“At this point in my life I am not so concerned about letting people know who I am. What I am concerned about is feeding my palate, my passion for the music, so that I can constantly grow…That is my creative process now.”
Terell Stafford is one of the hardest working professional musicians you’ll ever meet. From a young age, he was convinced that classical music was his path. “My approach when I started at age 13 was 100% classical music and that was all I wanted to do. My dad really wanted me to pursue jazz. But starting out, I just wanted to fit in and be accepted.”
From Classical Musician to Jazz Virtuoso
When Stafford was 23 years old and working on his master’s degree in classical trumpet, a conversation with Adolph “Bud” Herseth, the principle trumpeter of the Chicago Symphony, changed his life.
Stafford asked Heresth what he did outside of the orchestra that inspired him. “When I said that his face lit up. He said, ‘playing in the orchestra five days a week is a piece of cake. But on Sunday I play in this Dixie-land band. That wears me out!…If you want to be a better classical musician, make sure you check out jazz.’ And I thought. ‘Wow, I should have listened to my dad.’”
Stafford explains, “that was the moment when I said, ‘ok, let me give this a try’. And I haven’t turned back since.”
But the shift from classical to jazz was a turbulent one. “The jazz musicians told me don’t do it because it is too late to have a career in jazz. The classical musicians told me don’t do it — it’s going to ruin your classical career. So I got this negative vibe from both sides…. Jazz was hard because I struggled with feel and with language. I struggled with everything… there were a lot of people who were pretty hard on me. But after about a year of playing, great things started happening and things snowballed.”
Thanks to friendship and mentoring by people like Tim Warfield, Paul Carr, Kenny Barron, Bobby Watson, and Wynton Marsalis, Stafford has learned to trust himself and embrace his unique contribution to the jazz world. “Before it was ‘I’ve got to get better. I’ve got to let the world know I can play the trumpet.’ Now it is ‘I just want to play.’ If people like it, they like it. If not, there are always other people that will listen to you. I have to accept who I am… For years I didn’t have that acceptance — I’d hear someone and think ‘oh! I want to play like that!’ But that just drives you absolutely crazy.”
Those Who Can… Teach
It could be argued that Stafford has yet to reach his “Late Style” work, but there is a widening of his focus that is propelling him to move beyond himself and invest in the next generation of artists. An internationally acclaimed performer and recording artist, Stafford counts his teaching work among his greatest accomplishments.
“I want to teach through my knowledge, but I [also] want to teach through my instrument. I want to say, ‘you are struggling with this. So did I! Here is what you can do to make it better’. As long as I’m playing I want to be teaching. If I don’t play, I don’t want to teach. The two are connected — it is really one.”
Stafford explains that working with students has evolved his creative process and pushes him to be a better musician. “My creative process at the beginning was trying to find myself…trying to embrace the history of the music while still letting people know who I am. At this point in my life I am not so concerned about letting people know who I am. What I am concerned about now is feeding my palate so that I can constantly grow. If I can find ways to feed my passion for the music, then I can find a way to feed my students. That is my creative process now…it is not just for me but for my students.”
Building Community Through the Arts
Considering all the things Stafford is currently involved in: performing, recording, teaching, directing two departments at Temple (classical and jazz), making time for his family and preparing to be a new father, it is amazing that he still finds time to take new risks.
He is particularly proud of his role in launching and directing the Philadelphia Jazz Orchestra at the request of former Mayor Nutter. “That has been the most unbelievably humbling experience…trying to do fundraising, to find guest artists, to find interesting commissions, trying to find a way to play in the concert more. It has pushed [out] my boundaries so far. It has been overwhelming.”
But despite the learning curve, Stafford insists that it has been more than worth it. “The two universities, Temple and University of the Arts, have never worked together and there has always been this weird vibe. But now…I see community coming together. I see musicians coming together. I see the history of Philadelphia being represented through this band.”
For Stafford, it is this legacy of community building and working with students that is especially satisfying and keeps him going. He sees a higher calling in his work that goes beyond teaching music. It is about “teaching students how to be good human beings. Because that is what it really takes to be a good musician. Everything we do is about community. The arts are about community. So when we learn how to treat people well… when the students leave Temple and I’m hearing about what they are doing and how they are really making an impact on society…I feel really great.”
The Profiles of Late Style blog series is part of the Departure and Discovery Project led by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society which is supported by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage. Over the next few months, we will be featuring weekly stories that explore a whole range of perspectives on late style and its impact as an altogether universal human experience.