A conversation with stefon harris
by Eugene Marlow
Stefon Harris has established himself as the leading vibraphonist of the younger generation through a series of exciting leader dates for the Blue Note label, as well as on high-profile sideman collaborations with Joshua Redman, Kenny Barron and Kurt Elling, among others. Harris recently sat down with jazz.com's Eugene Marlow for a lengthy give-and-take on his development as an artist and the current state of jazz music.
I'd like to start by asking a couple of questions about your background, because everything I've looked at says nothing about where you came from, how you discovered your musicianship, etc., etc., can we get into that a little bit?
Oh, sure. No problem.
How did you get into vibes and marimba in the first place? Perhaps a better question might be when did you discover you were a musician?
It's interesting. I think I was always a musician. I can remember being a very small child and banging on pots and pans, and I remember watching cartoons and not really paying attention to the cartoon and just listening to the music. As a child I could sit and listen to A-tracks at the time, I could listen to them all day. I think there's something that was always inside of me that was leaning towards music.
Do you come from a musical family? Anyone else in your family a musician, composer, or player?
No. My older brother is a fairly talented player though, he played trumpet. But he's not a musician now, but it's clear he also has a love of music. He deejays.
Did you go to any special high school to study music or was it when you really went to the Manhattan School of Music that you started to study more seriously?
I went through the public schools in Albany, New York, in upstate New York. And there was a not-for-profit organization called the Empire State Youth Orchestra. That was really, really a fantastic opportunity for me to study with one of the greatest teachers in the world.
Richard Albagli. he was my private teacher, I started studying with him when I was in about eighth grade. And it was only classical music. I hadn't really played any jazz at this point. And he just was an unbelievable musician and an incredible teacher who taught me a lot about music from the perspective of emotion, passion, and conviction, not just theory.
How did you graduate towards the vibes and marimba?
When I was about six or seven my family moved into an apartment, and someone left an old beat up piano behind in the apartment. And in the bench of the piano there were a bunch of books for kids. I remember taking those books and looking at the pictures, and I actually figured out all the notes on the piano from the book. So at a very young age, I taught myself how to read music. In second or third grade I was playing piano for the school choir, reading the music and playing the parts. So by the time I started taking lessons in about fourth grade in the public schools, I could already read stuff that was more advanced than the other students.
So, to keep me occupied the teachers would say, well why don't you try the clarinet. So I'd take the clarinet, and after a little while I'd be more advanced than the other clarinet students because I could read. So they'd say, try the trombone, try the flute, so I ended up playing all the band instruments. I played bassoon, trombone, French horn, terrible saxophone, horrible at trumpet, but I played most of the instruments in the band. Percussion just happened to be one of those ones that I came across. My true love is for the music itself and not necessarily for the instrument. It was really a fairly random decision to become a percussionist. I took an audition for the Empire State Youth Orchestra. I auditioned on clarinet and on percussion because those are my two strongest instruments. I got alternate on clarinet, and I was accepted as a percussionist. I could've been a clarinetist if it had gone the other way.
Did you go to marimba first and then the vibes? Which came first?
Definitely marimba first. I played a lot of classical literature on marimba. I didn't really start playing the vibraphone until college, when I really started to discover jazz and I heard Milt Jackson and Bobby Hutcherson, Lionel Hampton, people like that for the first time.
Was this at the Manhattan School of Music?
Actually I started at the Eastman School of Music.
In Rochester, New York?
Yes. Again as a classical major, and that's when I first really started hearing the great vibe players, the great saxophonists, like Charlie Parker and Joe Henderson. It was at that point and my freshman year, after getting bit by the bug of jazz music, I decided to leave Eastman and move to New York to be closer to jazz. I went to the Manhattan School of Music for the rest of my undergraduate.
Did you do a graduate degree at Manhattan as well?
I did. Actually, my undergraduate degree is in classical percussion because I didn't think I was really good enough to audition for the jazz program at the time. So my undergraduate degree is in classical and then I stuck around and did a graduate degree in jazz.
Can you recall the first time you ever heard something that was in a jazz vein?
Well I can't recall the very first time, but I can recall listening to Charlie Parker's “Now Is The Time” in my freshman year and having some other students there explain to me about how the chords were moving, how he's keeping track of the rhythm, and there was just this sense of spiritual liberation that I absolutely fell in love with. And it didn't take much to convince me. I found the music very spiritually exciting, but also intellectually challenging. The fact that you have to have such incredible ears to play this art form, I just was fascinated with that and decided to begin to study more seriously.
