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Terell Stafford’s Heart of Brass

The trumpeter and educator channels his experiences into lessons

Temple University Jazz Band
Terell Stafford and the Temple University Jazz Band in 2011 (photo: Jeff Fusco)
Terell Stafford and the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra in Assisi, italy

For a period in the late 1980s, Terell Stafford worked as a computer repairman at an insurance company. The more you get to know this ardent trumpet player and teacher, the less that makes sense.

But after a grueling four and a half years studying classical trumpet and music education at the University of Maryland, he was tired. He’d had enough of being told what to play and exactly how to play it. A rigid trumpet professor had sapped his drive to become a professional musician, while doing little to improve his playing.

So Stafford found a job as a computer troubleshooter. “I loved it,” he says. “I loved going to work every day, solving people’s problems.” He was at it for months before his dreams chased him down again, during a concert at the Kennedy Center by Wynton Marsalis and the Eastman School of Music Wind Ensemble. Blown away by the soloist’s performance, and that of the students, he sought out Marsalis after the show. Stafford remembers telling Marsalis that he had quit “because I don’t play in the center of my lips, and my teacher wanted me to play in the center.” Marsalis knew just which doctor to call: his own mentor, Dr. William Fielder, a Rutgers trumpet professor who went simply by “Prof.”

“I called him,” Stafford says. “Prof gave me a lesson. Best lesson I’ve ever had, because he didn’t come in and tell me that I had to put my tongue here, and you gotta do this and do this. He just said, ‘Son, I need you to use more wind. Use more air, turn that air into wind.'” For the first time in nearly a decade, Stafford had a teacher who was speaking his language. “He wasn’t analyzing every little thing. He was a big-picture guy. I’m a big-picture person; I don’t like small details, it drives me crazy. Give me the big picture and I’ll figure out the small details.”

When he performs, Stafford’s fingers are reaching for more than notes. Whether squeezing the pathos out of a bent note or tugging on the tail end of an eighth-note run, he is painting us a bigger picture, telling his story.

As chair of instrumental studies at Temple University’s Boyer College of Music and Dance, Stafford builds his pedagogy on this foundation: If it’s in your heart, it can come out your horn. The tricky part is developing your own means of making that occur. Jazz is the art of storytelling, he explains, so if you’re not conveying a message, your music is trying to breathe without oxygen.

Stafford has been a member of the faculty at Temple since 1996, and became director of the jazz studies program in 2003. This year, he took over as department chair, with influence over both the classical and jazz programs. His teaching duties originally included classes and small ensembles, but to accommodate administrative and creative leave time they’ve been scaled back to include five personal students and Boyer’s top big band.

“Terell is 100 percent committed to his students and to the jazz program,” Boyer Dean Robert Stroker writes in an email. “He not only teaches his students about the history and creative aspect of jazz, but he teaches them how to be respectful adults and professional musicians. Our jazz students are a direct product and reflection of Terell himself.

When I find Stafford in the lobby of his hotel in Assisi, a town in the central Italian province of Perugia, he’s sporting a white polo shirt and shorts against the July heat. He is thickly built, of medium height and dark complexion, with a hairline that sits high on his forehead. His dark eyes, like the iron screen before a fireplace, can’t hide the warmth that flickers behind them. His handshake feels more like an embrace.

Stafford lives squarely in the moment, exuding a contagious self-assurance. But as we sit in the Hotel Fontebella, overlooking the Italian countryside and discussing his two decades as a jazz musician and educator, Stafford punctuates his statements with a stream of humble qualifications.

Later on, talking to his collaborators and canvassing the evidence on record, I determine that Stafford’s modest claims, which he really seems to believe, are mostly bunk. He says he was the laughingstock of the jam sessions that he frequented as a graduate student in Washington, D.C., during the late 1980s; his friend, saxophonist Tim Warfield, clarifies that Stafford was a member of the house band at those jams, and frequently got called for other gigs as a result. “Terell Stafford was an amazing musician with a very singular voice at a very early age,” Warfield says. Stafford insists he was wildly unprepared to join Bobby Watson’s Horizon quintet in 1991, his big break in the jazz world; his trenchant performance on Watson’s critically beloved Present Tense, recorded that year, puts the lie to that.

