibraphone, writes music and performs at times with other stars of jazz. Harris, leading his longstanding band Blackout, has put out a 2018 album, Sonic Creed (Motéma), his first with the band since Urbanus (Concord) in 2009. The band will get a chance to go out on the road before long, doing dates in support of the music. For many musicians it's what they thrive on. For Harris, too. But it's also kind of a nice breather.

"I'm actually looking forward to it," he says, "because I'm involved in a lot of different endeavors from education to app development to doing corporate presentations. So I'm actually really excited to get back on the stage and express what's in my heart and connect with human beings. It's a blessing to be able to play music for a living.*

The recording has only two Harris compositions. This time, it's a tribute to some of his heroes and there are covers of songs by Wayne Shorter, Horace Silver, Abbey Lincoln, Bobby Timmons and one of his vibraphone idols, Bobby Hutcherson. The music isn't a reproduction. That's never part of his vision. He is true to himself and his music.

"Part of the concept of Sonic Creed is to pay reverence to our elders and to make music that is directly relevant to us," says Harris. "When we pay tribute to our elders, we try to pay tribute in a way that our elders would want us to. The idea that we should just copy and re-create music from the past is not actually the cultural tradition of the art form. It's an art form about documenting the here and now and telling stories in an authentic way as possible.

"Another important element is that the music we chose to amplify on this album is all music of people that we've had direct life experiences with. I've spent time Abbey Lincoln. I've spent lots if time with Bobby Hutcherson and played with him. I was able to spend time with Horace Silver and Wayne Shorter. This music is a direct reflection of my life experience and my development as a man."

Harris says the band is constantly growing. They convene periodically to document "that point in history, what's happening in the world, as authentically as we possibly can. Then we part ways. Because Blackout is really a band of leaders. Everyone is a composer. Everyone has their own music, their own ensemble. We spend time apart, growing in our own spaces. Then we come back together every couple of years and bring all of that new excitement and energy together to create something unique and special. So this current project is perfectly timed. Everyone in the band has been out and busy doing exciting things. When we came back together in the studio, the chemistry absolutely incredible. The album came together in one of the most effortless situations I've ever been a part of."

The band includes James Francies on piano, Casey Benjamin on sax, Terreon Gully on drums, Mike Moreno on guitar, Joshua Crumbly on bass and Felix Peikly on clarinet, with guest spots from people including Pedrito Martinez on percussion and Elena Pinderhughes on flute. The music was recorded over three days.

"There are core members to the ensemble," says Harris. "But Blackout is more of a concept. So it will always evolve over time. Members will come in and go out. It's a fluid idea of coming together to tell our stories in a way that is unapologetic. In my opinion it is a real manifestation of the tradition of jazz. The tradition of jazz has always been to tell modern stories and not to recreate sounds from the past. When I think of the term 'traditional jazz,' I think what we do is traditional jazz."

"Dat Dere" is a funky up-tempo number pushed by drums and percussion. "Chasin' Kendall" sounds like a summer day stroll. Harris' vibraphone statements are both fleet and mindful of the groove. Silver's "Cape Verdean Blues" alternates tempos, with Benjamin making sharp snake-like statements. Shorter's "Go" is funky jazz, swinging, yet modern with sections that move with a backbeat, and sections with more of a jazz rhythm. Always tight. "Throw it Away" by Lincoln starts in a dreamy state, Harris playing ethereal lines, similarly Benjamin on soprano sax, quite different from the original, but true to a singular vision. "Now," by Hutcherson, is a stellar ballad, each musician serving the mood without striding out front.

"I like to make albums that have a function in people's lives," says Harris. "Sometimes you can make an album that's about an abstract idea. Sometimes you make an album that's good dinner music. This album, for me, is so fun. From the beginning to the end, it has such positive energy and it feels full of life and optimism. I'm really grateful that I was able to be a part of it.

"The other thing about improvised music is you can't control it. You have to be open to accepting what's available to you in the moment. We were very prepared going into the studio, but once we got in there, the direction of the album revealed itself to us. There are five or six other pieces that were recorded that didn't make the record. Strong pieces of music that I'm sure we'll use in the future. But the concept of what this album needed to be was revealed to us that day. It was different than what was intended when we went in. We were open and received the blessing that was there for us that day."

