Jazz trumpeter Terell Stafford is focused on mentoring the next generation of musicians

When Terell Stafford was a young and aspiring trumpeter, he was told he might have a problem. The way he puts his mouth to his mouthpiece – what’s known in the trade as his lip – is crooked.

“One teacher said, ‘If you can’t play right down the middle, you won’t be over 25,'” said Stafford. Despite this, his love for the trumpet never waned, and he continued to visit clubs and record as much music as possible.

He then received guidance and encouragement from jazz greats like Wynton Marsalis and Clark Terry, and Stafford knew he belonged on the jazz scene.

His three-decade career includes a Grammy Award and multiple nominations; Chart-topping albums and collaborations; and performances with jazz giants like Shirley Scott, Benny Golson and Jimmy Heath.

Stafford is also dedicated to mentoring the next generation of jazz musicians, which he does as director of jazz studies and chair in instrumental studies at Boyer College of Music and Dance, executive director and artistic director of the Jazz Orchestra of Philadelphia, and his roles with Philly POPS and Boyers Community Music Scholars Program.

In recognition of Jazz Appreciation Month, we sat down with Stafford to talk about his celebrated jazz career and his commitment to keeping jazz music alive by passing on his knowledge to aspiring musicians.

Temple Now: You’ve played in jazz scenes around the world, but your roots are here in Philadelphia. Can you describe how important Philly’s jazz scene is to you and what it means to continue the city’s jazz heritage?

Terell Stafford: I was a latecomer to jazz so I didn’t know what I should have known when I came to Philadelphia. One night one of my best friends, Tim Warfield, took me to this club called Ortlieb’s to see him play with the legendary organist Shirley Scott. So we go to this club and on drums there was a guy called Mickey Roker from Philadelphia, Arthur Harper on bass and the great Shirley Scott on piano. Suddenly she says: ‘There’s this trumpeter in the house and I want to get him on stage.’ So I went on stage and we played and it was an amazing experience. From that point on, it was like Shirley and I played together until she died. She’s the one who started enlightening me on Philadelphia. You know, people like John Coltrane, Lee Morgan, Jimmy Heath and so many other musicians that came out of this rich, rich culture in Philadelphia.

It was really inspiring to think about the Benny Golsons and the Jimmy Heaths and the Shirley Scotts. I feel blessed to have played with all of them at my younger age. What was special was that they all welcomed me like I was part of their family and they taught me so much. And that’s what I want to do now. I don’t see myself as some kind of giant like them. I see myself as someone who was fortunate enough to be around her and I feel lucky to be able to pass on knowledge to people who were in the same boat as I was years ago.

TN: What are some of the most memorable pieces of music you’ve had the privilege of being a part of during your career?

TS: When I came to New York and started playing jazz, I joined this group called the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra. It was the most intimidating experience of my life because they mainly play at Village Vanguard – one of the most historic clubs of all time. It’s this big band crammed into this tiny stage. The music is very challenging and I was really green to the scene but these guys gave me a chance. We recorded this CD called Monday Night Live at Village Vanguard. I didn’t think anything of it, but lo and behold, this CD wins a Grammy. There are so many people trying to win a Grammy by planning it and they record the CD and never win it. But if you just make music at a high level and just let yourself go, then good things happen. So that was huge for me.

I’m also proud of my CDs brotherlee love and This side of Strayhorn. They were both number one on the charts for weeks. That made me really proud that people were out there listening and supporting.

“The trumpet fascinated me the most, mainly because of its sound. I was fascinated that three tubes could produce so much music. How do you make so much sound with just three valves?” (Photograph by Joseph V. Labolito)

TN: An important part of jazz music is improvisation and the musicians’ reaction to what the other is doing – something that has recently been complicated by the COVID-19 protocols. How has the pandemic forced you to change the way you write, record and perform music?

TS: During COVID, I turned this space into my recording studio, and people would send me tracks saying, “Hey, can you be a guest on this record?” Or, “Can we do this virtual concert together?” So I recorded a lot here . It was hard not to play with people. But it was rejuvenating to play with the recording because I knew that people put a lot of love into these recordings even though they weren’t next to me in person.

So there were some things that came out of COVID that were really special. Musicians are generally very creative people. We will not let this pandemic stop us from being creative.

And that’s exactly what happened with the two Temple University Jazz Band CDs released during the pandemic. There was a really nice moment when we finished the second of these CDs, Without you, no me. For the recording of the CD we had to use these plexiglass filters and bell covers which reduce the sound immensely and make it really difficult to play. But the students did it anyway. The CD also features two guest musicians; Bassist Christian McBride and organist Joey DeFrancesco. I was part of Joey’s and Christian’s remote recording sessions and then they put together everything the students hadn’t heard. When they finally heard the finished product with the two guests on it, they were like ‘Ahhh!’ they screamed. They’ve let off steam.

So, yeah, we’ve had this pandemic. And yes, we were apart for a year or two, but we appreciate who we are and what we are now. We took so many things for granted before the pandemic, and we won’t do that again.

TN: Why is mentoring the next generation of jazz musicians so important to you?

TS: I’m doing an all cities program here through Philly POPS and this year is a really tough year coming back from the pandemic. I’ve got about a quarter of a band, and they said, ‘Well, maybe we should skip a year.’ I said no. I’ll just teach harder. I will encourage the children and we will do a concert. We will continue to build and nurture, and that will be it.

Through Philly POPS or the work I do at Temple or with the Community Scholars Group, I want to be there to raise spirits and provide knowledge for the next generation because people have done that for me. And the only way this music stays alive is when kids start learning about it. i love what i do I wake up and wonder how am I going to teach this concept today? You know, there are a few students in particular that I think about a lot that are harder to crack, but I just grab a pair of pliers and crack this nut. I will find a way

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