Stafford is in Assisi to perform and give master classes with the Grammy-winning Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, which has an annual residency in the Umbrian hill town. The 16-piece big band, the present-day incarnation of the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra, performs that evening beneath the stone columns of the millennia-old Tempio di Minerva, in Assisi’s main square. The night is warm and humid, caressed by a soft breeze, and the audience is rapt by the band’s hot-trotting swing. Stafford stands in the back row with his three fellow trumpeters, strolling to the front of the stage every two or three tunes to take a solo.

When the horn isn’t at his lips, Stafford is quietly ribbing fellow trumpeter Nick Marchione, cracking him up, or grinning attentively at drummer John Riley’s pattering ride cymbal. When Stafford solos, his m.o. is gregarious and swinging. He tilts sideward every so often, pinning a bluesy tail on a phrase or dishing out a quick chromatic claim.

At the otherwise hard-hitting concert, the orchestra’s rendition of Thad Jones’ “Central Park North” lacks self-possession, missing the original’s obstinate funk feel. But when Stafford steps up to solo, he handles his extended cadenza with patient finesse, easing the band into a lilting passage. All of a sudden, the whole group is playing with reactive vitality. In effect, Stafford has saved the tune.

This performance proves to be an illuminative window into Stafford’s persona-he’s magnanimous, fun-loving, built of a communal spirit. With every note he plays, he seems to be dropping coins into the well rather than drawing from it. “He helps people open their awareness and really be part of the entire acreage of the bandstand, rather than just their little zones,” says drummer Matt Wilson, in whose Arts & Crafts quartet Stafford plays. “Terell makes a point to make a connection with everyone that he plays with. It’s inspiring.”

Wilson has taught at a number of summer camps and clinics with Stafford, and he’s struck by the trumpeter’s ability to convey the importance of jazz as a collective experience, even to beginners. “He really balances mechanics with the spiritual side of things,” Wilson says. “He says, ‘Do this, this will help you breathe, this will help your swing, this will help you hear the beat,’ but then he also talks about how we do this to lift, we do this to help people feel better, we do this to help ourselves.”

In a YouTube video posted last year, Jason Marsalis delivers a rant-cum-sermon against “jazz nerds,” his term for young musicians who tend to mistake virtuosity for vitality. In animated terms, he warns that players who’ve learned all they know within the ivory walls of the academy often ignore jazz’s history, and their music ends up being as emotionally sterile as it is technically convoluted. The video hit a nerve on the jazz blogosphere, and it went viral.

While he doesn’t express it in Marsalis’ polemic terms, Stafford agrees that there are perils to his profession. “Jazz education is a little scary for me,” he admits. The main problem, he says, is with instructors who aren’t successful musicians themselves. “They don’t have much information to share, and the information that’s shared is somewhat negative,” he says.

Coming up, he dealt with plenty of negativity from those-who-couldn’t-do, and in response he has crafted a teaching style that’s dynamic, adaptive and, most of all, pro-passion. As a professor, clinician and volunteer board member at the Jazz Education Network, a de facto trade organization, Stafford is most concerned with helping students find the means to express themselves. “Terell really gets to know who his students are, and then he caters his teaching style to what they need to grow as musicians and as people,” says Luke Brandon, a trumpeter who studied with Stafford at Temple and graduated last year. “He encourages his students to experience life, and he tells us that your musical personality and your voice come from your life experiences.”