It's my impression the current generation of young jazz musicians, and even the previous generation of young jazz musicians have been more classically trained than previous generations, and that's made a difference in the music. Do you agree with that?
Well it depends on what type of difference. That's a tricky question. If you have a generation of people who have studied classical music primarily or before studying jazz, that's going to affect the music for better or for worse. So I would agree that it has had an affect. I think it's more about the institutionalization of the music than it is about studying classical music.
What do you mean by that?
Now there are a lot more jazz programs in schools than two generations ago. They didn't really have a lot of jazz programs in high school or colleges at that point. So people were learning directly from experience, from hanging out in the club back in the day, whether it was Birdland, or the Vanguard, maybe a younger musician who was hanging outside the club waiting to hear Charlie Parker or some situation like that. Whereas today there are programs, big bands in the high school, so kids are learning from a much more academic perspective.
I want to get ultimately to talk about your musical vision, but I have to ask this intervening question. How do you answer the apparent problem that there are all of these programs in high schools and colleges, and graduate degrees-- you can get PhD's and DMA's now in jazz music--but there are apparently fewer clubs, fewer people going to clubs, there are fewer people buying jazz CDs. It seems to have gone in contrary motion. How do you answer that?
Well, that would be a multifaceted answer. I don't think there's a simple answer to that. The first thing that comes to mind is just the basic principle of economics of supply and demand. Meaning, if the supply is too high, it kills the demand. I actually think that there are too many musicians right now, if there ever can be too many musicians. I think the market is somewhat flooded. And I think throughout the history of this music, you've always had big stars. And a big star creates a story, and a story creates a buzz, and it creates interest in a consumer. If a consumer walks into a situation and there's 150 new albums this week, usually it's overwhelming and they'll walk away. There's probably 200 other corporations trying to advertise something to them and trying to get them to spend their money. So I think that actually the supply is a little too high and that's hurting the demand.
Percussionist Bobby Sanabria is always complaining that he's training all these terrific musicians and there are no places for them to go really, except for a few of them maybe.
Right, I mean, you really have to tell a story. There has to be something special about you. And I would contend that many of these younger musicians are very, very special people and are very, very gifted musicians, but if the market is flooded in a manner in which you cannot hear that story heralded, then that's a problem for the consumer in terms of trying to decipher the masses of advertisements coming their way. I'm actually an advocate of top 40 or some variation of top 40 radio in jazz.
What does it take for a person to separate himself or herself from the mass of musicians out there?
Well, the main quality I would say is you have to be very perceptive. You have to be aware of the changing times, what's going on culturally, and then you have to find your strengths and weaknesses and understand how you fit into that big picture. How does your skill set, how is it applicable to what's going on right now? For myself, coming from a classical background I was able to be an outsider, which worked to my advantage in many ways, because I didn't grow up in the jazz culture. I remember going to the Vanguard in New York City for the first time, and thinking, “Wow, this is a basement” after having two or three years earlier played Mozart in these incredible halls at Troy Savings Bank Music Hall. So my whole perspective was very different.
I actually saw when I was in college that many of these jazz festivals were starting to lean more towards R & B and pop music. And then I saw that a lot of the classical festivals were starting to introduce jazz for the first time. So as my career developed, I tried to go that direction. I tried to go in the chamber music world, as opposed to hustling to get into the jazz circuit, which was really suffering and still is suffering to this day. I think a lot of my success at this point is because I have come at it from a different angle. And I learned a lot about what it takes to be in the chamber music world in terms of being able to tell a story, the importance of being able to give master classes and be articulate and explain what you do, and just understanding how to carry yourself in that circle I think has helped me considerably. And then also understanding that you have to tell a story, with every record that I make, there's a reason behind why I make the record and I put a lot of thought into it. And I share that story in the press when the record comes out, as opposed to saying “Oh, you know, these are some tunes that I just like and I decided to put them together.”
That's a natural segue to talk about your vision. I'm looking currently at two of your CDs and one of them is your earlier work, and the other is your latest CD. The first album is Black Action Figure, and then, of course, I've listened to African Tarantella. I've also heard you play live. The first time was at the Newport Jazz Festival for a gathering of jazz journalists. I think that was in 2000. Then of course I heard you last year at Iridium. I think you've done six CDs at this point.
There's a real evolution in terms of your approach or your style, or maybe just your feeling tone, but Black Action Figure is a lot edgier then African Tarantella. The latter seems a lot mellower, and perhaps even introspective. Is my perception correct, or has your vision of how the music should sound and how it should be played evolved in the last seven, eight years?
