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Terell Stafford: Trial and Inspiration


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Every time Bobby Watson would write a tune, he would always put the name of the musician on the chart, never just "trumpet." When you write the name of the individual, then you want that individualistic voice coming from that particular part.
Terell Stafford is as likely to credit his influences as he is to impress his listeners. Coming to jazz comparatively later than many players, and even with his busy schedule as a sideman, leader and educator, he remains devoted to exploring the music's roots, while expressing a relentless desire to learn more.

Stafford first started playing trumpet at age thirteen, initially studying the classical repertoire and pursuing a music education degree at the University of Maryland. After being accepted into a classical performance program at Rutgers University, Stafford's curiosity, drive and chops earned him an invitation to join saxophonist Bobby Watson's group, Horizons. From there it was on to further gigs including the Clayton brothers, the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra and over ninety recordings as a sideman, as well as six releases under his own name and his current role as Director of Jazz Studies at Temple University.

Stafford's latest release, This Side of Strayhorn (MAXJAZZ, 2011), began with a commission for an educational project from the Cityfolk arts outreach group, with Stafford and his quintet later deciding to record some of that material. The resulting album explores both familiar and lesser-known Billy Strayhorn compositions. It's also Stafford's first CD to hit the Billboard charts, reaching number one on JazzWeek's Jazz Radio Report.

Chapter Index
  1. Stafford and Strayhorn
  2. Influence, Innovate and Cook
  3. Just Say Never
  4. Education, Naturally
  5. Contemporary Directions, Timeless Foundations

Stafford and Strayhorn

All About Jazz: How did you select the Strayhorn compositions on This Side of Strayhorn?

Terell Stafford: Some of the greatest resources for Strayhorn are the older, wiser musicians, such as Frank Wess or Houston Person, who I can go to and say, "Hey, what tunes do you like? What tunes are you into?" and who can give me advice and guidance. From that perspective I got a great history lesson from the jazz masters, and they pointed out some interesting tunes.

From a couple of tunes that I knew and played with different people, from a couple of things [pianist and arranger] Bruce Barth had brought to the table, and speaking with some of the jazz masters, having them contribute to something they know so well, [all those people] helped me to put that commission and that record together.

As far as choosing Bruce Barth as an arranger, he's hands down one of my favorites and he's my best friend. When the commission project came through I was told, "you can either do the arranging yourself or choose one of your favorite arrangers," and I said "Well, no one better than Bruce Barth for the Billy Strayhorn project!"

AAJ: What does your experience as a sideman bring to your work as a leader?

TS: As a leader, I sometimes look at my role as a glorified sideman. I've learned so many lessons from Bobby Watson, but every night we would play or every time he would write a tune, he would always put the name of the musician on the chart. He would never just write, "trumpet." The Clayton brothers do the same exact thing. When you start to write the names of the individuals, then you want that individualistic voice coming from that particular part. You're not going to ask how it should be played or dictate how it's going to be played. You're going to accept how it is played, and you're going to move on musically from that point. As a leader of the group, when Tim Warfield is standing next to me, my expectation is not for Tim to come to me [as if to say], "I'm the leader, you come to my concept." It's more like, "My name is on the marquee, but let's work as a group to figure out our concept."

I can provide leadership through my vision, and from my instrument. I don't necessarily have to speak it verbally because there's enough respect in the group that it automatically happens. It's the same thing with the Clayton brothers, or any other group. I know Matt Wilson's vibe and his personality, and I try to bring that knowledge and play to his vision, while keeping my own voice. I do the same thing with the Clayton brothers and other groups that I play with. It's important for me to play the music the way I hear it, but I still want to keep in mind the concept of the artist I'm performing with.

AAJ: What is it about This Side of Strayhorn that you think resonated with audiences and critics?

TS: Every Strayhorn tune is singable, and there's a vocal aspect to [his music]. For many people, when they hear these songs they [also] hear the lyrics, so there's an attachment to [them]. On some records I've shied away from the blues (even though that's my roots and definitely where I come from), to be hipper, or find different things, or to stay in the "mainstream." For this particular record, it's all about the blues and the expression.