If Stafford had to give his own definition of a “jazz nerd,” it would be someone who plays what he calls “a-ha!” music. In effect, these musicians worship proficiency from a formalist perspective, and seem disinterested in the idea that sound ought to stand for something. “You listen to them, and you’re never like, ‘Mmm!’ You’re never grooving,” he says. “You’re always thinking, ‘Oh, I see what they’re doing.’ I’m not an ‘a-ha!’ music kind of guy.”

Once, a student objected to his sweeping insistence on emotive origination for performance. “A student actually told me, ‘Terell, I just don’t feel emotion about anything,'” Stafford says. Taken aback, Stafford told the student that on a personal level, he would need to talk to someone-a friend, a therapist-and “find out what it is about you that’s creating this emotional barrier.”

Stafford’s jazz heroes have always been your classic hard-bop greats-Clifford Brown, Freddie Hubbard, Woody Shaw-but in the mid-1990s, amid his rise to prominence, Stafford got a wake-up call from jazz critic Stanley Crouch. “There’s no foundation in what you play,” Crouch told him one night. “It’s shallow.” Stricken, Stafford headed straight for the early jazz records he had hitherto ignored: Bubber Miley, Roy Eldridge, Louis Armstrong. Today, his tonal range and sturdy, expressive sensibility reflect those later-learned lessons. In this way, he has come to agree strongly with Jason Marsalis’ premise: You can’t channel your emotions into song without giving the vast teachings of the past their due attention.

Bassist Derrick Hodge entered Temple without a minute of experience on the acoustic bass, and not knowing a single jazz standard. “Terell told me during my first year of school, ‘There’s a lot of theory and a lot of studying, but jazz is an aural tradition: You need to sit down and listen, transcribe as much as you can, and just shed. Put yourself in a room where you can hear stories, where you can listen, and just learn,'” Hodge remembers.

But Stafford does not believe that teachers ought to strictly curate their students’ influences, or directions. When Hodge expressed interest in other styles, Stafford encouraged him. During college, Hodge worked in Philadelphia bands performing hard-bop, hip-hop and R&B, and became the first jazz major to play in the Temple University Symphony Orchestra. Today, Hodge’s résumé includes recording on two of Stafford’s albums; writing film scores with Terence Blanchard; producing tracks for the rapper Common; serving as R&B singer Maxwell’s musical director; and playing in the Robert Glasper Experiment, a hip-hop-jazz fusion group.

Stafford also rejects the notion that a teacher must keep students at arm’s length in order to maintain respect. The way to earn a student’s confidence is to be a stellar educator, he says, which involves forging a connection. Sometimes that means inviting students to a barbecue, or just leaving the office door open. “My being friends with my students has opened them up in a different way to learn, and has opened me up in a different way to teach,” he says. “I talk to them like they’re my friends, like they’re other human beings. They respect that more.”

Dana Hall, the drummer in Stafford’s quintet and a lecturer at the University of Illinois, believes in a clear distinction between the roles of teacher and student. “When I’m working with my own private students, I expect them to recognize and I exemplify the relationship that I am a mentor,” he says. “We’re not going out to drink, we’re not going out to party. We’re here to work on the music.”

But while Stafford goes by his first name with students, he knows that not all of his faculty members do so. That, too, is a good thing, he says. Students are given wide rein to choose which instructors they work with, and if they prefer a style that’s more formal and less familiar, they ought to have that option. Stafford’s views on education grow directly from his own experiences as a student. Often, he had doors slammed in his face, or he was shoved down paths that weren’t of his choosing. “As far as trumpet encouragement along the way, he had some people say some pretty abrupt things to him,” Wilson reflects. “He learned how he felt when someone said something discouraging, so I think he really wants to offer encouragement. But at the same time, he wants to help people out. He’s not going to say, ‘Hey kid, have fun.’ He has ways of helping people, but he also has ways of listening. That to me is the true combination of a master teacher.”

Terell Stafford was born in Miami in 1966, the son of a 7-Eleven regional manager and a mother who taught children with special needs. Stafford found his calling in music early, and from elementary school on he pursued it almost unremittingly. He settled on a career in jazz belatedly, though, and the other half of his life’s passion, education, asserted itself even later.

