'Family, Community, Love': Terell Stafford brings jazz education at Temple to the bandstand
It was a pleasure to talk with Terell Stafford, the Director of Jazz studies at Temple University which is also my alma mater and where I got my start in jazz radio. Terell and the Temple University Jazz Band will be performing at the Rose Theatre at Jazz at Lincoln Center this month. Terell talks with us about his experience with the amazing students he teaches and what to expect at the performance.
Watch our conversation here:
Nicole Sweeney: Now, how did you get to Philly, because you're originally from Miami. Is that correct?
Terell Stafford: Well, I went from Miami to Chicago to Silver Spring. Then Silver Spring to Downingtown. When I was living in Downington is how I heard about Temple. I was teaching at Cheyney University where Shirley Scott, the great organist was teaching. She's like, “If you take the job at Cheyney, we can play every day at noon together.” I took the job. Then about three years later she tells me there's an opening at Temple and says, “I really want you to apply.” That was 26 years ago.
You've been at Temple for 26 years? Terell, you don't look like you've been there 26 years. Do you remember your first time on the campus? I do. It's funny, my mom actually sent me a picture of her and my dad dropping me off in front of the building, hugging me with the big old cherry and white flags in the background. Talk to me about that first time walking on campus.
My first time on campus that I really remember was when I had my interview. Where my office is right now, where I had my interview was two stories below in the exact same space. I used to teach at 1936 on the walk. The development office is there right now, but I walk by there every day.
Tomorrow, we have a festival called the Essentially Ellington Jazz Festival. We do it here at Temple with 20 bands. So I spend all morning setting up for these 20 bands to come here. That's why I'm out of breath now because I ran over from setting up in the performing arts center. Even as I was running over, I always stop and look at 1936, where my first office was. It's where the whole jazz program was. I remember like it was yesterday. It was just amazing.
What did you think when you first got to the department? What was one of the first things you remember about Temple University and that specific department and even being in Philadelphia? I mean, you're talking about Coltrane and Lee Morgan and Grover Washington Jr., even though I know Buffalo claims him. When you think about Philadelphia and just being in that setting, did you know you would be there for 26 years?
No, I had no idea. My audition 50/50. In the morning was a classical audition and then in the afternoon was a jazz audition. I spent all my time in the morning performing and I had to teach some of the classical theory. Then in the afternoon, it was all jazz. When I got to the afternoon, everyone was just so relaxed and loose, and they asked “How was your morning?” I said, “My morning was pretty stressful—it was just a lot to do.” After my interview was over in the afternoon, I just continued to hang with the students and with the faculty. I said “This feels like a family here.” I'll never forget that. For all these 26 years, it's never changed. Even this festival feels like a family because it is all run by the students. They take the first two days of their spring break to help me run this festival with 20 bands coming in.
Wow, that's so amazing but it's really true. I feel like Philadelphia gets a bad rap, but there is something that feels like home. I tell so many people, Philadelphia is my second home because that's what it feels like. When you get there, the people, even though the city might be rough around the edges, there's a lot of love and that's why it's got that name, the City of Brotherly Love. Now, these students that come to Philadelphia, they must come from all over the world.
They do. They really do. And it's amazing because what you just described about feeling what you felt when you came to Philly is what they talk about. We do an exchange program here with the conservatory in Amsterdam and some of the students that were here last spring, they recorded a CD and they asked me if I would do a blurb on their liner notes. And I said, “Sure. I want everyone to submit their feelings while they're in Philadelphia.” Every single person was like, “I felt the family, I felt the love, I felt the history.” It's everywhere you go. The only thing I wish they could have experienced was Ortlieb’s. That's where you met like everybody.
I remember Ortlieb’s. Talk to me about Ortlieb’s because if you are from New York, you know about the Blue Note. There are all these these legendary clubs that we think of and I feel like you automatically think of New York City, but Ortlieb’s in Philly was legendary.
When I first started to play jazz, Tim Warfield was one of my best friends. He called me and goes, “Hey, I'm subbing for Bootsie Barnes at Ortlieb’s. Why don't you come check it out?” And I said, “I'll check it out under one condition.” He goes, “What's that?” I said, “I don't want to play with Shirley Scott or Mickey Roker or Arthur Harper. I'm not ready. I'm not there yet”. He goes, “Don't worry about it.” We get to Ortlieb’s and the first thing he says, “Hey Shirley, see that guy over there? He plays trumpet. You should hear him.” After the first tune, I'm on the stage at Ortlieb’s with Shirley Scott, Mickey Roker, Arthur Harper and Tim Warfield.
