When most people think of the biggest figures in the history of jazz, Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker are some of the most prominent names that come to mind. Active since the 1990s, vibraphonist Stefon Harris is slowly climbing the ranks of jazz’s legends. Harris and his band Blackout will bring their immense talents to Lincoln during their performance at the Rococo Theatre on Friday, Oct. 18.
Harris is a renowned musician, educator and corporate speaker. He has been featured on over 30 albums as a leader, co-leader or sideman, earning nominations for four Grammy Awards throughout his career. According to his website, he became associate dean and director of jazz arts at the Manhattan School of Music in July 2017 and has taught all around the world.
Ahead of his Lincoln engagement, Harris spoke with The Daily Nebraskan on his career, his past experiences in Lincoln and his passion for teaching.
The Daily Nebraskan: The Lied Center for Performing Arts website indicated that you've been to Lincoln before, is that correct?
Stefon Harris: Yes, I did a residency over a few years at the Lied Center where I came in and spoke to students at the university, in addition to visiting many venues in the community.
DN: What did you enjoy about your time in Lincoln?
SH: Well, one of the things that I recall really being inspired by is the fact that the Lied Center was putting forth a concerted effort to make sure that various members of the community had access to the venue. So for example, before many of the concerts, I noticed that there were pre-concert talks, but also there were gospel concert rehearsals that may have come before a classical music concert or before a jazz concert. So it seemed to me that there was an honest effort toward celebrating diversity and amplifying inclusion, which I found very inspiring.
DN: Who have been some of your biggest inspirations for your career, looking back even prior to starting your career? Who did you look up to then, and who now do you look to as people you admire in the industry?
SH: Well, most of my influencers are going to be people that I've had direct life contact with. Obviously, we can be inspired by history, but there's something really unique and special that occurs when two human beings interact with one another. So I think one of my greatest influences was my private teacher in high school, a gentleman by the name of Richard Albagli. He was one of the first people to really push me to my limits and challenge me to be even greater than what I could imagine for myself. So, that level of interaction on a spiritual, emotional and intellectual level really challenged me to stop trying to define who I was, and to dream of any possibility that came before me. So Richard Albagli, and then of course, I had the great pleasure of working with people like Wynton Marsalis and Max Roach and Joe Henderson. The great Barry Harris is one of the greatest educators ever, so watching him deliver information with empathy and compassion absolutely changed my life. So those are people that I've directly come into contact with that have played a major role. In terms of people from the past, I always think of Miles Davis as being the greatest leader in the history of jazz because he understood how to bring people together, and get out of their way, and allow them to bring their authentic selves to the circumstance, and he understood how to get the best out of people. That's a very special characteristic if you're leaning towards trying to be innovative.
DN: How would you say your musical style has evolved over the course of your career?
SH: Well it's interesting, I think of music as being a sonic manifestation of who you are authentically. I don't think who you are authentically changes. What happens through art is you become increasingly more articulate. Right? We all know love when we're little children, but as we get older and we have more experiences in life our understanding of love deepens. So I think over time, the way that I articulate myself in music is with more depth, but the intention behind my music has remained the same throughout my life. That is all about the proliferation of empathy in the world.
DN: What do you enjoy about touring?
SH: Well, definitely not the airline travel [laughs]. I love the people. I love meeting people from different economic backgrounds, different political affiliations, different religious affiliations, because when you're face to face with people, you get to deal with the reality of who you are and the reality of who they are. You get past labels, so you begin to understand that, in general, we have far more in common than the small things that seem to divide us. So that's been a phenomenal lesson. For me, it's been a great benefit of being a musician, traveling all over the globe for many, many years and meeting people who are a lot like me, and also people who are very different than me. But [then] finding that there's common ground.
DN: In your 2011 TED Talk, you speak about how jazz can be used to teach lessons about mistakes people make and how we interpret them. What other everyday lessons do you think can be learned from jazz?
SH: Well, I think one of the most significant lessons that can be learned from jazz is the benefit of having the courage to be vulnerable. As jazz musicians, we walk out on the bandstand and we have a general framework, but we really don't know what's going to happen every night. So we stand in front of lots of people, and open our hearts, and we do the best that we can to deliver a beautiful experience. But that takes a lot of vulnerability. But I think when you are embedded in this art form, it becomes increasingly clear that you can never discover anything of beauty without vulnerability. So that type of controlling every situation and being rigid in your thinking actually builds a concrete wall around the possibilities of your life. I think those are lessons that I've learned from being an improviser.
DN: Talk a little bit about teaching and what you enjoy about it.
SH: I think teaching is one of my true life passions. There's nothing that brings me greater joy than helping to unlock potential in others. And one of my favorite moments of teaching is when a student asks me a question and I don't have the answer. I tell them, you know what, I'm going to see you in a week. And I’ll go, I'll do the research, and I'll figure it out. I'll figure out how to explain it and then come back and I have the answer for them. So that they're growing and I'm growing as a result of having a vulnerability to say that I don't know and am open to being challenged, and so there's this incredible dance that occurs between an educator and a student. When you approach education from the philosophy that the people in front of you, your students, are essentially fully formed human beings who have stories to tell. My job as an educator is not to fill their head with things that they should imitate, but rather give them tools that will empower them to tell their own unique stories, which of course I could never tell for them. I love, love, love that beautiful dance of evolution that occurs in the classroom.
DN: What advice would you have for any music students at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln looking to break into jazz?
SH: I would advise that it's really important to understand why art is valuable in our society, that no one owes you money because you're talented. Just like a chef, just like a janitor, just like a politician, just like a lawyer — we all have to provide a service to society in order to be valued. So it's really important that we understand as artists, what is it that we are giving to society at large, and that the answer to that question may vary from person to person, from culture to culture. But I think having clarity around that question elucidates a really clear path forward that will directly connect you to the possibility of monetizing your gifts if it's really about making a living in this business. So I highly recommend that people understand the greater context of art in society.
DN: Looking at your show this Friday, what can Lincoln audiences expect?
SH: They can expect the unexpected [laughs]. We definitely will take chances. We always play from the heart. We have a beautiful connection as a family on the bandstand. We truly love, trust and respect one another and we move forward through the world spreading that energy of empathy and compassion and joy and vulnerability.
DN: What's next for you after you’re done touring in November?
SH: Well I'm doing a lot of work in the city of Newark, New Jersey, with the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, and also Rutgers University in Newark, helping to culturally contextualize jazz as an art form in that community. So I'm really energized and excited about the work that's ahead in that area. Then I'm also focusing on the launch of a major update to my app Harmony Cloud, which is an ear training app, which teaches musicians to play music by ear. So we have a major, major update coming out in the next few months. So that's a major focus that I'm really excited about.
Stefon Harris and Blackout will play the Rococo Theatre on Friday, Oct. 18, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are available on the Lied Center website.