Stefon Harris: Authenticity and Audacity
"I've learned a lot from every step of the way," says Harris. "I learned very different lessons from every musician. I learned a lot from Buster Williams about how to be a leader, in terms of timing. When to get in and out of a song. How to direct a band without saying anything at all, but with the notes that you play. I learned a lot from Wynton Marsalis. We'd be on the road, and he'd have these events that he would go to. No one else would go and I would say, 'Wynton, can I go?' And I would ride with him and sit in the back of the room. I've watched him get the Key to the City in Chicago. They'd do a master class for kids in a high school and I would go. I would follow him around and I would watch him. In addition to being on stage, I watched how he dealt with an audience. He has the uncanny ability to take a huge concert hall and make it feel like a living room. So I learned things like that from watching Wynton, in addition a lot about the details and mechanics of music and business."
He recalls of his experience with Henderson that the saxophonist was "so spontaneous and so incredibly intelligent. The most intelligent musician I've ever been around. I think he spoke seven languages. His solos had unbelievable structure, unbelievable discipline. He played in a way that every note was a possibility. Without getting into the technical nature of music, he'd take a major 7th chord and take the most theoretically wrong note and make it so beautiful. [chuckles] Audacity. I was blessed to have the opportunity to watch a great master express that. It taught me to take chances. A better way to say that is play beyond what you know."
Playing "beyond what you know" was one of the mantras Miles Davis stressed to the musicians in his most creative bands of the '60s and early '70s. Davis, it turns out, is also a major influence on Harris.
"The vibraphone is just a bunch of metal and wood. I rarely talk about the vibraphone. It's cool. It's pretty. I like it. Whatever," he says laughing at the image. "But my main influence as a bandleader is Miles Davis. He's definitely a role model for me because I think that he found a wayand I think it's a cultural thingto bring five people togethersix people, four people, whateverand get them all to buy in to what was going on and take ownership of it. You never got the sense from hearing Miles' band that he was telling anybody what to do. There's no way Miles Davis taught Tony Williams to play the drums that way or Herbie [Hancock] to play the piano that way. But he created an environment and inspired them to dig deep into who they are and push forward, so that they bought into the band. That type of mentality is what I try to create in my own band. I want Terreon Gully to be playing like Blackout is his band. Because it is his band. That's how I'm going to get the best out of the people around me.
"If I tell people what to do, they're going to do what I want them to do and the music is going to be limited to what's in my head. We're all much stronger together than we are apart."
Another thing Davis did in his music was continue to move forward, to play music that related to the people and the times they were living in. "Stella by Starlight" didn't fit 1969, or 1974, or 1985. Miles grew tired of hearing people pine for that music and those times, even while, among his friends, he looked back very fondly at those times. Harris is also looking to have his art be emblematic of his time. And times moves on. So should music.
"Jazz has become so ambiguous. What happens when an art form becomes ambiguous, I think, is that the standards are lowered. You can say anything is jazz. So I think it's important to reflect on what made jazz so special. In its pinnacle, what was it that people were drawn to. I think it's ultimately that cultural expression that brought people in. People were hearing themselves in the music. It wasn't about the theory of music, chords and scales. You're up there and you're a representation of people's hopes and dreams. You have to sound like the times, or fantasy of the world at the time or whatever it is, your music is a reflection of the people. Until we get back to the point where it is an art form of the people, and inject culture back into it, and not just mathematics of playingthe institutional approachI can understand why the average person may not be drawn to it.
"Our group Blackout, we're absolutely about the African-American tradition, about our culture, about our background. Expressing our life experiences, and being of the people. I think culturally, we've always been raised to know you're never bigger than your people. We're a reflection of them. We have to get that back into the music so that we stand above you, you sit and silence and watch us and give this great dissertation on art. If it goes that way, good luck. It's not where I'm going though," he says, gleefully, not somberly. "Can you tell I love this art form?"
That fondness is apparent. And these are clearly good days for the young musician.
"It's been amazing," he reveals. "I'm more inspired right now than I ever have been in my entire life. I practice more now than I ever have. I practiced yesterday for 10 hours straight. I never could do that in the past. I think it's because it's not about notes, it's about passion. I love doing whatever I can to continue to grow in my understanding of it and do whatever I can to make sure it's a viable art form out here in the world."
In times when the music business is turbulent and the economy sluggish, Harris is holding his own and then some. He's happy about his decade with Blue Note records and excited to now be with Concord. His group has also diversified its performance possibilities by getting involved with chamber music events.
"We didn't try to follow the laid path that was already out there," says Harris. "We took a look at what's coming next and we saw that chamber music was a burgeoning art form and they were in transition. They were beginning to be open minded about jazz. So we pursed trying to get into these new opportunities in the chamber music world. My quartet, when I was coming up, we were the first jazz group to ever play and of the [chamber music] series that we played. That's opposed to only pursuing the jazz clubs and the jazz festivals. We took a different approach and it's paid off in the long run.
So, "has been very, very good," he notes. Blackout is on the road this fall and he is also part of the SF Jazz Collective and will be working with the Imani Winds.
"We're going to be alright, man. Jazz will be okay," he says with confidence. "We've just got to change the attitude, change the perception of what jazz is... instead of being in the control of the institution. If it's in the control of the institution, when that happens, it's going to go the route of the institution, which takes it away from being of the people. If it went that way totally, I probably wouldn't be a jazz musician. I would do something else. I think it's a good time in the music, actually. When you look at the actual number of people who are musicians, there are more musicians now than ever in the history of the music. There are more people trying different things.
"Creativity, I think, is overrated. Authenticity is where it's at. You can find creativity in this art form. And you can still find authenticity, too."
Stefon Harris and Blackout, Urbanus (Concord, 2009)
Stefon Harris, African Tarantella: Dances with Duke (Blue Note, 2006)
Stefon Harris and Blackout, Evolution (Blue Note, 2004)
Russell Gun, Ethnomusicology, Vol. 3 (High Note, 2004)
Stefon Harris, The Grand Unification Theory (Blue Note, 2003)
Greg Osby, Inner Circle (Blue Note, 2002)
Stefon Harris, Black Action Figure (Blue Note, 1999)
Stefon Harris/Jacky Terrasson, Kindred (Blue Note, 2001)
Wynton Marsalis, Sweet Release (Sony Classics, 1999)
Stefon Harris, A Cloud of Red Dust (Blue Note, 1998)
Joe Henderson, Porgy and Bess (High Note, 1997)
Terrell Stafford, Centripetal Force (Candid Records, 1996)
Page 1, Portrait: Nitin Vadukul
Page 2: Stefon Harris and Blackout, courtesy of Nitin Vadukal; Stefon Harris, C. Andrew Hovan
Page 3: Nitin Vadukul