In the early 1990s, Terell Stafford lived a double life. By day, he rigorously honed his skills studying classical trumpet at Rutgers University; at night, he and saxophonist Tim Warfield would drive into Philly and hit the jam sessions at Ortlieb’s Jazzhaus, then presided over by organ great Shirley Scott.
“That jam session was all about community,” Stafford recalls. “You’d see the veteran musicians on stage performing with the younger musicians, sharing stories and experiences and guiding and leading. Shirley Scott would be holding court and doing everything she could to bring folks together and at the same time educate.”
These days, a mere double life would seem like a vacation for Stafford. The director of jazz studies at Temple since 1996, he folded the classical-music program into his purview a few years ago, taking on the additional title of chair of instrumental studies. This week, his quintet is performing at the legendary Village Vanguard in New York, while he continues to serve sideman duties with the Clayton Brothers Quintet and with drummer Matt Wilson’s rambunctious Arts and Crafts quartet.
Now, he’s assumed yet another title, as artistic director of the newly formed Jazz Orchestra of Philadelphia. The 17-piece ensemble recently wrapped up a funding campaign via Indiegogo and will make its debut on Tuesday at a free concert in the courtyard of City Hall to commemorate International Jazz Day. A number of performances are planned to follow around the city leading up to a gala premiere next year at the Kimmel Center.
While assembling the orchestra, Stafford has looked back often at those early days at Ortlieb’s. “This orchestra has been created with the same mission,” he says. “To bring folks together on a musical plane and a social plane.”
Philadelphia has played an integral role in jazz history, a facet that too often seems to go unacknowledged. During his travels, Stafford noticed that nearly every city he visited had an orchestra that “represented the strength of that city musically,” something he found lacking at home. Coincidentally, Deena Adler, a psychologist by training who also manages Philly saxophonist Odean Pope, was thinking along the same lines. Stafford returned from last year’s Pittsburgh Jazz Festival to a call from Adler proposing the Jazz Orchestra of Philadelphia.
“I am incredibly excited to have the opportunity to present Philadelphia jazz at its ﬁnest,” Adler, who will serve as the ensemble’s managing director, said in a statement. “I see its potential as parallel to the music itself: energy in motion, expanding to larger and larger audiences while bringing people together.”
Stafford also emphasizes that sense of community in articulating his vision for the orchestra. “The first premise is bringing folks together,” he says. “Then it’s about representing the musical legacy of Philadelphia on the highest level possible, because there’s some incredible musicians here and some incredible musicians who come from here.”
The orchestra will be composed of both veteran musicians and younger players, carrying on the same cross-generational conversations that Stafford witnessed on the late Scott’s bandstand. Stafford will be joined by his longtime collaborator Tim Warfield, along with bass great Lee Smith and saxophonist and University of the Arts faculty member Chris Farr. “We’ve got seasoned musicians who have paid their dues and can educate and lead,” he says, “and younger musicians to keep the energy up and to bring what’s going on in their generation. The way I see it, there’s no better way to bring both generations together than with a jazz orchestra.”
Born in Miami in 1966, Stafford and his family left the city after his father, a regional manager for 7-Eleven, was robbed several times in rapid succession while filling in for store managers. His father got a job with Amtrak, and Stafford began studying trumpet while in school in the Chicago suburbs. The family later moved again, to the D.C. area, where Stafford earned a full scholarship to the University of Maryland. His parents insisted he study music education rather than music performance, however, a direction that so discouraged the aspiring trumpet player that after graduating he gave up music altogether and went to work as a computer programmer at an insurance company. Fortunately, in 1988 he met Wynton Marsalis, who encouraged Stafford to study with William Fielder at Rutgers.
