The great jazz generation gap - Stefon Harris on moving jazz into the 21st century
Written by Robin James   
Saturday, 17 July 2004
Stefon Harris Andrea Canter

"People say jazz is dead. I say, hell, if you listen to the radio you would think so" -SF (jump to interview)

Vibraphonist-marimbist Stefon Harris is showing the world why he's a future superstar with the April 20 release of his fifth Blue Note recording, Evolution.

The Albany, New York, native is a critically acclaimed, mature jazz instrumentalist-composer with a BA in classical music and an MA in jazz performance from the Manhattan School of Music.

He has performed in front of sold-out crowds back in New York City. Next week, Harris and his new band Blackout made a tour stop at the Dakota for a two-night stint on April 26-27.

Blackout's personnel includes alto saxophonist Casey Benjamin, keyboardist Marc Cary, bassist Darryl Hall, and drummer Terreon Gully. Harris calls the band Blackout because the group is about blacking out the narrow views surrounding and constricting the definition of jazz.

At 30, he has already earned three Grammy nominations for Blue Note recordings Black Action Figure, Kindred, and the The Grand Unification Theory, a concert-length jazz suite for a 12-piece ensemble.

Obvious comparisons linking Harris to Milt Jackson and Bobby Hutcherson are inevitable, although he's no vibraphone fiend. Harris doesn't love or hate the vibraphone. If he wasn't playing that instrument, Harris says he would play something else. It just so happened that when he needed to pick an instrument, Harris made a random decision to be a percussionist.

At the age of six, he began playing the piano, and eventually by eighth grade had expanded his musical proficiency to nearly 20 instruments. Harris' favorite was the trombone, and his least favorite was the trumpet.

The new CD's perfect match is a mix: a danceable electric-acoustic hybrid of R&B, hip hop and jazz elements with plenty of thump.

Before making his way to Milan to play with Kenny Barron's new group (Images CD to drop in May), Harris' mood was light and cheerful during a recent phone interview.


RJ: How would you describe your new band's overall vibe?

Stefon Harris Andrea Canter

SH: It's difficult to describe, but I think one of the things that stands out is that we're moving forward in the music, on our own terms. We all really have a sense of ownership in the music now. It doesn't matter what happened before us, and it doesn't matter what's going to happen after us.

Right now, we're going to create music that we choose to create that's filled with each of our personal influences musically. That's the general energy. It's very fresh sounding and very optimistic.

RJ: Several artists of our generation are doing a lot of positive things in terms of trying to move the music forward.

SH: It's a healthy time for the music. Actually, the industry is suffering considerably, but as a result, the industry-suffering musicians, they tend to just say, "Well, I'm going to do whatever I want then, it doesn't make a difference. I'm not going to get a big record deal or anything like that if I play standards, so why don't I just write and create my own music?" And you're seeing that attitude prevailing more and more these days, which is great!

I think creatively in terms of new voices, and that sense of reckless abandonment is really an essential part of the tradition of jazz. You're seeing that happening now, more and more.

It's like people get those two phrases mixed up - the tradition of jazz and the history of jazz. I always like to say that Charlie Parker and whoever - Louis Armstrong, people like that - they're not the tradition of jazz. They're the history of jazz. The tradition of jazz is spontaneity, it's creativity, it's the expression of the individual voice within the sound of the community. That's the tradition of jazz. The other thing is the history of jazz.

So, when you have people who are just regurgitating sounds from the past, in my opinion they're actually working outside of the tradition of the music. It's sort of a contradiction. It's like [saying] I'm going to be more of a traditionalist. But if you're a traditionalist, that means you're going to be pushing buttons and trying to find something new.

Stefon Harris Andrea Canter
It's dangerous to have this mentality of jazz that only the greats from the past are great. We have to always recognize the potential in one another. The new Miles Davis is probably among us right now, but may not be getting that attention because we're so focused on Kind of Blue. It's an awesome record, but you know, it's funny.

Another goal with my record is [that] I wanted to make a record that I wanted to listen to. I like having music that grooves. I like having music that sounds like it was written in this decade. That's really important to me.

RJ: What do you think about how the music has been able to reach the Black community?

SH: It kind of depends on where you're playing. There are certain areas of the county where you'll go and you'll see more African Americans than the population of the audience. But in general, there's a lack of African Americans coming out to see jazz. And I'm a musician who almost never blames the audience for anything. I really feel that it's our responsibility to reach that audience if that's what we choose to do.

There are a lot of outstanding factors. I think historically, when the music was taken out of Harlem and you put these high price tags on the music, African Americans at that time didn't have that kind of money. So, culturally it was sort of taken away from that community from a historical context.

Nowadays, when you look at African American culture as a whole, and some of the arts and things of that nature, it really is a culture that keeps moving forward. It's not a culture of preservationists. In European tradition, they're preservationists. If it's something's great, they're going to hold it, put the money behind it, and it's going to be around for the next two million years. African Americans tend to create something and master it, and then they just let it go and move on to the next thing.

When you look at how R&B is developed, and how hip hop is developed, jazz seems to be stagnating a little bit. And once the musicians start really moving the music forward, as I think a lot of us are starting to do now, where we're making music that sounds like it was created in this decade for crying out loud [laughing]...and it doesn't sound like music that we created in the '50s, or something, then you're going to have more African Americans coming out to see the music, because I think it will be more directly related to their immediate environment. That's just my theory.

RJ: That's an interesting theory.

SH: I don't blame them [African Americans]. A lot of African Americans, when they think of jazz, they're all over Kenny G. Boney James, oh my god, he's a star in the Black community, which is unbelievable to me.

