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Wednesday, July 31,2013

The ultimate high

Terell Stafford is one with the music

by Lawrence Cosentino
Jazz and classical musicians have a lot in common these days. Beleaguered by arts budget cuts in schools, pushed further to the margins of the culture, both are clinging to life almost exclusively in universities, hanging together lest they hang separately.

It wasn’t always that way. Terell Stafford, one of the top trumpeters in jazz and a special guest with Rodney Whitaker’s Quintet at this weekend’s JazzFest in Old Town, heads both the jazz and classical programs at Philadelphia’s Temple University. He slips naturally from “straight” to jazz versions of, say, a trumpet concerto by Hummel, but he remembers when you had to climb over razor wire to sneak from one genre to the other.

In the early 1990s, Stafford dutifully studied classical trumpet at Rutgers University. He was fascinated by the likes of Tchaikovsky, Chopin and Beethoven, but he’s not ashamed to admit what really got him to play the trumpet: Chuck Mangione’s much-maligned 1977 pop ditty, “Feels So Good.”

“It touched a lot of people,” he said.

Stafford began to find his studies at Rutgers confining and wanted to play jazz. Every Tuesday, he took the train to Washington to jam with local jazz musicians. There he met pianist and bandleader Bobby Watson, who offered him a job in his quintet on an upcoming tour.

It was a classic wife and mistress setup. Every jazz musician on or near the East Coast was in on the conspiracy to keep the Tuesday jazz liaisons from Stafford’s teachers at Rutgers.

“The jazz community is probably one of the most open, friendly, welcoming communities there are,” Stafford said. “You tell people you want to do it and everyone supports you.”

The tour with Watson called for a new level of subterfuge.

Stafford told his profs he was going on a tour with the Robert Watson Chamber Ensemble.

Since then, he has held the stage with many jazz greats, including the mighty McCoy Tyner, the turbine that drove saxophonist John Coltrane’s greatest quartet, a pianist with a left hand of tactical nuclear power. For Stafford, playing in a sextet (alas, never recorded) with Tyner, Coltrane’s son, Ravi Coltrane, and legendary reedman Gary Bartz was “the most intimidating experience ever.”

Stafford met MSU Jazz Studies director and bassist Whitaker while playing with Watson in San Diego several years ago. They’ve recorded and toured together several times. Whitaker is a regular in Stafford’s quintet. They also tour together as teachers for Jazz at Lincoln Center. It sounds like a duty, but gigging, recording and teaching close a circle of nourishment for Stafford’s soul. Last week, he and Whitaker got revved up while doing a clinic together in Port Townsend, Wash.

“I just spent an hour-and-a-half with six extremely talented young people who are on fire,” Stafford said. “They love to be with each other, they’re open to grow and it really inspires me to go back and teach.”

Besides his academic duties, Stafford plays a constant stream of gigs, both as leader and sideman, and works in several groups of various sizes, but one gig is extra special to him. On Mondays, he heads to New York’s holiest jazz shrine, the Village Vanguard, to play in the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, a 16-piece unit founded by big band legends Thad Jones and Mel Lewis.

Stafford relishes the chance to play, eat and hang out with a “second family” of 15 of the nation’s top jazz musicians. “I don’t even want to solo,” he said. Every week, he lovingly fondles the check — not for the obvious reason, but because it reads “16 Is One Music” at the top.

“That says it all,” he said. “There’s no other feeling like it, to achieve oneness with such incredible musicians. It’s the ultimate high you can experience.”

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