Reflections with Stefon Harris

Since his 1998 Blue Note recording debut as a leader,  A CLOUD OF RED DUST, vibraphonist Stefon Harris has been heralded as “one of the most important young artists in Jazz”. While continuing to honor the trail laid before him by masters such as Lionel Hampton, Milt Jackson and Bobby Hutcherson, Stefon has been blazing new trails of his own as composer / bandleader and vibraphonist. Recently nominated for a grammy for his current recording URBANUS, his 7th as a leader and his first on Concord  Records, Harris and his stellar band BLACKOUT (Marc Cary, Casey Benjamin, Terron Gully, Ben Williams) have developed a sound rooted in modern Jazz while incorporating melodies and rhythms of R&B and pop and the swagger and grooves of Hip Hop. When not performing with BlackOut Stefon stays busy with the San Francisco Jazz Collective, the Classical Jazz Quartet, and as an educator conducting lectures and clinics throughout the country. In 1999 Stefon and I had a chance to sit and talk about his new recording at that time, BLACK ACTION FIGURE and a lot more. Following is the result of that conversation…

One of the delights in Jazz last year (1998) was the debut recording of vibraphonist Stefon Harris. Although he’d been a featured sideman over the past few years, performing and/or recording with Max Roach’s percussion group M’Boom, Wynton Marsalis, Greg Osby, Bobby Watson, Joe Henderson, and other notables, Stefon’s star began to shine brighter with the release of his Blue Note premier A CLOUD OF RED DUST. Reflecting on his first recording as a leader Stefon notes “That’s music that was composed when I was in college, so, you know, you get to college and you’re in this real pensive state. A lot of the music in that record is based on literature I had read and philosophies that were coming about.”

With a brand new recording out now, BLACK ACTION FIGURE, and a new band Stefon stopped in the Bay Area for a sit down with yours truly, and it went a little something like this….

G1: Congratulations on the success of your debut disc, A CLOUD OF RED DUST, from last year, and the release of your newest recording BLACK ACTION FIGURE. Where did that name (Black Action Figure) come from?

STEFON: (Laughing) I knew everyone was going to ask me about that. Man, you know, the record is just a really fun record and I wanted to have a title that reflected that. The song has this kind of military type beat, but it’s like a real funky kind of beat, almost like a Black G.I. Joe type vibe so I call it Black Action Figure. It’s just really supposed to be a fun title.

G1: Yeah, it reminded me of some toys I had when I was a kid.

STEFON: (Laughing) Yeah, right! Right!

G1: Nowadays we see a lot of young musicians coming through Jazz, mostly horn players and piano players. What is it that made you decide on vibes as your choice of voice?

STEFON: I think it’s an issue of fate really, ‘cause I didn’t really pick the instrument. When I was younger I played about 20 different instruments. I took an audition for this orchestra, and I auditioned on clarinet and percussion because those were my two best instruments. I got principal percussionist and alternate on clarinet, so I chose to be a percussionist. I have no particular love of any one instrument, I just love music, so if I weren’t playing vibraphone I’d be playing piano or saxophone or something else. I think it’s just fate that I end up playing the vibraphone. I do believe that there’s something special about that instrument that I connect with. I feel that my personality is very comfortably expressed on that instrument.

G1: We’re the fortunate ones really, the listeners and fans, that you decided to choose that instrument. Do you still pick up any of the other instruments that you’ve played before?

STEFON: Well, not really. I still play piano a lot. I do a lot of my composing at the piano, and for training my ears, working on developing new sounds, and orchestrating, the piano is a good vehicle for that.

G1: On your first recording, CLOUD OF RED DUST, the writing did have an orchestra feel. It sounded like a bigger band than was actually there. Where do your composing skills and your thoughts on composition come from?

STEFON: Composing is interesting. I believe that’s the central most important element for me and probably for most musicians. I believe that every song that I’m ever going to write, for the rest of my life, is already written. It’s just a matter of me learning to listen for those notes that already exist on the inside. So, I can’t really take credit for the songs. I just sit down and I compose one note at a time. I know lots of harmony; I have a master’s degree in music, so I’ve studied all the tricks, but when I sit down to compose I try not to think about anything like that at all. I try to be as emotional as possible. I’ll sit down and I’ll strike one note and sometimes I’ll hear nothing else for the rest of the day, and I’ll say o.k. this wasn’t the day. Maybe a week later I’ll strike that note and a half-hour later I’ll hear a second one, then maybe three other notes will come in a row; this is with no rhythm, no orchestration, these are just a collection of intervals. Once I get about 5 or 6 notes, everything else I can hear really quickly. It’s just getting the first five or six notes…

G1: So, when you’re writing you don’t actually have a band sound in mind? You know, like, “I’m writing this for a quintet, or this is going to be a quartet piece”, it just kind of comes out that way?