But I understand. They're playing music with a little more R&B influence, which is a more popular music right now, which people tend to like. There's no reason why we can't have that without compromising our integrity in terms of harmony and our quest for greatness. If there was anything that I'm really proud of with this new record, it's that I feel like I've found that balance.

RJ: Cassandra Wilson was just in town. I know the two of you have worked together in the past. Her rendition of Abbey Lincoln's song "Throw It Away" is beautiful.

SH: Lincoln is one of my all-time favorites. What an original voice and mentality. She's really of her era. I heard her music in the past, and I could hear the time period. But when I hear her music now, it's music that's reflective of the issues of today.

You asked about African Americans... I mean, what do we expect if we're not playing music that is connected to the problems that people are suffering from today?

Years ago, she said something to me that I'll always remember. She said the problem that we're having out here right now is that everyone's trying to play jazz. I wrote that down on a piece of paper and left it on my music stand. Before I practiced, I would always see that and think about it. She's absolutely right. There's this definition of what jazz is, and everyone is trying to fit into that definition.

In a social context, I think we're just having a battle of generations right now. It's something that's reflected in other areas of our society besides the jazz community. It's a difficult thing to say, because a lot of people will interpret it the wrong way.

The issue of the baby boomer generation is affecting our generation. We're getting out of college and there aren't jobs. I'm not blaming the baby boomers. I'm just sort making, hopefully, an objective observation about what I think are some of the issues.

So, not only do we have problems getting jobs because a lot of the baby boomers haven't retired yet, [but] also they're going to deplete the Social Security fund along with George Bush. I'm sorry... Anyway, I want to get off that.

But then musically what happens is [that], because the baby boomers are of that age where they have the means to go to concerts, they're our primary audience. They want to hear music from their childhood, from those great musicals that they loved, so there's pressure on young musicians to play those standards in that manner. I think the balance of generations in our society is slightly off right now.

It's up to us to bring a younger audience out. But again, it's all connected. A lot of the younger people don't have jobs right now. They don't have a ton of money to come to a jazz club and hear 45 minutes of music. Not to mention that there are so many more things competing for their dollar besides a 45-minute performance.

If I had the power to change one thing that I think would dramatically affect the art form as a whole, I would implement a top-40 jazz format in jazz radio. It seems pretty obvious to me that, in this very competitive market for listeners' ears and people's dollars, you need to hear something more than once. You need to hear a song several times. What I think would happen if you created a top-40 format is, first of all, it would make the industry more competitive, and everybody and their mother won't be able to have a song on the radio, which leaves a lot of people out. Which I think is a good thing. It should be competitive.

 If you get a song on the radio, you should be out on the street dancing and saying, "I finally made it on the radio!" But it's not like that. It's like you go to your buddy who's a DJ and they can spin it for you, which is really kind of sad.

You need young stars in this art form, in any art form. You need people to herald. It was great when Wynton Marsalis was a big star and all of that. It definitely helped the art form.

And what you do if it's not 24 hours a day of top-40, you do 18 hours, and then you do an hour show on Big Band. A two-hour show for the '50s music, or something, but the vast majority of time you should be playing current releases by living artists. People say jazz is dead. I say, hell, if you listen to the radio you would think so.

RJ: How satisfied are you with how the new CD turned out? Do you care about what the critics might think?

SH: I'm always curious to see what critics will say. I don't take it to heart or anything. It's just a matter of opinion, but on occasion I'll read something that a critic says that I find to be true, and I'll say, hmm, maybe I do need to work on that. I can learn from anyone.

I'm very happy with how this new CD came out. I definitely feel like this is my best CD by far. I feel like conceptually it's very concise. We really accomplished what we set out to accomplish. That was finding this hybrid effect where you can take acoustic instruments and just add a little electric coloring here and there to enhance the sound of acoustic instruments to make it sound much more modern. This record really grooves. It feels good. At the same time, we're not holding back with our improvisation. I mean, it's harmonically advanced, but very melodically accessible.

RJ: Why did you decide to cover Sting's "Until"?

SH: At this point in my career - I think I've always had this mentality, I'm moving forward and talking about it even more - musicians of my generation, it's our responsibility to take ownership of the music and decide that it's our music and that we're going to make of it whatever we choose to make of it. It doesn't really matter what other people say. Otherwise we're going to end up missing out on tons of great music that's out here and that's being created now.

So, in looking for a cover, or a standard to play, I always say, "Well, why not have something that's new for me?" I was watching the movie Kate & Leopold, and at the end of the movie I heard this incredible piece of music, so I decided to transcribe and play it. [laughing] So, hopefully that will become a standard. I just fell in love with the melody. When I listen to [the song], it's still refreshing to me because it's new to me. I haven't heard 40 versions of it a thousand times and had to study and analyze it and flip it upside down.

RJ: Who are some of your favorite poets?

SH: I like Pablo Neruda, and just bought Saul Williams' new book Said the Shotgun to the Head.

RJ: What are you listening to these days?

SH: At this stage, I don't really listen to very much jazz at all. It's like music has become more recreational for me. I listen to pop music. I like some hip hop and rap, all types of stuff. I listen to Radiohead, Audio Slave, Kayne West - I really like his new CD.

What are we going to be saying in 2,000 years? Are we going to be saying to musicians that you need to learn 2,000 years, every musician along the way? Give me a break. You should study anything that's great, that moves you.

Any jazz musician that I've transcribed and stolen from, it's because they have moved me spiritually. There's something in there that I'm very curious about. It's not just because I'm supposed to study them in a historical context. If it moves me, I'll check it out.

Like the composition by Sting. It moved me now.


This article originally appeared in the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder

This article originally appeared in the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder


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