Well, absolutely, and one thing that, one principal that I try to stick to is that I don't want to make the same record twice. I try not to put out a lot of CDs --- not until I am really moved by something and I have great clarity that this is something I feel I need to document. Otherwise I won't make a record. So, each of my records I think has a very different sound, whereas you might say that Black Action Figure has a lot of edge, and when you go into The Grand Unification Theory, which is much more spiritual, or more of an intellectual component to it, and the arranging, and the conception of how it's structured. African Tarantella, is for me is a very reflective type of record actually. It's a record about the realization of cultural heritage in the music, and finding my space in the lineage of this art form. It's a record that documents the realization about how serious this music really is for me.
What do you mean by that?
Meaning it's not just fun. For me as a young African American I look at this art form and I really see that it's not just something that is an interesting science. It's a part of my cultural heritage, and is an incredible lineage I can look back to and find myself inspired by and see that the bar is set incredibly high, so it really gives me a great deal of motivation. I spent months just studying scores and getting inside Ellington and Strayhorn's mind as well as I could, and allowing that influence to come through me. But also being very clear that when we do play the music, it's not to imitate. I don't think the record sounds anything like it's 1942 or whatever the year was, I think it was made in '68, the New Orleans Suite. I think that when we do play it, we play it with our own experience, but there's a connection between what came before us and what's going on right now in the music.
How would you describe your vision musically as opposed to aesthetically or culturally?
My vision musically, I would say it's ever evolving. I would say that one of my greatest assets at this point is that I'm so young in this art form, that there's so little I know. Every time I turn the corner and see something new, it changes my world. In terms of a concrete vision that would be laid out that I would follow, until the day I pass, I don't have anything like that other than to say that I'm very open, and I want to learn, and I'm interested very much in the science of organized sound. I'm trying to get an understanding of how things are put together, and how that translates into emotion. But that's ever evolving. Right now I'm more inspired than I ever have been in my entire life.
Why is that do you think? Is it your age or have you hit the groove in terms of your acceptance of things outside yourself? How would you explain that?
I think it's about growth. I think it's about vision and understanding. Every year of my life has been an improvement from the previous. And this year is absolutely no exception. I've learned new things about harmony that I didn't understand before, that have become incredibly clear. And I have a strong path laid out to study and work really hard to gain a better understanding of this concept that I now have in my mind, which will definitely come out in the next record or two, there's no question about it. This is why I don't document a lot of records because now I have this vision in my head. I'm working on it, I'm writing a book on it, and as I get it into my playing, once it's there, and really strong, and I would feel it's worthy to be documented, then I would make a record.
Tell me about this book. What's this about?
It's a book about understanding harmony from the perspective of emotion and physical movement. Meaning that a chord is really a collection of emotions, and if you understand how two notes ring together and how they make you feel, that's how you learn to hear it. If I'm on the bandstand and someone plays a chord, I don't immediately think “Okay, that has the sharp 11 and the nine.” I don't translate into theory. The first thing I need to do is say how does it make me feel. Once I understand how it makes me feel, then I recognize how to create that feeling using notes.
For example, there are some notes that really make you grind your teeth that have a lot of tension, if you have like a flat nine interval. So, if there's a moment in the music where the emotion is building and building and it comes to a peak where it's just about to break, I know how to create that intensity. So it's not about thinking theoretically -- I have to have a sharp nine chord here -- it's more about the emotion. If the heavens are getting ready to open up and we're reaching out and it feels so strong, I know I can use a sharp nine with a sharp five on a dominant seven chord. I've been breaking down every chord type basically that I come across and try and identify how I relate to it emotionally. Why? The reason I'm doing this is I think the audience doesn't care about theory. The connection between the performer and the audience member is the emotion.
When you play with love, when you play with fear, when you play with jealousy, people know it, they can feel it, and that's what they connect with. The most essential elements for me in my development at this point is to really understand how to translate these notes and tones into emotion.
You chose the words fear and jealousy, why did you choose those particular emotions?
Oh, because music is a very complex science that embodies all of our emotions. We all know fear and we all know jealousy. And we all know love, and we all know compassion, not always pretty words that come to mind. Sometimes you have to play with that, you have to be honest when you're on the bandstand, and you have to play, if you have fear, you have to play with that type of fear. And people will relate to it and they'll connect with it as long as it's honest. There's a certain level of honesty that is incredibly beautiful, and music is healing in that regard. It's healing for the performer. It's one of those times in life that's an example of that incredible dichotomy that exists between the structured society and when you get on the bandstand. There is no structure with regard to expression. You really just let go. Doesn't matter what you're supposed to say or what you're supposed to think, what's politically correct, you let go, you really have to be honest with yourself, and let it flow. And I think people really appreciate that.