As the idea for the Jazz Orchestra of Philadelphia began to come into focus, Stafford again called on Marsalis for advice. “I really had no clue on how to get started,” Stafford admits. “So I called Wynton, and he was really insightful and supportive. We talked about direction, talked about vision, talked about repertoire. He said, ‘Start small and work your way up,’ and to take only the greatest musicians so that the music will be represented at the highest level. And he made the library at Lincoln Center available to us for repertoire.”
He also asked Marsalis the most basic question of all: “I asked him if he thought I should do this,” Stafford recalls. “And he said, ‘Absolutely. Philadelphia needs it.’”
Despite his initial resistance to a career in education, formed by watching his mother come home cranky and exhausted from her teaching job as he grew up, Stafford now approaches his teaching mission with the zeal of a convert. The orchestra includes faculty members from both Temple and UArts, and Stafford sees education as an integral component of its mission.
“Pretty much everyone in the orchestra teaches on some level,” he says. “So not only are we going to represent the music itself, but hopefully we’ll find a way to present the music to the community and to the younger generation through workshops and other mentorship opportunities.”
Once again, Shirley Scott played a key part in changing Stafford’s attitude regarding his responsibility as an educator. After hearing him and Warfield at those Tuesday-night jam sessions at Ortlieb’s, she hired both of them to tour with her. She then brought them along when she became musical director for Bill Cosby’s 1992 series You Bet Your Life.
At the time, Scott was teaching at Cheyney University and encouraged Stafford to apply when a teaching position opened up at the school. “I said, ‘Shirley, I appreciate it, but I just want to play.’ She asked me a few more times — and then she asked Mr. Cosby to ask me. He said, ‘You should teach,’ and finally he was, like, ‘You like your job? Have you considered that teaching position?’ And that little bell went ding! ‘You know, I think I will. Good suggestion, Mr. Cosby.’ So I took the position.”
In 1996 Stafford moved to Temple to become director of jazz studies, a role he continues to fill. Becoming chair of the instrumental-studies department in 2010 gave him oversight of both jazz and classical students. “Sometimes I see myself as a peacemaker or an ambassador,” he says, “the voice between faculty and administration.”
In his current position, Stafford is able to build bridges between the two genres, something that was discouraged when he was studying at Rutgers. As a classical student, he could have been granted professional leave to tour with a classical ensemble, but not with a jazz band. So when saxophonist Bobby Watson offered him a position in his band Horizon, Stafford tried to get sneaky: He applied for leave to tour with the Robert Watson Chamber Ensemble — a clever ruse that earned him a one-year suspension for academic dishonesty when Horizon landed on the cover of DownBeat magazine.
“Back then it was so segregated,” Stafford recalls. “They used to call classical ‘legitimate music,’ so that must mean jazz is non-legit. My wind-ensemble instructor would say, ‘Terell, you’re playing with that jazzy sound, get rid of that.’ I’d be crushed. So my job at Temple is to have the two genres meet in the middle and respect the best of what both have to offer.”
Having come to jazz later than many of his contemporaries, Stafford has dedicated a considerable amount of his energy to paying homage to his forebears, a mission that will continue under the auspices of the Jazz Orchestra of Philadelphia. In 2011, he released This Side of Strayhorn, a collection of music penned by Duke Ellington collaborator Billy Strayhorn. His next project will be a tribute to Philly trumpet legend Lee Morgan, material he debuted last year at the Kimmel Center.
Morgan’s work will also make up part of the new orchestra’s repertoire. Drawing on the music of composers associated with Philadelphia certainly leaves the orchestra with no shortage of potential material. Stafford easily rattles off a host of greats whose material they could perform: John Coltrane, Jimmy Heath, Benny Golson, McCoy Tyner.
“Philadelphia is a very soulful, passionate city, and the music that comes from the city is the same,” Stafford says. “It has this unique attitude, and there’s an intellectual side and a spiritual side to it.
“There’s so much talent and so much music that comes from this city,” he concludes, “and people need to hear it.”
The Jazz Orchestra of Philadelphia performs Tue., April 30, noon, free, City Hall courtyard.
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