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Stefon Harris: The Tradition of Jazz

Kevin Press By

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Music, particularly jazz, happens to be a phenomenal platform to share the message of the power and potential of empathy to affect positive change in our world. —Stefon Harris
Twenty-two years into his career, Albany, New York's Stefon Harris has fronted seven Blue Note LPs, served as co-lead on two others and recorded with a host of greats including Joshua Redman, Ry Cooder, Courtney Pine and Christian Scott.

Because that's not enough for the 45-year-old, he's also a successful educator, public speaker, entrepreneur and an eloquent interview. He and I spoke last week about his upcoming Blackout album, Sonic Creed.

All About Jazz: "Dat Dere," that's a pretty brave place to start.

Stefon Harris: Each of the Blackout records begin the same way. We take a classic piece of jazz repertoire, and we put a Blackout spin on it. Our first record, we started with "Nothing Personal," which was one of those tunes that everyone was playing around New York. There was a specific way that it was generally played, so we thought that that would be a great melody for us to put our unique groove on.

The second record, Urbanus, we started with "Gone" from Miles Davis' Porgy & Bess. We ended up putting a go-go groove on that because that's a reflection of D.C. culture which is where Marc Carey is from.

So this record, because I'm so dedicated to education right now—I'm spending the majority of my time right now focusing on education—I decided to do the song "Dat Dere" as a tribute to someone who I believe to be one of the forefathers of jazz education: Art Blakey. He's generally not spoken about in that manner. Many times people think about the forefathers of jazz education and they think about the people who are running institutional programs or began those programs. But jazz education began in the clubs really. It began in the communities and in the culture of the people. So I chose that piece as a platform to talk about the brilliance of people like Art Blakey, Barry Harris and Dizzy Gillespie—all these iconic educations where were never a part of major institutions.

AAJ: Do you think Blakey's been given his due over the years?

SH: Certainly as a band leader. He's been acknowledged as being one of those people who understood how to pass the culture of the music down to the next generation. He also understood just how vital a role that was. Of course he's gotten credit there, but I've rarely heard him spoken about as an educator.

Sometimes being an educator doesn't mean that you're communicating about scales or modes. Sometimes being an educator means you're putting people in difficult situations and helping them obtain the tools they need to fight their way out. When I speak to people who played with Art Blakey and I hear the stories ... it seems to me that the most pivotal moments in their artistic development are deeply connected to Art Blakey and the experiences that he created. People learned how to dig deep and how to deliver from playing with someone like Art Blakey.

For me, it was the great Buster Williams who taught me how to be a leader. I played with Buster for over twenty years and I learned timing from Buster. I learned how to let go and swim when it's unpredictable. I learned confidence. I learned how to communicate from Buster Williams. And none of that happened in the classroom.

AAJ: Did Buster make you want to be a teacher?

SH: Ever since I was a child, I've always wanted to be a teacher. It is as much my passion as playing. At my core, I'm dedicated to communications and in particular in communicating the importance of empathy in our world. Music, particularly jazz, happens to be a phenomenal platform to share the message of the power and potential of empathy to affect positive change in our world. In many ways, I find teaching to be more of a creative challenge than playing.

AAJ: Empathy is in pretty short supply these days.

SH: Well said. I do feel fairly confident that in order for us to continue moving in the right direction, we're going to have to listen to one another first. Before throwing out opinions, we have to understand the people on the other side. Because people don't do well when they don't feel they're being heard. They'll usually shut down and silo themselves.

The exact same thing happens in art. When you don't understand how to listen to the rhythm section and react to them, basically the rhythm section goes on automatic pilot. The drummer will just keep time for you. The pianist will just comp the chords that are written on the page. And you don't really get the beauty of their unique personalities if you don't know how to listen and create a platform for them to express themselves. When you do that, the music is far superior because it becomes a reflection of the entire community of musicians who are on the bandstand. As opposed to the singular idea of the leader.

This is why I think the greatest leader in jazz history, and certainly the person I admire the most as a leader, is Miles Davis. When you look at his bands, they were made up of incredibly diverse artists who thought differently about the world, who moved differently through the world and were always allowed the creative space to express themselves. It's evidenced by the fact that when you look at the people who came through Miles Davis' bands, they all became iconic figures. The same is true of Art Blakey.


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