NYU Jazz Interview Series: Stefon Harris
“I’m gonna get a t-shirt that says, I HEAR DEAD PEOPLE,” proclaimed Stefon Harris just prior to our interview when I asked him what he thought about the state of jazz radio. While his passion and drive are spawn from the traditions of jazz music, Stefon is definitely a trailblazer who lives in the present and is committed to creating new music for new audiences. It was quite clear from his interview that he is a forward thinking artist that is looking to include everyone in his music, and has made a conscious decision to develop new outlets to expand beyond the vision of other jazz artists of his generation.
As a bandleader, Stefon has a collaborative vision where he becomes a participant within the broader context of his ensemble. He does not want the listeners to focus simply his facility on vibes, but how he integrates his sound within the larger context of the band. As he said in the interview, “You won’t see me on any of my CD covers standing behind a set of vibes, because my music is about the collective sound, not just me.” I think that this is Stefon’s brilliance as a musician and as a leader; he is open with his music and his musical process and shares all with everyone.
As a teacher, Stefon is exactly the same. While he has been a member of my jazz faculty at NYU for over 10 years, it has only been within the past few years that he began teaching on campus. Until then, I had only heard rumors of his inspired teaching technique. Needless to say, I was blown away by his approach to teaching students how to hear music based on emotional responses to different chord types. His focused approach does not merely help students identify chords as happy or sad, but he teaches them to discover a diversity of emotional responses to chord structures bases on almost cinematic responses like, tough, mighty, angry, passionate, etc. And guess what, his method really works!
As for his approach to vibraphone, I can only imagine what challenges all vibes players must experience due to the size and design of such an odd collection of graduated metal bars strung together to form an instrument that requires the performer to possess equal skills as a percussionist and as a pianist. This may explain why there have been so relatively few innovators over the past several decades. Hamp, Red, Terry, Bags, Gary, Bobby, Mike and Joe come to mind. Stefon, the latest, also belongs to this exclusive list of vibraphonists who can be identified merely with a single moniker.
While I have opened up the technical “Can of Worms,” for those who have chosen to play vibraphone, the physical instrument is almost impossible to transport. I dare you to attempt hailing a taxi with your vibes in tow. Actually, one of my students upon entered my program introducing me to an even more outrageous transportation nightmare. He performs on both vibes AND congas. Every cab driver’s nightmare! The horror…
– Dave Schroeder, NYU Jazz Interview Series Host
Photo credit: Andrzej Pilarczyk
Produced by NYU Jazz Studies Dept. and Jazz Online and in association with Barnes & Noble, The NYU Steinhardt Jazz Series features interviews with the jazz greats. The series is hosted by Dave Schroeder, Director of Jazz Studies at NYU Steinhardt.