Wow. You said you didn't imagine being in Philadelphia for 26 years, but did you imagine education in your life? I feel like so many people, either they do education or they don't, but there is a connection. I feel like some people just kind of find themselves in education. It's almost by accident, which is really on purpose. Because education and teachers, you don't get enough praise for doing what you do. Is it something that was always in you?
I think it was there. My mom was a teacher. She was a reading specialist and growing up I was dyslexic, which I didn't find out till later. It was a blessing to have a mom that was a reading specialist in the house. Not only did she help me out, but she'd always talk about her day and how challenging teaching was. She talked about learning how to adapt to different learning styles and so on and so forth. When I got my undergraduate degree in education, she was like, “I want you to become a teacher.”
I said, “Mom, I'm sorry I can't be a teacher.” And she said, “Why?” I said, “Because I want to teach trumpet and I want to teach the music that I play and I don't think I play it well enough.” She said, “Okay, fine. What do you want to do?” I said, “I want to go get a Master's degree. And maybe after my Master's degree I'll feel more competent on my instrument to one day want to teach.”
I got my Master’s degree in classical trumpet, and I got my undergrad in classical trumpet as well. After my Master's degree, it's not that I felt more competent to teach, it was that I was asked to teach a class within my comfort zone. My first class that I ever taught was a survey of music, from Gregorian chant to present, at Cheyney University. In time I started to teach more jazz courses and get a feel for how that went.
Education came to me by surprise in a way, because I didn't think I'd love it as much as I do. I asked Jimmy Heath when I first got the position here, I asked him “Who do I teach?” He goes, “Teach you. If you teach you, there'll always be clarity and honesty in what you teach.” I was like “Thank you.”
That's why he is so respected and loved. As our good friend, Antonio Hart always called him Master Heath. These students that come to Temple University from all over. Let's talk about some of them and some of their background. Do they come from this big knowledge of jazz? Do they know a little bit of everything walking into those doors?
There's a mixture of everything. We have people that come through the doors that as Shirley Scott used to say, “That person's been here before,” who are old souls. Then you have ones that come in that were really good in their hometown, but then when they come here, they're just overwhelmed at how many really good people there are. They come here kind of shocked, like, “Whoa, I was the big dog and now I’m not.”
I find that you can never judge the book by its cover. However they come is how they come. It's our job to teach them where they are at and encourage them to continue on. I think that's the beauty in what I do. The ones who are extremely gifted, I don't try to beat them down to bring them to a level of less gifted. I say, “Okay, look, there's a lot that I know, so let's find some things you may not know. If I can't help you with things that you may not know, I have colleagues that can.” I was always told by other educators that you don't have to know everything. You have to rely on those around you. If they rely on you and you rely on them, then you can create a great program.
I think that's what's helped me establish the program here at Temple. I understand that there's things that I may not do well, so I ask my good friends and colleagues, “Hey, can you teach this class? Hey, can you teach this? Can you teach these students? Can you do this?” And by asking really great faculty to come here. That's how this program has really evolved. It's not me. I just had a vision to hire certain people after a conversation with them. Then they come in and they work with the students, and the students give me feedback. It's a great thing.
There are some students that are really talented off the chain and there's some that aren't, but the ones that aren't, by the time they leave here, some of them are off the chain.
Now you mentioned Tim Warfield. Another great person that this audience is familiar with, who is a part of Temple University, is Bruce Barth. Are you all working on some new music or a new album? It's hard enough to put together an album with grownups. Are you doing that with these students?
The students record [an album], if not every year, every other year, so the students are recording all the time. That's a mission of our dean who's really supportive in every way because it takes money to record. But he finds money for the students to have these opportunities which is unbelievable. He also puts money behind the faculty because sometimes at educational institutions, all the money goes for the students and the faculty are left behind. But our dean has found a way to make sure that the faculty can record and be together and perform as well as the students.
I think it's great for the students to see the faculty come together and perform. The students get to see that we do practice what we preach and see we're not perfect. But we give it all, every time we step up on the stage.
Perfection is overrated. What we want is honesty. I think all of us that love and enjoy this music, that's what we love it for. Those imperfect notes. But the honesty that comes through the music. That is why we will always fall in love with jazz. Now you all have a performance coming up in April.
