Terell Stafford: Trial and Inspiration
“ 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.
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!