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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

of discovery."

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

of community."

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

Terreon Gully.

"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


the music."

— Richard J. Skelly

Stefon Harris, Crossroads Theater, 7 Livingston

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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