Corrections or additions?
This article by Richard Skelly was prepared for the March 14, 2001
edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
From Pots & Pans to Vibes: Stefan Harris
He’s been hailed by critics as one of the great new
"young lions" of traditional jazz, so it’s not surprising
vibraphonist Stefon Harris has some very definite ideas about where
jazz is going. Given his background in classical music, he also has
some exciting ideas about jazz composition. All of these facets of
Harris’ musical persona will be on display in New Brunswick on
March 22, when Harris and his quartet perform there. Part of the State
Theater’s jazz series, the musician is being presented in the intimacy
of the currently-idle Crossroads Theater location.
Harris, 27, has been hailed by the Los Angeles Times as "one of
the most important young artists in jazz," while Newsweek magazine
calls him "Jazz’s reigning `it’ man."
In the liner notes to his recent BlueNote Records CD, Harris tells
us composing is a great source of joy and inspiration for him.
just as intrigued today as I was at the onset of my journey into the
world of music," he writes. "Composing continues to be a great
source of joy and inspiration in my life. It is a tedious process,
which begins with a single tone embodying untold mysteries of the
human spirit. Now the second tone is oftentimes the most difficult
to find, because among a seemingly endless matrix of options, there
is but one correct pitch."
In an interview from Newark, where, tiring of Manhattan rents, he
now makes his home, Harris explains how his creativity in jazz
comes in cycles. "I usually have creative spurts and there may
be a three week period where I hear lots of music in my head,"
he says. "Generally, the way I compose is I sit at the piano and
strike one note and then I wait until I can her the second note.
I come up with a string of notes, say maybe eight or nine notes and
those notes tell you where there needs to be a pause. I don’t look
at composing as a creative process but I look at it more as a process
His mother, formerly with the New York State Department of Higher
Education, now a Pentecostal minister, raised Harris in Albany, New
York. His dad works for the post office in Virginia. Harris earned
his first degree in classical performance at the Manhattan School
of Music, then went on to a master’s degree in jazz at the Manhattan
School of Music.
"I don’t have the typical jazz musician’s story," he explains.
"I wasn’t really exposed to jazz at a young age, but I was exposed
to classical music through the Empire State Youth Orchestra. I don’t
come from a musical family and I don’t come from a big jazz town,"
though Albany is home to several good blues clubs. "The first
part of my career was primarily spent playing classical music."
When he’s reminded that he’s only 27, Harris laughs and then explains
that he taught himself to read music and play piano at age six.
How does one teach oneself to read music and play piano
at six? Prior to teaching himself to read music as a youngster, Harris
explains, he was always banging on pots and pans. Then "we moved
into an apartment where someone had left the piano behind and they
left a bunch of simple music books. I sort of learned one chord and
then found a different way of thinking. I counted the notes in between
notes and learned all of my chords based on the spaces in between
notes," he explains, adding the books were very basic and required
little reading, i.e., with a picture of a finger pointing to
on the piano.
"Later on, I learned the theoretical approach but I had my own
little system of learning to read music," he recalls.
to read music was definitely not about reading a large piece of
and I think it’s come in handy of when I teach things. I’m usually
able to explain things in a simple manner."
Harris teaches privately and gives master classes when he travels.
His most recent residencies were at Dartmouth College and the
of Massachusetts. Asked if these master classes were part of the way
he’s marketed on the jazz circuit, Harris says they’re things he’s
genuinely interested in doing, and says he’d be comfortable just going
out to teach. On Saturday, March 17, Harris will teach a jazz clinic
for the Jazz Institute of New Jersey at the community complex in
Township to which interested youth and parents are welcomed (call
Although he started on piano and still performs on it occasionally,
Harris took up the marimbas and vibraphone while part of the Empire
State Youth Orchestra in high school, he explains.
"As far as the specific styles that turned me on, I would say
in high school, I would put on records by Stevie Wonder and the
put on a record and try to play along with it," he explains.
Harris attended the Eastman School of Music for a short time in
and then transferred to the Manhattan School of Music, which naturally
brought him to the epicenter of the world of jazz.
His first big break came when legendary jazz drummer Max Roach saw
him play vibes with a small Latin jazz group at a club in Rochester
while he was still attending Manhattan School of Music. "For some
reason, Max was in Rochester and came out to hear us play," he
recalls, "a week later I had a message on my answering machine
from Max Roach." Needless to say, when Max Roach calls, jazz
listen, so Harris jumped on it and called him right back.
"The gigs I had with him were a great learning experience. Another
person who really helped me out was [bassist] Buster Williams, because
with his quartet, the vibes are generally the lead instrument, so
I had to learn how to lead and how to take the initiative," he
It didn’t take Harris long to figure out that he’d made the right
move in transferring from Eastman School in Rochester to New York
"It brought me closer to jazz and the culture associated with
jazz," he says, "and you’re also able to meet and hang out
with some of the greatest musicians in the world."
One such musician was the composer, trumpeter-bandleader, impresario,
and recording star Wynton Marsalis, who took a sincere interest in
what Harris had to say with the vibraphone.
"I remember playing a show with Wynton at Lincoln Center and then
he started to hire me for shows with his septet," Harris explains.
Harris accompanied trombonist Wycliffe Gordon and Marsalis in
last septet, before his international touring schedule and other
with Jazz at Lincoln Center became too great to allow him to continue
leading the small ensemble.
But with bassist Williams, "I found myself in a position where
I was either going to drown or learn how to swim," he recalls,
so, in a series of club dates with Williams, he learned to lead a
jazz ensemble. Harris also worked with saxophonist Joe Henderson in
his small group, and played with Marsalis’ septet for two years before
being a part of his big band for another three years.
"All of this work with Wynton gave me a lot of visibility,"
he says. Marsalis says of Harris: "He plays with a tremendous
amount of intensity and with intelligence and taste, not just
Asked if he can play `wild vibes,’ much the way Lionel Hampton used
to conclude his annual free summertime concerts in New Brunswick some
years ago, Harris laughs. "Sure I can play wild vibes, but
my focus has been to learn to respond to what’s going on around me.
To make it less about showboating and grandstanding and more about
communicating with everyone on stage so that we demonstrate a sense
You can expect some wild vibes, but not a lot of it, from Harris at
Crossroads Theater on Thursday night. To his way of thinking the
of jazz composition lies in more interaction among the musicians.
The long, extended solos — by trumpet, trombone, piano, drums
or any other instrument — are on their way out, he argues.
At Crossroads Theater, an intimate 300-seat house, Harris will be
accompanied by many of the same musicians that are on his critically
praised sophomore album, "Black Action Figure." His quartet
will include Xavier Davis, piano, Tarus Mateen on bass, and drummer
"My main focus on the bandstand is on the interaction that’s going
on," he adds, "and it’s interesting because when you rely
so heavily on interaction, it’s very spontaneous and very risky. You
don’t know what you’re going to get on a given night and that means
we’re discovering the music at the same time the audience is
— Richard J. Skelly
Avenue, New Brunswick, 877-782-8311. Vibraphonist Stefon Harris and
his quartet. The Youth Ensemble of the Jazz Institute of New Jersey
opens the show. $16 to $28. Thursday, March 22, 8 p.m.
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