When Stafford’s father took a job with Amtrak, the family relocated to Elk Grove Village, Ill., a Chicago suburb in the shadow of O’Hare Airport. By the time he entered fourth grade, Stafford was set on learning the trumpet. But brass instruction didn’t begin at his elementary school until the following year, so he picked up the viola. “I sucked, I’ll be honest,” Stafford says early in our conversation, before I’ve learned to swallow his self-criticisms with a mound of salt. “This viola instructor hated the fact that I sucked, so when I played, every time I made a mistake he’d hit me with the bow. And my man could hit.”

Ultimately the 9-year-old’s patience ran dry. “My fingers were black and blue. I did the best I could, but bam, bam, bam,” Stafford recalls. “So I came into a playing exam and my man came to hit me, and I thought, ‘I’m not having it today.’ I went to block his bow, and I hit him right in the face.”

The teacher called Stafford’s parents into the principal’s office for a meeting, and admonished them to keep their child “as far away from music as possible.” In his most crushing blow, he banned Stafford from the school’s music program for all of fifth grade.

When middle school began in sixth grade, Stafford hadn’t had a lick of trumpet training. Resolute, he trekked multiple times a week back to the elementary school to learn the fundamentals of the horn, a trip soundtracked by the jeers of his classmates. After weeks of feverish practicing, he gained admittance into the sixth-grade classical orchestra, and a few months later, thanks to a band teacher who encouraged friendly competition, Stafford had taken on all the trumpet players above him in “challenges” and risen to the top trumpet chair, where he stayed for three years.

But when Stafford was in ninth grade, his father’s job forced the family to move again, this time to the D.C. suburb of Silver Spring, Md. In Illinois, Stafford had been one of the top players in a well-oiled orchestra, going to statewide instrumental competitions with his classmates and often prevailing. In Silver Spring, he felt like the only member of the orchestra who had any interest in playing music. He took pity on the band director, Mr. Sickafus. “I would say to myself, ‘He is sick-sick of us,’ because nobody respected him,” Stafford says. And the young trumpeter caught flak from other students, who teased him about his love for classical music. “They thought they had to toughen me up to turn me into something else,” he says.

Stafford practiced privately, and joined an all-county band. He honed his chops enough to earn a full scholarship to the University of Maryland, and hoped to someday become a concert trumpeter. Then, another snag: His parents insisted that he get a degree in music education, not performance.

Stafford had learned everything he wanted to know about teaching from the frustrated eyes of Mr. Sickafus, and his own mother’s weary evenings. “She used to come home and say, ‘I’m trying to help Johnny with this and he just won’t do it,’ and, ‘These students just aren’t doing this thing.’ I was left thinking, ‘Why are you doing this every day? Why are you torturing yourself?'”

Without any choice, Stafford enrolled in Maryland’s education program, but he made himself a promise: “I’m coming in as an ed major, and I’m practicing as many hours as any performance major, if not more,” he says. His typical day involved six hours of practice.

But Stafford’s trumpet teacher had an unbending approach, and he insisted that students play with the same technique and trumpet equipment that he employed. Stafford struggled to adapt, and he chafed at the impositions. Ultimately, he found his passion squelched, and after graduation he took the job as a computer guy. He stuffed his trumpet into its case and left it there. But then Marsalis arrived at the Kennedy Center, toting inspiration and Dr. Fielder’s phone number.

In Fielder, Stafford found a teacher who wanted to put tools in his hands, not micromanage how he used them. After a series of private lessons, Fielder suggested that he enroll in Rutgers’ graduate program. Stafford agreed, and although he’d never learned to improvise, he decided to double-major in classical and jazz performance.

At his jazz audition, he naively told his accompanist, the redoubtable jazz pianist Kenny Barron, “I’m going to play a blues. Do you know it?” Yes, Barron knew how to play a 12-bar blues. But after stops, starts and an attempt to adapt Stravinsky’s “Petrushka” over blues changes, Stafford was asked to stop. The jazz department did not send him a thick envelope.

