Why the Arts Matter with World Renowned Jazz Artist, Terrell Stafford

Why did you choose the trumpet?

I love the sound of the trumpet. When I was eight or nine years old I heard a relative play and I fell in love with it. When I was old enough to play (around 11) my instructors said that in order to play a brass instrument I had to start on a string instrument, so that’s how my music career began: on the viola. And I was probably the worst violist of life.

My teacher was the type who liked to hit your fingers with the bow if you didn’t play the right note so after playing so many wrong notes, things got a little painful. One day I decided to block his bow because my fingers were so sore, and I accidentally hit him smack dab in the middle of his face and broke his glasses. I got suspended from school for the week, from music for the year, and my parents got a phone call from my instructor who told them I had no musical talent whatsoever. ‘Keep him as far away from music as humanly possible’ he said.

The year I couldn’t play, my math teacher (who played guitar) taught me how to play guitar. Finally, when I was 13, in 6th grade, I was able to get to the instrument I always loved and I haven’t been able to put it down since.

What was it about studying with Dr. William Fielder that influenced you so strongly?

It was mainly his passion for teaching.

I stopped playing trumpet for a while because of some discouragement I received from one of my teachers. They told me that because of my embouchre (formation of the lips), I wouldn’t be able to play. Then I met Marcellus who said, ‘I want you to get a lesson with my teacher, and if he thinks you should play then you should play.’

That’s when I met Professor Fielder and he said I think you should play, and I can help you get to whatever level you want to get to.’ He was really, really, really hard as a teacher which was somewhat shocking at first, but when people describe the concept of tough love, that’s really what it was for him. He was a gentleman to everyone, he taught me how to be a human being, and the importance of teaching and imparting knowledge onto others. He had a huge impact on my life.

Education has been such a huge part of your life, both as a student and an instructor. What would you say to those who believe that arts education funding should be cut in public schools? How has this attitude affected you? Your department? Your students?

In a really weird way, it has brought us closer because when you feel threatened, and you feel that someone’s about to take something from you that has meant the world to you, and turned you into the human being you are, it brings you closer and makes you fight harder. My students are some of the hardest fighters. They’re not going to let anything happen to what they believe in.

As far as folks who want to cut that kind of funding, it’s really detrimental because obviously whoever wants to cut it is not involved in music. Music creates so much creative energy, but it also stimulates the mind in so many ways. There’s no other discipline that can affect the mind like music does, not to mention the team effort that music presents. When I was 11 years old I had the opportunity to perform with 50 to 60 people and we worked together as a team to make music together, and that’s been my life. Working with people, being around people, learning from people and being influenced in a positive way by people.

I feel like a lot of my friends are so successful in their careers because they had music in their lives, and so I’ll fight to the end for the arts, and for the NEA and arts education. We (teachers) are digging in more than ever to support the arts in any way we can, and to keep our students excited.

One of your most profound musical influences was Clifford Brown’s rendition of Cherokee. What about this piece speaks to you?

In the classical world in which I studied, everything is focused a lot on technique. When I was playing more classical music I would occasionally listen to a jazz musician and say to myself ‘wow listen to that missed note or chipped note.’ When you listen to Clifford Brown play you don’t hear any missed notes. You don’t hear any chipped notes. You hear phenomenal technique and fluidity. This guy played jazz on as high a level as I’ve ever heard any classical trumpet player play. That piece was so intimidating. There was no way when I first heard it that I would have been able to pick up the trumpet and do it. And that was a challenge for me.

It inspired me to learn how to improvise, and to really practice. When I asked around about Brown, everyone said all he did was practice, practice, practice. I felt like he and I were kindred spirits. To this day I still love and appreciate every note that comes out of Clifford Brown’s horn. He died at such a young age, but impacted so many people.

Some believe that because the impact the arts have cannot be measured or quantified, that they are not relevant. How do you measure or quantify the value of the arts?

To me, it’s what I feel in my heart. When someone plays music and it comes from their heart and I feel it in mine, that’s everything. I mean, there’s no more you can ask for. That’s something that’s not teachable, that’s not tangible. That’s something that separates, for me, the people who make me pull off to the side of the road to think about what I just heard on the radio. That inspires me to this day, and has inspired me all my musical life. So, to quantify it, I think people have to understand it first. That’s the hardest thing.

If you don’t grow up with music, and you don’t understand the intellectual side of jazz, you hear a melody and all of the sudden people take off on these chord changes. If you don’t understand it, it sounds like confusion. Organized confusion. But when you figure out how it works, you come to find out that it’s really personal, and if you don’t have that background it’s never too late to learn. That’s the message I wish I could pass on. Before you cut something, learn about it. Learn about where it comes from and how it impacts so many people.

What advice do you give to your students who aspire to become musicians?

I tell them to believe in their talent, believe in their dreams. Especially in this climate, the hardest thing for a parent is hearing their child may want to major in music. They say ‘we need you to make money. We need you to support yourself.’ But you know, there are so many facets of the arts. You can not only support yourself, you can have very lucrative career.

I really, to my soul, believe that it all depends on how you believe in yourself and that you surround yourself with those who love music as much as you do. The naysayers will most certainly discourage you, so I tell my students that. I let them know on a daily basis that whatever their aspirations are, they need to surround themselves by people who share the same aspirations. In this life, we need someone who has our back 24/7. Someone we can always turn to, and from that, you see students start to surround themselves with other students and create opportunities for themselves. It’s really inspiring to me.

What do you love most about Jazz?

Jazz is about community to me. When you play music onstage, you see folks in the audience listening to you through their ears, but they’re also listening through their souls. Whatever I can do to touch someone’s soul, that’s what I want to do because my soul has been touched by so many great musicians. From the first day I played Jazz, people were inviting me over to their houses, they were sending me recordings. The sense of community was so important to me.

Jazz means community it means creativity. It means sharing, it means trust and it means love. And that’s why I do what I do. I get all those things every time I play.

Come see Terell this Saturday at the Lesher Center for the Arts!