This is the complete opposite of a lot of the music, particularly in the classical world, and to a certain degree I think in the jazz world, of music that was written intellectually. And in a way you could say that even bebop was a departure from emotional music to a more intellectual music. I'd like you to respond to that. Do you think that's correct? And two, are we looking at a new era of jazz music, where it's going to become more emotionally-based as opposed to intellectually-based?
Well, I can only speak from my perspective, I can't really speak for other musicians and to say that they're going to be playing more emotionally, I don't know that. I sincerely hope that would be the case, but we'll have to see. With regard to bebop, it was a manifestation of almost a concerto movement in the art form. It was about the virtuoso. And you can tell in the compositions, half the compositions were just heads that they wrote so that they could get to the improvisation. And that's an incredibly important movement, because it really took the art form to a level of virtuosity that no one could deny. And it allowed these musicians to be recognized and respected as the true geniuses they were. But like every art form, there are movements, and each movement represents a different element of the art form. I don't particularly want to play bebop, I study it, I learn from it, but that's a different era, it's a different sentiment, it's a different emotion than what I can relate to, because I didn't grow up in that time. I think it would be counter-productive for me to spend too much time trying to reiterate the sounds of the 40s and 50s. That's a losing battle. There's no way I could ever sound like Milt Jackson. And the opposite is probably true as well. Many of the older musicians would not be able to relate to what some of the younger musicians are doing now because of a different set of experiences.
So what kind of jazz era do you think we're in, or about to enter, or have entered?
Wow, it's really difficult to see when you're in the middle of it. But one thing I will say in terms of having some idea about where it's going. I do think that the idea that jazz is chamber music now and it's considered in the same realm as classical chamber music, is going to have a positive effect in terms of work, in terms of perception. Certainly the work that Wynton Marsalis has done over the years has helped to bring more financial credibility, to make it comfortable for people to donate money to the art form. I think the fact that there's so many institutions starting new programs every year, there's more and more money being fueled into the music. It seems to be going in a direction that's a little more institutional. Then I hope that what'll change is that many of these institutions will start bringing in practitioners to teach, because the practitioners are going to understand this emotional connection that we're talking about. They're going to really have a good sense of what the music is about and they'll pass the music on to the next generation in that manner.
Is this why you're on the advisory board of Chamber Music America because of your chamber music orientation?
That's certainly part of it. I also really believe in their mission and what they're doing to help out the field. But I like to be an active member of the community in general. I also do a lot of work with WBGO among other organizations, because I feel like as a musician we have a certain perspective that many others don't. We benefit from each other and if the voice of the artist is not present, sometimes the music can be looked at in too much of a business sense. And sometimes it's too touchy feely. Where the non-musician can be too sensitive about taking a stand on something. And I think it's important to take a stand on occasion to help determine, or to help have a clear observation of where the music is and what it needs.
I sincerely hope again, if there were one thing I would change in the field that I think could have a major impact, I really think a top 40 format in radio would help considerably. I think it would bring a connection back to the number of records sold and the amount of airplay. People are overwhelmed. They hear a song once they may say “I like that,” but half the time they don't get to hear what the song is. So if they hear it a couple of times, the second time they say, “Oh, I really liked it,” then they get to know what it is. Then they start to request it. Then maybe someone shows up at your concert and says, “I want to hear track number seven, that's my favorite song.” And then once you start that type of momentum, then maybe you could end up with a hit song. The other benefit of top 40 is that you would have one song being played consistently throughout the country. I'm also a big advocate of satellite radio because it does accomplish this. When you do that, then you potentially have a hit song which could end up in a movie, it could end up in television commercials, it could just expand way beyond the limited market that we're generally focused on in terms of the consumer.
It could have a life.
It can have a life of it's own. And when you look at the history of our industry, it has been that way. “Body and Soul” is a classic because it was a single, because “Body and Soul” was on every jukebox across the country, one song. It's a tough argument. It seems to be divided by generation ironically. A lot of younger musicians and younger people I think are on board with that type of thinking. But I find the older generations don't buy into that. That's one of those things I feel is going to be important in terms of the momentum of this music, because it also makes it more competitive, and you hear fewer musicians. The market is flooded right now. I think you should only hear a few musicians on the radio. They should be the greatest musicians in the world played on the radio and that's it. If you get a song played on the radio, you should be dancing in the streets celebrating because it was so hard to get there. And for a musician like myself, if I'm not good enough to get on the radio, if my stuff's not getting played, I'm going to practice ten times harder because I'm driven and I want to get on the radio, which is going to make me that much better a musician, which is going to raise the level of the field overall.
