As a kid, Terell Stafford fell in love with the trumpet. He marveled that, using just three valves, you could make so much music, and he loved the “majestic, projecting, noble” trumpet sound—something he heard a lot of back in the day, because his mother was an amateur trumpeter. Stafford MGSA’94 studied trumpet as an undergraduate at the University of Maryland while pursuing a degree in music education. And then, he stopped playing.
A professor had told him that if he didn’t straighten out his embouchure—the way in which the lips, teeth, facial muscles, and tongue work together to coax sound out of a wind instrument—he wouldn’t be able to play after the age of 20. But, he says, “changing an embouchure is equivalent to starting from scratch.” Discouraged, Stafford—who’d minored in computer science and math—took a job as a computer programmer, working after hours as a trigonometry tutor. “This,” he thought, “is just going to be my life.”
His friends thought differently. They introduced him to Wynton Marsalis, the legendary trumpeter and artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center. Marsalis urged Stafford to take a few lessons with William Fielder, the Rutgers professor known as a “kingmaker” for the great musicians whose careers he helped launch, including trumpeters Sean Jones and Perry Sutton. “If he (Fielder) says you should quit,” Marsalis told Stafford, “then you should quit.”
Stafford didn’t quit, something he credits almost entirely to Fielder, who assured him that he didn’t need to alter his embouchure. Instead, under Fielder’s tutelage, he proceeded to get a master’s degree in music at Rutgers’ Mason Gross School of the Arts. “It was the most incredible experience of my life,” he says of studying with Fielder. “He taught me how to breathe again, how to articulate again, how to play musically again.” After Stafford graduated, Fielder would often come out to hear him play.
What Fielder didn’t hear on those occasions was Stafford playing the classical trumpet he’d studied at Rutgers. In his second year of the master’s program, an interest in the improvisation inherent in Baroque music, coupled with the tantalizing jazz sounds that filtered into the halls from Rutgers’ practice rooms, sparked Stafford’s desire to try his hand at jazz.
Since then, he’s played not just with his own band, the Terell Stafford Quintet, but also with a host of jazz greats like Tim Warfield, Herbie Mann, Cedar Walton, and Matt Wilson, performing with legendary groups like the McCoy Tyner Sextet, the Jimmy Heath Big Band, and the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band. He’s appeared on more than 130 albums, including Live at the Village Vanguard, the Grammy-winning album from the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, of which Stafford is a member.
As a front man, he’s recorded seven original albums, including his personal favorites, Brotherlee Love (celebrating the music of trumpeter and composer Lee Morgan) and This Side of Strayhorn (featuring the songs of composer Billy Strayhorn). That his favorite albums pay tribute to two of his greatest musical influences should surprise no one who knows him. “I could give you a list of the great jazz heroes that helped me along the way,” he says, “but I’d probably keep talking till the end of the week.”
Like his mentor Marsalis, Stafford is both a player and an educator, directing jazz studies and chairing instrumental studies at Temple University. He’s also a composer, arranger, and bandleader, artistic director of jazz for the Philly POPS, managing and artistic director of the Philly POPS Jazz Orchestra of Philadelphia, and conductor of Philadelphia’s All-City Band, comprising the city’s most talented high school musicians. But he doesn’t make distinctions among any of his roles. “I see them as all the same, in a weird way,” he says. In his work at Temple, he considers himself “a glorified customer service agent. I want to listen to as much feedback as I can from students and faculty and constantly find ways to make improvements so that everybody feels comfortable in their work environment,” he says, noting that he does the same with the musicians he leads.
In fact, he shies away from the word “leader,” choosing instead to emphasize the collaboration that’s influenced so much of his life. “I see myself as a gatherer,” he says, “I want to get those talents together, so we can come together communally.” Rather than tout his own talents, he’s more likely to credit his success to the influence of others, including Marsalis, Heath, and—coming full circle—William Fielder, who died in 2009 after teaching at Rutgers for 30 years. Given that it was Fielder who convinced him to keep playing, Stafford’s students, bandmates, collaborators, and fans owe Fielder a debt of gratitude as well.
Terell Stafford and his quintet will headline the Central Jersey Jazz Festival Saturday, September 11. Visit https://nbjp.org/event/central-jersey-jazz-festival-8/ for details.