We do. On April 16, at Rose Hall at Jazz at Lincoln Center, which is a big theater.
Terell, I have not even been to a show at Rose Hall. That's a big deal for my fellow Temple Owls.
Well, I can't wait because your name is on the guest list and you'll be at that performance.
You know, I won't wear my T-shirt. I will look a lot nicer, but I'm going to wear something to represent for my Owls.
What's cool about the performance is that the orchestra is playing Four Dances from Estancia by Argentina’s Alberto Ginastera. They'll open up the concert that way. After the orchestra plays, we'll play a piece that was written for the studio orchestra, which is both the orchestra and the big band. Myself and Dick Oatts are the two soloists. The great pianist Billy Childs wrote this piece called “Labyrinth.” We'll do that the first half.
The second half of the concert, the faculty sextet will come out and they'll perform a tune from our newest record, Fly With the Wind. After we do “Fly with the Wind,” then the big band will come out and we'll do a student composition entitled “Red Braid,” written by one of our trumpeters, Banks Sapner. Then the whole orchestra big band comes out with the sextet and we finish with a commissioned project from Bill Cunliffe entitled “Rainforest.” The whole night is just family, community, love. It's what it should be.
McCoy Tyner and “Fly with the Wind.” First of all, my audience should know that I love McCoy Tyner. So much so that my first and only dog was named McCoy, which pet lovers know that if they name their pet after somebody, that's deep. “Fly with the Wind” song is something so magical. I always say from the very first note, you are off. I tell you, that song takes me way off of this planet and it drops me back when I need it to. McCoy Tyner, another Philadelphia connection. I can't believe I didn't say that name at first, but talk to me about why McCoy, which is almost a silly question, but also “Fly with the Wind.”
I got a chance to play with McCoy for three, almost four years and that was one of the songs we did every night. It didn't matter the configuration of the band. We went to Japan and did a Latin All Stars band and we played “Fly With The Wind.” We come back and we do the sextet with Ravi Coltrane and Gary Bartz and we play “Fly With the Wind.” Even when it was a quintet with myself and Ravi, we do “Fly with the Wind.” Every time we played it, it was a song that just every time you thought it got to a peak, it would go higher and higher and higher.
It's really funny. Here at school with my students, it's hard to teach them how to build a solo—to build, build, build. Sometimes you're not around an accompanist that has the power that McCoy had. I wish every student had the opportunity to play with McCoy who would feel that you got to a certain place and he'd say, “Oh, no, no, no.” He'd start digging in more and you'd start going higher. Then he'd start digging in more and you start going higher. Then you'd want to stop and he'd make it so you just couldn't stop. If you played an idea, he'd answer it and kept pushing you. It was amazing. There's no college institution that could provide a lesson like McCoy Tyner has to offer.
On this recording we paid homage to Philadelphia with McCoy, with Jimmy Heath, with Lee Morgan, with John Coltrane. It’s a very special recording in my heart and in all the faculty's hearts as well.
So April, it looks like I've got a date, ladies and gentlemen. I'm going to finally get to the Rose Theater. Is it the big band, the orchestra and the sextet?
All of the above. Then we'll put them all together for a studio orchestra. That's what we call it when we combine all the groups. There’s the studio orchestra with everyone. Then there's the studio orchestra with just Dick Oatts and myself.
All right. It’s going to be a great time. I know that you've got plenty of practicing to do and students to take care of over there in Philadelphia so we're going to let you run. But I've got some lightning round questions, just kind of off the cuff, and because you are around students in Philadelphia, I'm curious to know your answer. The first song that you heard this morning or today that you can think of. That didn't even have to do with school, just as you were waking up in the morning. Is there a song that was just on your heart or that you actually heard that you can remember that's a part of your day?
Sure. “On a Misty Night.”
I like to tell people that there are certain songs that just hearing the title starts to play in your heart. I hear it already. Perfect. What'd you have for breakfast? You’re in Philly. Don't tell me a cheesesteak. Scrapple from the apple, maybe?
Forgive me for my sins, but I just had a cheesesteak. I forgot to eat breakfast, so I said it's okay if I have a cheesesteak because that'll make up for breakfast and lunch.
Where's your favorite spot to go to?
Today I just went to a place on campus. I didn't get off campus, but my favorite place, and everyone can argue, but I love Jim’s. Jim’s is my spot.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.