STEFON: You can orchestrate compositions in many different ways. I definitely don’t compose that way. Sometimes when I’m writing I’ll hear something like “a flute would work nice here,” or I would hear “a trombone would work nice here,” but those are just options and possibilities. I think that when I write I just hear it as a separate entity that could be molded and shaped into many different settings.

G1: Is that how you put together the music for BLACK ACTION FIGURE? You have Gary Thomas on flute, which, along with the vibes, is really tasty. Was that thought in mind when you were putting together the music, as well as the band, for this recording?

STEFON: Well, again, I think the compositions are just separate entities in and of themselves so that you could arrange them however you want to. I just sat around and thought about who are some of the musicians that I’d like to have be a part of this project. I love Gary Thomas’ playing, especially his flute playing, and I really wanted him to be a part of it so I wrote him into the music. Then having Greg Osby, and Jason Moran, and Steve Turre… these are all people who have very unique individual voices and that was very important for me. Sometimes you get records where people are playing “stylistically” and everyone is playing in the same sort of style. For me, I don’t like to do that. I like to have it so that everyone has an individual voice. Like I stand up and do what I do and that’s my version of whatever it is we’re dealing with. When someone else comes up to play I want it to be very different than what I just did, so I’m looking for musicians who contrast what it is that I do. That’s how I chose a lot of the musicians on the record.

G1: What’s your musical background? Did your parents or other family play? How did you get into music?

STEFON: Well, none of the other people in my family are really musicians, but everybody could play a little bit on the organ or whatever. We had a little toy organ when I was a kid, so my brothers and sisters could horse around a little bit. I used to just like music, listening to commercials. I remember we had these little 8 tracks, yeah I’m that old to remember 8 tracks (laughing), and I just remember being a kid, man, I loved music so much I would sit all day just listening to the Commodores and Stevie Wonder 8 tracks. I could sit all day listening to music, so it was very evident when I was young that I had a certain passion for it.

We moved into an apartment where someone left a piano behind, so I would sneak out in the middle of the night and figure out the little notes on my own. My brothers and sisters wouldn’t teach me ‘cause I was a little kid, so I’d have to sneak out and learn. I took some books, there were some books in the bench, and I’d put them up there and figured it out, how to read music on my own and to play the piano. That was the start of it. It’s definitely something that I’ve always loved to do.

G1: Is it something you thought you’d be doing professionally after a while?

STEFON: (Nodding positively) Yeah! I mean I think the earliest memory I have is something about being an architect or something like that, but you know, I can’t even draw a straight line so… Once I discovered music, all my life I’ve wanted to do this… in combination with education, I’m also very passionate about education.

G1: Do you teach also?

STEFON: I try to, I try to. It’s really difficult with my current touring schedule. When I’m home I try to give private lessons, and when I’m on the road we try to set up different masters classes. Maybe we stop in and talk to some of the kids in high school, because that has a very profound effect on how people will be playing in the future.

A part of the problem that we have right now is that we have a whole generation of musicians coming up who have no connection to the older generation. They just heard some music and are just trying to figure it out. That could be a good thing in some ways, but there’s… you’re missing some of the essence if you’re not able to just sit next to someone who’s really been there and really witnessed the music coming to life with great sincerity and honesty as it does for many of our masterful musicians.

G1: Kind of like a mentor?

STEFON: Yeah! And nowadays with music education not being as prominent in the schools kids aren’t even seeing live music at all. So, it’s really our responsibility to go in there and perform for them and talk with them about the music. People have a lot of misconceptions about Jazz also. They think that you have to know a lot, you gotta know what the Blues is and you gotta know forms and all the instruments, none of that’s true. The only thing you need for Jazz is to sit down, close your eyes, and relax and give it an honest listen. That’s all you need… and if you don’t like it that’s o.k. This music has been around, and there are so many types of personalities that exist in this music. I don’t think you could find me a human being that, if I used all of the records that are recorded in Jazz, wouldn’t like something. Out of all of this great music out here, even if it’s only one, I know I could find a song they’d like.

