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Between Two Worlds: Talking with Terell Stafford about inspiration, motivation and acceptance

Santiago Interiano

Trumpeter Terell Stafford straddles many different worlds within jazz. He’s the Director of Jazz Studies and Chair of Instrumental Studies at Temple University’s Boyer College of Music and Dance. He’s been a longtime member of the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra — an offer he nearly refused due to concerns that dyslexia would affect his ability to play in one of the most significant big bands since the swing era. He has built a powerful education network as a clinician at workshops throughout the country, and his students routinely win awards and move into professional careers.

He’s had some co-conspirators for all this success: chiefly, the members of his longtime quintet, including saxophonist Tim Warfield, pianist Bruce Barth, bassist David Wong. Add a world of drums from his fellow Philadelphian Johnathan Blake, along with percussionist Alex Acuña, and you have the cast of Between Two Worlds, Stafford’s newest recording.

It releases this Friday on Le Coq Records, and Stafford celebrates with a quintet engagement Thursday through Saturday at South Jazz Kitchen. I recently spoke with Stafford about some of the album’s inspiration. Here is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Trumpeter Terell Stafford, right, with drum
Santiago Interiano
Trumpeter Terell Stafford, right, with drummer Johnathan Blake during the sessions for 'Between Two Worlds.'

You have played and continue to play with a lot of great musicians, from saxophonist Charles McPherson to the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra to drummer Victor Lewis. I know that last association has been on hold while Victor has been battling health issues.  

He’s still battling, but he’s holding on. Keep Victor in our thoughts and prayers.

So what motivated you to choose his composition, “Between Two Worlds,” both to play and also for the title of the recording? 

I’ve been playing it with him for so many years in his band, and when the craziness hit with the pandemic, I had an opportunity, like many of us, to just slow down and start thinking about life.

When things were “normal,” I was juggling so many activities at the time. My day-to-day activities were to go here, fly here, play this, and on to the next. When things slowed down, I said, “Wow, how was I able to do that?” I was talking to my wife and I said, “I feel like I’m in between the world of being a father and being a husband and being an educator and being a performer, being a composer and being an arranger. Now that I’ve had a chance to slow down, I can consider which one I should work on. Because I have a few years left to sharpen my craft.” My wife told me to follow wherever my heart leads.

And where did that lead you?

Family and friends. I started with my family, you know, gaining the trust of my daughter and just observing what an incredible life I have.

During this time, my daughter started piano. She was three, and she came home and she said, “Look, Dad, I can play this bass line.” So we played it together and one night after dinner I played the bass line and I wrote a song, “Mi a Mia,” for her. A couple days later, I wrote a song for my wife. She’s always kind of singing little melodies. I heard a snippet of a melody and I put it down and wrote “Two Hearts as One” for her. I wrote a piece for my mom (“Wruth’s Blues”), but the most impactful piece was the hymn “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.”

Why is that?

Because during the pandemic, I played so many funerals, and this was the song that was requested by everyone. I said, “There must be a purpose, you know, there’s a reason I’m playing this.” So I did an arrangement for the quintet and we recorded that to remember those we lost during that time. You’re losing people that weren’t expected to be lost during a time that was pretty devastating.

You lost a pretty big mentor in McCoy Tyner.

Sure did. Jimmy Heath was right around there. Jeff Clayton was right around there. I lost a really close aunt. I mean, the list goes on and on.

Let’s talk about McCoy Tyner, since you play his song “You Taught My Heart to Sing” on the new recording.

Well, I got to hear that song every night, but I never got to play it. Because he played it, sometimes solo, sometimes with the trio. He rarely did it with any horns. It was his feature. One of the lessons that was really, really incredible for me is that he called me to do a tour in Japan with the Latin Jazz All-Stars. I was like, “OK. I’m not sure if I’m a Latin All-Star, but I’ll go along with it.” This one tune in particular gave everyone fits to play over it.

So I went to McCoy and said, “I have no idea what to play over.” He explained his logic and how he could approach it, and the things that he thought about. And then he said, “Let me show you.” So we got to the gig that night, and I played through the section. Everyone’s like, “Hey man, how’d you play through that section?”

I said, “Go ask McCoy. He told me, so you should ask him.” Sometimes we have this fear not to let people know what we don’t know. It’s OK. I’ve been teaching for 27 years. If I don’t know something, I’ll go to a source and find out the information. I asked McCoy, “How do you want me to play over this Latin stuff?” He said, “I hired you to play you, so just play; that’s what I want. Just play you.”

A dozen years ago I thought you made a definitive statement with Billy Strayhorn’s music on your recording This Side of Strayhorn, but one song you left out of that project was one of his best, “Blood Count.” You picked it up here on Between Two Worlds.  

Billy Strayhorn was in the hospital hooked up to the machines when he wrote it. So he’s on this lifeline, basically on his deathbed, showing appreciation to the people around him. The melody is so haunting. It just makes me emotional every time I hear it. Bruce [Barth, the pianist] did an arrangement of it. But every time we would have a performance, it was always hard to program it. We did record it, but it just didn’t come out right during the session for This Side of Strayhorn.

When we made this new record in Las Vegas, I told [bassist] David [Wong], that I’d really like to try to record “Blood Count” again. And man, when we recorded it, hearing him play the melody on the bow was just so beautiful. The way the band blended was very impactful, and it just brought me to tears. I was fighting back tears the whole session, which is unlike me. I like to compartmentalize things, but I couldn’t turn the switch on this one. This whole thing brings me back to my reflection of who I am and why I do what I do.

Trumpeter Terell Stafford and saxophonist Tim Warfield during the sessions for 'Between Two Worlds.'
Santiago Interiano
Trumpeter Terell Stafford and saxophonist Tim Warfield during the sessions for 'Between Two Worlds.'

That’s a pretty large idea to compartmentalize. How do you do it?

I think as musicians we always want to challenge ourselves, and we always want to figure out ways to grow. My practice routine is very regimented. I have a maintenance routine. I have a growth routine, and I have an exploration routine. I do this daily so I can hold myself accountable when I pick up my horn and not just B.S. every time I play. This routine helps me to develop a concept of how I want to do music in my life. I’m not a prolific writer. I’m not a prolific arranger. If things are inspired from my everyday life, then I find there’s meaning behind what I do.

So have you unlocked anything in particular about yourself through this process?

The biggest box that I’ve opened is that it’s OK to be vulnerable. Maybe because of my positions at Temple and the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra and so on, I give the illusion that I have it all together. But it’s OK to be emotional. It’s OK to succeed. It’s okay to fail. It’s all OK, because it happens to everyone. That was the biggest thing that came from this project.

Well, I wish you much success in all of these things that you’re doing. I’m genuinely impressed by the level of care and commitment that you bring to this music, and are instilling into future generations.

It was a pleasure. Thank you.

The Terell Stafford Quintet performs Thursday through Saturday at South Jazz Kitchen; purchase tickets.

Josh Jackson is the associate general manager for programming and content at WRTI.