He was accepted, though, into the classical program, and he enrolled. Fielder warned Stafford not to pursue jazz, but in what was becoming a lifelong motif, Stafford recalls, “That sheer rejection letter made me say, ‘I can do this, I want to do this.'”

On the advice of fellow student David Sánchez, Stafford eventually walked to Barron’s office with his head lowered. “Do you remember me, Mr. Barron?” Stafford asked. He sure did. He gave Stafford sheets of music and exercises, and emphasized one point: “If you’re going to play this music, you’ve got to be around it. Find a jam session.”

To avoid Fielder’s watchful eye, Stafford traveled every week to a small club with an open jam just north of D.C. There he met Warfield, with whom he formed an especially close bond. One night, saxophonist Bobby Watson showed up. Impressed, the former musical director of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers invited Stafford to play a gig with him in New Jersey. Stafford showed up to it thrilled, but alongside bandmates Christian McBride and Joey Calderazzo, he felt like a featherweight. He slinked out of the club, aptly named Struggles, before Watson could pay him.

Months later, Watson called again. He had been struck by the trumpeter’s tenacious personality on the bandstand, he said, and he wanted Stafford to join his group, Horizon, on the road. Stafford was incredulous, but he wasn’t one to pass up this opportunity. Stafford took a semester off from Rutgers, which turned into a yearlong suspension when the faculty learned that their classical trumpet student had taken leave to tour with a jazz combo, breaching school policy. It was worth it. “That group changed my life, because Bobby met this young guy who had been playing jazz for a little less than a year, and he heard potential,” Stafford says. “Bobby gave me an opportunity to grow and express myself. When I joined the group, I was doing everything I could to sound like the person before me. Bobby just said, ‘Look, the only person I want you to sound like is you. Just be you, and that’s what’s going to come through in the music.'”

Two decades later, Stafford is beginning to enjoy a level of popular success to match the respect that his peers have long afforded him. His latest album, This Side of Strayhorn (MaxJazz), was Stafford’s first to hit the Billboard jazz charts, and it peaked at No. 1 on the JazzWeek registry, which tracks radio airplay. In March, he celebrated the record’s release with his first residency as a leader at the Village Vanguard, a sort of first communion for the jazz world’s foremost performers.

Like so much in Stafford’s life, This Side of Strayhorn originated as an educational endeavor. Cityfolk, an arts outreach organization, commissioned Stafford to assemble a repertoire of compositions by the legendary Billy Strayhorn, then use them as instructional vehicles at a series of workshops in Dayton, Ohio. During rehearsal, Stafford’s band decided collectively that these tunes should go toward the next album. “As opposed to saying, ‘Your role is to stand behind me,’ Terell definitely wants his bandmates to feel like they’re a part of a collective,” Warfield says. “So after we finished at the rehearsal, we said, ‘This is it.’ He was like, ‘What?’ We said, ‘Man, this is it. This is the next record.’ It was general consensus.”

What resulted is a genially swinging album, paying tribute to Strayhorn’s oeuvre by highlighting some of his most evocative but least-played tunes. Over pianist Bruce Barth’s layered, breezing arrangements, Stafford alternates between trumpet and flugelhorn, gently shifting shapes from within Strayhorn’s graceful chord progressions. Most of the renditions are languorous and pan-battered in the blues, with some inherently understood reason for taking their sweet time. Especially on “My Little Brown Book” and “Day Dream,” Stafford puts his thoughts to you with utmost clarity.

After years of traveling across the country and around the world as a teacher and performer with the Clayton Brothers, Frank Wess, Jon Faddis, Matt Wilson, Bobby Watson and the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, Stafford is settling into a creative space all of his own construction. He’s not slowing down, just pausing to enjoy the view.

Originally Published