G1: So, outside of your family, who were your music mentors?

STEFON: (Smiling as he remembers fondly) I have a really special person who came into my life when I was about 13 and in middle school. This was when I took that audition for the orchestra. The guy, who was the head of the percussion division of the orchestra, he started to give me private lessons. This guy is a pure genius, I mean incredible, phenomenal. Much of my love of education was inspired by his passion for it. He pulled me aside one day, when I was in the 8th grade, and he says that he thinks that I’m very special and that I have a very unique gift, that he’s going to dedicate the next six years of his life to focusing on developing my gift. Now, that is really a blessing for me to have someone like that come into my life. He’s my biggest mentor, his name’s Richard Albagley.

Again, I feel that it’s our responsibility, as artists, to make those kinds of connections with kids. Even if it’s not as intense as that was, it means a lot. You know, we get older and start playing and we tend to forget that connection of what it is that brought us to the music.

G1: I remember when I was in elementary school, we’d have some teachers who, before school would start, would let us play records in the classrooms about half an hour before the first bell would ring. Besides getting the kids to class early it also added something else to the day and our lives. I mean we got to hear stuff like Marvin Gaye and the whole Motown thing, Curtis Mayfield, and Bill Withers, but we’d also hear Duke Ellington, Miles’ various bands, Hank Crawford… it was important to have.


STEFON: Yeah, it’s still a wonderful thing for kids… Jazz, improvising… it brings people’s personalities to life. You know, when you’re a child nowadays, if you’re growing up in any kind of rough neighborhood or something like that you have to be rough, or at least put on that façade. So you’re walking around pretending you’re this callous person, you have to be able to watch the most violent things that come out in the movies and on television and look at it like it’s nothing. Part of us as human beings, of course, we have all that in us, but there’s a lot of other elements that are in us like love and compassion, like fear and greed… all of these emotions exist in all of us even as children. What music does…, let’s say you have a piece of music that’s very slow and requires a lot of patience, and you come to the end of the phrase which needs to trickle away into complete silence with a lot of elegance… you can’t draw from that callous side of your personality. For you to really play that properly, you’re going to have to relax and think about love. You’re going to have to caress this phrase, and that means you’re going to learn something about yourself.

A lot of people have these things in them and haven’t discovered them. So, if a child is doing that they’re discovering this entire other part of their personality, making them more complete human beings in the long run. They don’t necessarily become artists; I don’t think playing music for kids is to turn them into artists. Some of them will, but most of them won’t be. It’s just to enhance their lives.

G1: Back to BLACK ACTION FIGURE, are there any favorite pieces that you have there?

STEFON: I like them all, but I’m a sucker for ballads. I like “Faded Beauty”. That was an interesting composition for me. It’s a song that I wrote when I was visiting home and I saw an old building that I used to live in… the building where I first learned to play music. It’s all abandoned and it’s a terrible sight to the city. My girlfriend, at the time, was with me and I was explaining to her that this is where I learned to play. Even though it was a terrible building, in my description I could only think of beautiful things to say, so that’s where the title “Faded Beauty” comes from. That was one of the first times that I remember hearing music immediately.

G1: You just mentioned being a sucker for ballads, and one of the things that came to mind while listening to A CLOUD OF RED DUST was just how peaceful it is. I mean, a lot of musicians who come out with debut recordings want to show how fast they can play or how many notes they can play in one breath, but it seems like you really took your time and put a lot of thought and emotion into the playing. From talking to you I can see that’s how you are.

STEFON: Well, I try to be… I mean, music is not the number 1 priority in my life. I mean, being a good quality human being comes first and music is merely a reflection, in my opinion, music is merely a reflection of a person’s inner spirit. So you have to get your inner spirit correct first. It’s not even a matter of working on it, it’s a matter of raising your awareness of it and to be in tuned to what’s going on in the inside and expressing that.

Since that 1999 conversation Stefon Harris has surely made his mark. His band BlackOut continue to garner acclaim and gain new fans. Their current cd, URBANUS, is not only satisfying to the established Jazz listener, but has also become a favorite for neophytes.

More information and music of Concord Music Group recording artist Stefon Harris and BlackOut can be found at,,

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