Terell Stafford: Trial and Inspiration

Andrew J. Sammut By

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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]
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