We came to the record travelling a week beforehand, really getting a good vibe amongst the musicians. When we did the record it took no time at all. It was the quickest record I've ever done, probably in my career. It took maybe four plus hours, which is nothing. We came in at ten or eleven, we were out of there, and it was great. It was also really helpful to have John Clayton produce the record. He's another great friend, and he's incredible with people and an incredible musician with a huge heart. He made great suggestions and encouraged everyone on the record date.

I came away from this record date feeling like what I'd done was appreciated not only by the musicians but also by the producer [and] friends. When the record came out, I think the warmth of the whole CD drew people in, as well as its cohesiveness. The music of Billy Strayhorn really speaks for itself.

AAJ: Are there any future projects planned, exploring other composers or artists along the lines of this album?

TS: We had more Strayhorn material than we needed for the record, so we have almost half of a CD ready of new material. They're interesting tunes as well, but I think the theme again is the blues, and that's the theme of so many great composers and arrangements: you can capture the blues in whatever you do and that emotional element is always there.

I think in the future there will be similar projects, for the simple fact that I love Thad Jones, and there are so many other great composers and arrangers out there. There's so much Strayhorn material that we really wanted to get on this record but just couldn't. The options are there but there hasn't been anything in particular chosen right now. There have been a lot wheels spinning!

Influence, Innovate and Cook

AAJ: You've expressed a deep interest in the history of the music and your predecessors, while always pursuing your own voice. What's the relationship between influence and innovation for you?

TS: I started playing jazz so late that I really thought what I needed to do was listen to my peers and contemporaries, see where they were, and see if I could go in a different direction [...], to provide my own voice and be an innovator. I'll never forget this encounter to this day (and I thank Stanley Crouch for this day every time I see him), but when I first started playing jazz I was playing at Bradley's one night, and Crouch just pulled me aside and he just let me know my playing had no depth, it had no foundation. It was humbling for him to say that. I asked him why he said that, and he replied, "Have you transcribed any Cootie Williams? Have you checked out any Bubber Miley? Have you listened to any Ray Nance or Roy Eldridge? How much Louis Armstrong have you listened to?"

He just started going down this list of trumpet players, and I hadn't listened to anyone! I was so focused on the present and taking what I heard being played right now to another direction that I didn't take the opportunity to really learn where my instrument comes from, where the sound of the trumpet comes from, where the vocabulary comes from. When we go back and really study the history of our instrument, then we can have a voice of innovation because we can understand where things have come from.

I relate it a lot to cooking, because I love to cook! Growing up with my grandparents, watching them cook and them teaching me how to cook, [and now] some twenty to twenty-five years later I've taken their same recipes [...] to a different place. Not intentionally maybe, but just [from] having my palate change. One's musical palate changes just like one's taste palate.

AAJ: What's your process for engaging that history with your own palate?

TS: I never really think about it. I transcribe a lot but I have no photographic memory, it doesn't stay in my head forever, so some things I transcribe may be right on my mind or right on my fingertips, as time goes on I may forget things. As you improvise certain things come back to you. They may not come back to you verbatim, but they come back to you in different ways. That's how the innovation happens: when you're in the moment, and you're improvising, and you get to a point where you say "I love this color," and you go for a certain sound and realize, "Wow! I transcribed that years ago, but I can't remember the exact melody or the exact rhythm." All of a sudden you've created a vocabulary.

I'm a creature of habit, so if I figure out that [particular sound] works, in time I may use it again over another sound. You find different ways to use some of the same things, and that's the true innovation. If you listen to Woody Shaw, he could apply similar pentatonic sounds over different chords and it would bring out really unique colors! That was innovative, just from his thought process.

AAJ: You often discuss sound and color, and many listeners have drawn attention to your very powerful, very personal tone on trumpet, as well as flugelhorn. Is that a conscious aspect of your playing, or have you always had that tone?

TS: When I was growing up I always studied classical music, and I'll never forget when I was at the University of Maryland there was a horn section player and conductor who always told me while I was playing in the wind ensemble, "Terell, you have that jazz sound. It's too bright, it's too thin," and he was absolutely right. I was using a whole lot of pressure, and I wasn't using any air or any wind, however you want to refer to it.