Is there anything that you'd like to say about what you do that I haven't asked you?
The only thing I would say is that I'm a huge fan of this art form. I really do think it is one of our greatest contributions to the world. I really think it is incredible. It is one of the very, very few art forms that is truly, honestly democratic. And it's filled with love, and compassion, and fear, and hatred, all of those elements are present in the music. It's incredibly holistic, and a very, very honest art form. And it is a really special thing to experience live, a big part of the truth in this music is something you have to see live.
You use the intellect to expand on the emotionality of the music, not the other way around.
Right. I have another one of those mantras that I have written upstairs on my music stand. I think creativity is overrated. I really do think it is. I think it's much more about individualism than it is about creativity. Isn't it about individual creativity?
Well there's a difference. When you say that I created this there's an ego element that's present there. That means I took A, B, and C, and I switched the order and created C, B, A, and therefore this is my creation. Whereas the way I look at music, it's more about discovering. That the truth about who you are, the way you're going to play is already inside of you, all you have to do is learn the theory and the harmony so that you can express that which already exists. So, the perspective is more about discovering the music than it is about creating.
And it's more about being the individual that you are, not about creating a new voice, creating my own sound. It's more about discovering your sound, when you listen to the tone that certain people get. When you listen to Dexter Gordon’s voice and you listen to the way he played, is there any other way he could've sounded? There seems to be a direct connection to the way people walk, to the foods they eat, the way they dress, and what they express in music. So many times the over-emphasis on creativity, particularly at the college level, you end up with people who come up with creative things, but they're not substantive. They're not quality. You can have something that's very creative, but does that mean it's good? We need more cultural authenticity, more so than creativity. We need people to tell the story of whatever it is their culture is. Because once you tell the story of your true culture, there are other people like you who are not musicians, who are doctors, who are storekeepers, or what have you, who come from your culture, who will hear a bit of themselves in the music and take ownership in it.
That's beautiful. That is a quote. That's a headline, and I totally agree with you. It's about authenticity. I wouldn't say cultural authenticity, although collectively that's what it is. But it's about individual authenticity and being who you are, and true to yourself. I think that's what you're saying. Is that correct?
Absolutely. I mean, when I say cultural authenticity, I think it's inevitable that there are people like you. So even if you're thinking individually, you're not the only person on the planet who thinks that one way. There is always going to be a group of people who can relate to any one idea I believe. It's a tough path to walk but it's a beautiful one, and I think it's the true gift of art, and why art is significant for children. It's not just about understanding theory; it's about unlocking the potential that's inside of someone. Helping someone discover who they really are and that journey inward. Once you get off of that, then it becomes more of, I don't know, is it art for the sake of math or, I don't know.
I always ask myself the question, why should someone like what I do? And when I go to see pop concerts now, I understand why a lot of people like pop concerts, there are some that I like, one thing, I can think of Alicia Keyes for example, I saw her perform. And I thought that she gave everything she possibly could. I cannot believe that she sings like that every night. This is not about the quality or the technique or the pitch or anything of that nature, it's about the soul, about the feeling of really giving everything you possibly can. Just like a great athlete, like Michael Jordan, why is he so significant? He's significant because he expanded the potential of the human body, of the human spirit. He did things with this physical capsule that no one had ever done before. And I think musicians are supposed to fit into a similar space. We're supposed to do things with sound that no one's ever done, we're supposed to push it so far, to be so honest to give as much as we can of ourselves so that people are overwhelmed. That's what I feel when I listen to Miles Davis, when I hear John Coltrane, or Louis Armstrong, I mean it's overwhelming for me the level of honesty. I always say cultural authenticity because that's what it sounds like to me. When I hear John Coltrane I don't hear the individual, I hear that political climate he lived in, I hear that region of the world he lived in, I hear the fashion, the clothing. When you hear Bird, you hear the slickness of a zoot suit, or whatever it may be. And then hear someone like Cecil Taylor or something totally different. You can imagine the way he might dress, and the mentality he may have based on the sound. Very honest.
This interview could turn into a series. Stefon Harris, thank you very much.Stefon Harris’s web site is www.stefonharris.com and is part of the JazzCorner community of hundreds of official jazz web sites and more.