In developing the music, Harris says authenticity is "the highest value in this art form. In many ways creativity is overrated. Creativity is often a selfish endeavor. It's about some interesting idea you may have in your head that is not directly connected with anything else in the world. Not always, but often. But what made this art form so significant globally is its ability to amplify the voices of communities that are alive and well right now. So authenticity has always been the top value for me as an artist. I think it's one of the things that we strive for as an ensemble."

Harris admits he doesn't have an eye on his next project because his plate is so full. Another thing he is proud of, however, is that he is the recipient of the prestigious Doris Duke Foundation award, one of seven in the artist category. [Jazz musicians Regina Carter and Dee Dee Bridgewater were also among them]. It came as a total surprise. "It's something you can't apply for. One day you get a telephone call from the team telling you: Congratulations." The funds are unrestricted in their use, but they won't go toward a recording.

"It allows someone, like myself, who has a primary interest in helping other people, to allocate my resources accordingly," says Harris. "A lot of the grants and awards that are out there are focused on one's artistic output. But I have a strong commitment and dedication to education and developing technology that support people and helps them to learn and understand this art form. An award like this means a great deal to me. It's like putting gasoline on a fire. I already have a serious passion and I'm working really hard discovering incredible things about art and education. This just encourages me to continue to go down that path and lets me know I'm doing the right thing."

Harris has always been driven by music. As a youngster, he sampled all the instruments he could get his hand on—trombone, flute and clarinet among them. He ended up playing the vibraphone because of a mentor, a percussionist with the Albany Symphony in upstate New York. He took up the vibes, though he said the expression of music as an art is more important than what instrument a person uses. He was a classical major in his freshman year at Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., then got into jazz through other students. He left and went to the Manhattan School of Music. Along the way he listened to Milt Jackson. Charlie Parker was also an influence. He met Hutcherson, and played with the likes of Joe Henderson, Wynton Marsalis, Buster Williams and Geri Allen. He's played with outer outstanding musicians along the way and has been part of the SFJAZZ Collective.

Through it all, Harris has embraced jazz, expressing it through the black experience. His black experience. He reflects upon this, like he does everything, in an direct, erudite and even affable manner.

"It's my life experience in this country," says Harris. "It's not just my experience. The point is to create art and tell a story in a way that inspires everyone to tell their own stories in organized sound. It's not just about my story. But the only story I can tel with authenticity is that which I've experienced in real life," says Harris. "This is an art form that is significant because it is a platform for anyone around the world to tell their own stories. You don't have to come from any particular economic background, any particular region of the world to be a part of this art form. The most important aspect is honesty. And authenticity. This is where it begins. And from there, this is one of the most flexible, most tolerant forms of music that has ever existed in mankind."

No longer a "young lion" as he was when he burst on the scene with immediately recognizable talent, Harris, at 45, sees the current music scene as healthy from an artistic perspective, even though the industry itself has been dealing with challenges in recent decades.

"But many times it has a interesting adverse effect," says Harris. "When an industry is strong, a lot of times the institution has some influence on how artists think. Because they want to be a part of those larger institutions, so they capitulate to the ideology of those institutions. When a lot of those large institutions have less influence, artists tend to go ahead and document whatever is in their spirit, in a way that's more authentic. Some of the creative and brilliant music that is happening in the world right now in some way is as a result of less influence from the music industry."

He says the academic institutions have played a role in helping to train the next generation of artists with regard to their ability to know the history of the music and play their instrument. "But then it takes a special person to step away from all of that information that people absorb about the past and let go and say their truth in the here and now."

In his position at the Manhattan School of Music, Harris runs one of the best and largest jazz programs around. He is very inspired by the gifted young students. The students "keep me incredibly young and it's keeping me very hungry and constantly curious and growing," he says. "I am uniquely involved with setting the cultural tone of the department, which is very significant, because in many ways when jazz education was at its onset, music was allowed in the institution, but not necessarily the culture. I think it's incredibly important to teach the music from a cultural perspective in order to ensure its continuity in our world.

"The music is not valuable because of the notes. The music is valuable to our society because of the beautiful example of empathy, or relationship management, of understanding democratic principles and how to deal with struggle. How to come together with diverse and sometimes disparate voices to create something of incredible beauty. So there are fantastic lessons embedded in the heart of this art form that need to be taught to the next generation of musicians. So when they go out into the world, they understand they are carrying something that is absolutely essential to our society and it's not just a form of entertainment."

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Motema Music

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