My teacher in college was really good; there were a lot of fundamentals he worked on and helped me with. But it wasn't until I met [Dr.] Wayne Fielder, by the suggestion of Wynton [Marsalis], and when I started to study with Fielder, he spoke only about sound. All he spoke about was sound, and wind, and that if you take in enough air you turn that air into wind, and when you can alleviate as much compression as possible, then you can start to get a freer and more open sound. He was the person that really made sound one of my number one priorities.

Then I'd go listen to examples. Fielder played one of the most beautiful trumpet sounds I think I ever heard, from "Bud" Herseth, who was principal trumpet of the Chicago Symphony [Orchestra]. After hearing that sound, the fullness and the colors that came out of that sound, that really attracted me. If you listen to Booker Little you hear those similar colors and similar sound. I heard that from Art Farmer too [...]. Many trumpet players get that sound, those are just a few that come to my mind right now.

AAJ: Besides your tone, is there anything else from your classical training that you've brought to your jazz playing?

TS: One of my favorite composers is Chopin, and I love melody. You hear Chopin and you hear how a person can write such beautiful melodies, and then how people can interpret such beautiful melodies. That really guided me down a path to relate with melody. There's great composers, people always talk about Stravinsky and the harmony, and that's really interesting, but I'm a melody person, and a fundamentals person. The process that it takes to prepare for a concerto is a process that I sometimes use to prepare for a concert, because I want to have that endurance. From the endurance comes the power, so if I need to emote in a certain place I don't want to be unable to express myself because of limitations on my instrument. Don't think that I have it mastered! That's not what I'm saying, but I want as much freedom to express as much as possible. Practicing those fundamentals I got from classical music for so long helps.

AAJ: There's a great video of you explaining tonguing and articulation to a group of young students at a Swing Central Jazz Workshop...

TS: I like to speak about fundamentals. Oftentimes when I practice I like to practice jazz doing tunes that I'm working on, but I'm a real fundamentalist, so I can easily spend hours and hours just working on different articulations. So when people ask me a question about articulation, they're opening up a can of worms, because I can talk about it all day! They're thinking, "Oh god, I'm sorry I asked that question!" [laughs]

Just Say Never

AAJ: When did you really begin to immerse yourself in studying jazz?

TS: I really started to get more curious about jazz when I went to Rutgers for my master's degree. When I was doing my undergraduate degree, I did play in the jazz band. I didn't really know what I was doing when it came to improvising, but I did play in the jazz band because I got some scholarship money, and I needed it for school, to help pay for my books and things. So I played in a jazz band and I was friends with the jazz band director. I got to meet a lot of people in jazz; it just wasn't where my focus was. When I auditioned for graduate school at Rutgers, I auditioned for the classical and jazz programs and I was accepted into the classical program and rejected from the jazz program.

AAJ: What did coming to jazz at that point in your life bring to your experience with the music?

TS: In some ways I was a little bit further along on my instrument. When I started to really pursue jazz, the instrument was not as much of a struggle. The trumpet is always a struggle, and if anyone says any different I need to speak to them and figure out what they're doing [laughs].

I'm not a person that handles "you can't..." or "you won't..." very well. When I said I want to try jazz, many people said, "you'll never be able to swing, you don't know any tunes, you don't know this or that," and the classical musicians told me, "You've been preparing so much for this career in classical music, why would you want to do that?" Just hearing that spin made me say, "I'm going to do it. I'm going to ask the questions, and I'm going to pursue. I'm going to go for this, and if it doesn't work out, it doesn't work out." The jazz community is one of the most incredible communities ever, because people are just so willing to share and to spend time, and that was the bottom line in learning this music at a later age.

Education, Naturally

AAJ: You told a very inspirational (and humorous) story at Temple's commencement, when as a nine-year old viola player, a music teacher told your parents that you have no musical talent. Did those experiences hearing "can't" or "won't" influence you as an educator as well?

TS: We come to where we need to be on our own and through our life experience. There's students who come to Temple and have this passion and desire to play music, and when you hear them you say, "Okay, there's some talent there." Then you hear other students and say, "Wow, now that is unbelievable talent, this person is going to make it far." Eighty percent of the time, we're wrong, because the person that has the musical talent and for whom everything is really easy might not put the time in. The person that has that desire and has the attitude to achieve on the highest level possible is the one that truly makes it and takes the music to a whole other level.

That teacher discouraged me in one area of music—playing an instrument that maybe I didn't identify with—and I found an instrument that I could identify with. That happens at Temple, too: people come in and choose one instrument and we encourage them and say, "Tenor trombone sounds great, but have you checked out bass trombone?" People try things, and it may work or it may not work, but I'm always really open to students finding their own way. I'll guide them; if a student asks me for my opinion I'll happily give it to them, but I don't push anything that's not natural.

It's similar to my embouchure: my embouchure is not a conventional embouchure, and so many people tried to change it. So when students come in with a problem with their embouchure I'll say "Sure, let's explore options and see how we can help you." I'm not going to say, "According to page 39 of the Arban's trumpet instruction book, your embouchure is not what's described here as a conventional embouchure, so let's change it."

AAJ: You've also reached out as an educator at Temple by founding Jazz @ the Underground, a monthly forum for student and faculty musicians, and by running clinics for school band directors through Jazz at Lincoln Center. What's your vision for those outlets?

TS: When I was first approached to do those, I was super insecure about it, because I more or less learned teaching through trial and error. Even though my undergraduate degree is in music education, when it comes to jazz education I didn't formally go to any institution.

What I started to learn through the years is that most teaching experience and most experiences in general, are through trial and error: you don't pick up a manual on marriage [or] how to raise child. Through trial and error we figure out what works and we figure out what doesn't work, and many times with particular teachers some things work for them and some things happen. Many teachers come to these clinics just to find options, and to have people they can bounce ideas off of. Now I really have this passion for getting out and, I don't want to call it "teaching teachers," but I want to call it "hearing and exploring ideas and concepts."

The people I mentioned—Jimmy Heath and Frank Wess—opened my eyes, ears and thoughts to a lot of different things. To share recordings and [harmonic and melodic] ideas from these masters is something that some of these teachers may never get the opportunity to do. So I also see myself as a messenger, to pass along some of these messages to those that are teaching, so that the students have an opportunity to gain as much knowledge as possible.

AAJ: What do you believe is the importance of jazz education in schools, especially in light of the current state of arts education?

TS: This topic is very touchy and emotional to a lot of people, especially teaching in Philadelphia, and seeing how many music programs have been eliminated, thinking that for every music program that's eliminated, they're knocking out an opportunity for the next John Coltrane or Lee Morgan.

Yet my hat goes off to these teachers and students. I was out with the Northern Illinois University Jazz Ensemble, doing a tour of the Midwest as their special guest. We did maybe five different schools, and some of the schools would invite two or three other schools, so their impact could have been fifteen different schools we were seeing through that week. What was incredible was that not only did the students have the dedication and hunger to show up at ungodly hours, maybe 5:30 or 6:00 a.m. to learn jazz, but if the students are there at 5:30, then the teachers had to be up at 4:30, and they have families and lives too. So my hat's really off to these students and these educators, because it's hard to get jazz inside the curriculum, and the fact that's it's happening means that we live in a much easier and better world in some ways.

It's teaching students a very strong work ethic, to say, "If you want something and you love something, wake up out of your bed and go learn it." I really respect that work ethic and this desire from these young people. I wish this same work ethic could be seen by other administrators in different areas, in other words, maybe Philadelphia, to see how these students' lives are truly changed by learning about jazz, learning the history of jazz, learning how jazz impacts people, and then having guest artists speak to students. The students are often shocked to realize, "Wow, we have a very similar upbringing; I'm just starting to really learn jazz now, and you didn't start to learn it until you were in your twenties, so there may be hope for me."

AAJ: You've also emphasized the importance of music education even though many students may not pursue music as a career, and the network of support for the arts that arises from music education.

TS: The support for the arts is incredible. For example at Temple University, we have students who recently graduated and some of them have gone into law, accounting, investing and other fields. Many of them are now coming back to provide services to the students who are just starting out after graduating. To me, that what's education is about, and that's what community in music has done. Not everybody is meant to play music on the level [where] you can make a living playing music. They find other outlets and then they come back and share this knowledge with other people and try to continue this community. That's what I think is really holding this community up.

AAJ: What do you advise those students who want to pursue music?

TS: Everyone has to have a passion for it. You can't pursue this music and do it just because your parents or your grandparents did it, or because you think it's really cool. There has to be a passion and desire there. That's the first thing I look for.

When students ask what to work on, we give them fundamentals and exercises, things to strengthen and build them. The thing that I like to encourage—and I learned this from John Clayton in a master class and I never forgot it—is the importance of saying, "Find a tune that you truly love and describe to me what you love inside of that tune." When a student expresses how much they love a tune, no matter what level that tune may be—the student may be at grade one and the solo may be at grade two—when they find something they love they're going to go all out to pursue that solo, and pursue that tune, and pursue those changes and pursue that artist. So you never want to limit anyone on their growth in that area too. I always encourage students to find stuff they love, because if the solo they really love is above their head right now, they'll figure out where that solo came from, and who influenced that particular artist. You're already teaching them a history lesson, because they're going to start to research every artist they listen to.

Contemporary Directions, Timeless Foundations

AAJ: Who are some of the contemporary players that get your attention?

TS: I like Jim McNeely's writing, which is pretty cutting edge. I like Dave Douglas and some of the projects and sounds he puts together. Uri Caine is really interesting, and I love what Ambrose Akinmusire is doing. I also love Gerald Clayton's trio records. Jeremy Pelt is a great writer; I love to listen to his writing. There are just a slew of young guys. I just love to hear when people have taken their artistry to another level. I can appreciate that and respect it a lot.

There are a lot of contemporary sounds in a lot of the masters too. I still love some of the things that John Clayton is doing. He's heavily influenced by Thad Jones but he takes [that influence] to a whole different level. It's the same thing with Dennis Mackrel. Before Bob Brookmeyer passed away he was writing material for the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra's next record. When you hear some of the newer material that Bob was writing, it's very inspirational, because he was totally going with the times, and the colors and the sounds we hear now in the music.

There's contemporary and modern in everyone. Even tonight, I'll be playing the music of Frank Wess, and some of his compositions are timeless. They were modern and cutting edge when he wrote them and it's the same thing now.

AAJ: You were recently on tour in Japan with the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra. How did those audiences enjoy the group's repertoire?

TS: The Japanese love the music of Thad Jones and Mel Lewis. You name a tune and it's like a rock concert; you say, "We're going to do 'A-That's Freedom'" and they start going crazy, screaming and singing it. It's pretty remarkable.

AAJ: Do you receive similar responses from audiences here in the States?

TS: The response is still really positive, especially when the band is out doing some of the high school or college festivals, because so many high school and college bands have played this music, and for them to hear it the way Thad intended is pretty unique. Some places do have access to this music more than others, so we (all of us) can take a little bit of that access for granted. For Japan, the band gets over once a year, and we do workshops over there for some of the students, so it's a really unique situation. They're not taking the music for granted because they don't get to see a group of that calibre that often.

AAJ: What do you see as the major developments to come in jazz, stylistically or in reaching out to new audiences?

TS: To me, it's more important that the musicians have a strong foundation in what the music is about and where the music has come from. If they find different avenues to grow, then we have to be open-minded enough to support that. Then we do our own thing, and a good mixture of different personalities, different styles, different talents and different historical approaches makes an interesting community.

I'm very optimistic about it all. I'm optimistic about the directions of some of the younger musicians. I'm even optimistic about the direction of some of the masters, [such as] Wayne Shorter and some of the other artists who really paved the way for us and where we're going. Tonight I'm playing at Dizzy's [Club Coca-Cola] for Frank Wess' ninetieth birthday celebration with The Dizzy Gillespie All-Star Big Band. Just to say I'm doing it with the Dizzy band and Frank Wess' ninetieth birthday, it's nothing but history, playing the music of Dizzy Gillespie or the arrangements of Slide Hampton or Dennis Mackrel, or a Frank Wess chart That Frank Wess chart could have been played by the Basie orchestra, and I could be playing the part of Ray Nance or maybe Snooky Young]. You never know.

What Else is Out There

AAJ: In your last interview with All About Jazz and throughout our discussion, you describe jazz as a community. Back In 2003 you said you "wish the whole community were happier" and also describe a "cycle." Has the community gotten happier since then?

TS: The community has gotten happier because it's been infiltrated by people coming up who see that there are more opportunities, and the opportunities that are there can be created, and they can be created amongst the community. I look at Gerald Clayton, Ambrose and other players whom I just have so much respect for, and when I talk to them they say, "we're having a session, if you want to come to our session, you're invited." These guys are getting together for sessions all the time, so they're working on their musical concepts and on each others' tunes and their own writing. They're also practicing, and they're going back and fixing, and then having another session, while also building their reading skills and getting their concepts together. They're doing it all as a community, going out and playing with each other and supporting one another.

It's a cycle. It's the same thing that may have happened ten years ago, [or] thirty years ago, forty, fifty [or even] sixty years ago. So I'm seeing that cycle now with these young musicians, and it's really inspiring! I love talking to some of the younger guys like Gerald, [hearing] the way they're thinking about music and the concepts they have, and the things they want to do to grow. That really inspires me as well.

The community is getting happier, because people are really seeing that if you want an opportunity, you have to make it. If you want some place to play, create it, find places. Do things, be heard, and opportunities will come your way, as opposed to sitting around complaining about what's not there.

AAJ: In that same interview, you describe a "lifelong quest," that there's always more to learn...

TS: Absolutely.

AAJ: So where else do you see your own quest going?

TS: From a couple of hours I spend practicing a day, I want to be more efficient with my practice, to use my practice time as best I can. I want to continue to work on my focus and concentration and really fine tune my playing and continue to grow as a trumpeter. I want to really have the patience to become a better composer and arranger, so that I can someday look at a Real Book and see some tunes that may be considered a jazz standard, so to speak. Finally to arrange more, I want to pursue that area as well. I [also] want to be a better improviser. I want to expose myself to more music, to more history, to more solos, to more of my contemporaries, to the whole gamut, so that I continue to develop as I develop as a person.

That's the unique thing about music and teaching: who I am and what I say I am now is a result of trial and error for the past twenty years. Through that process I've seen myself change as both a teacher and as a player, and that's what I want to continue. I never want to get to the point where I'm saying, "Well, I've taught for twenty years, and I have that down." I want to keep thinking, "I've passed some knowledge along for twenty years, now it's time for me to find some new things to pass along. Where can I get them from?"

Selected Discography

Terell Stafford, This Side of Strayhorn (MAXJAZZ, 2011)
Odean Pope, Odean's List (In + Out, 2010)

Houston Person, Moment to Moment (HighNote, 2010)
Gerald Wilson Orchestra, Detroit (Mack Avenue, 2009)
The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, Monday Night Live at The Village Vanguard (Planet Arts, 2008)

Terell Stafford, Taking Chances: Live at the Dakota (MAXJAZZ, 2007)
Matt Wilson's Arts & Crafts, The Scenic Route (Palmetto, 2007)

Diana Krall, From This Moment On (Verve, 2006)

Bob Mintzer Big Band, Old School New Lessons (MCG, 2006)

Clayton Brothers, Back in the Swing of Things (Hyena, 2005)

Terell Stafford,New Beginnings (MAXJAZZ, 2003)
Dizzy Gillespie Alumni All-Stars, Things to Come (2002)

Terell Stafford, Fields of Gold (Nagel Heyer, 2001)
Nancy Wilson, A Nancy Wilson Christmas (MCG Jazz, 2001)

Bobby Watson, Quiet As It's Kept (RED, 1999)
Terell Stafford, Centripetal Force (Candid, 1997)
Herbie Mann, America/Brasil (Lightyear, 1997)

Terell Stafford, Time to Let Go (Candid, 1995)
Bobby Watson, Present Tense (Columbia, 1992)

Photo Credits

Pages 1, 4: Jimmy Ryan
Pages 2, 3: Steven Sussman


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