Jazz artist Stefon Harris’ Friday show in San Antonio included visits to several local schools | Music Stories and Interviews | San Antonio
Stefon Harris is a jazzman on a mission.
The vibraphonist and bandleader’s resume includes the prestigious Lincoln Center Martin E. Segal Award and four Grammy nominations. Yet he works his touring schedule around opportunities to teach jazz and improvisation in local schools.
Indeed, he says education and performance are equally important to his career.
That means Harris, who performs Friday with his band Blackout at the Jo Long Theater at the Carver Community Cultural Center, has spent the past five days sharing his knowledge with students in San Antonio. And we’re not talking about those taking advanced music courses on college campuses.
Instead, Harris’ stops have included teaching workshops at Sam Houston High School, IDEA Carver Academy, Taft High School, and with the San Antonio Youth Orchestras.
We caught up with the artist to explain why education is so high on his list of priorities and what more important lessons musicians of all abilities can learn from improvisation and interaction.
You have spent a lot of time teaching young students and your instrument, the vibraphone, is probably unfamiliar to many of them. I mean, it doesn’t appear in a lot of current pop music. What is their reaction to the instrument?
Yeah, that’s interesting. I don’t think much about the instrument in terms of how people react to it. I think a lot more about the sound of the music, the sound of the band.
So we create music that reflects our life experiences. It reflects the fact that my mother is a minister. Right? And I grew up in the church. It would be a great loss if I didn’t articulate my real life experiences in music. Right?
Marc Cary grew up in Washington, DC playing go-go music. So when you listen to our album Urban, it begins with “Gone”, but with go-go beats attached. So whatever is happening is something that is still very much alive in our world today. I think people connect with the art they see themselves in. So if I was making music that was basically a duplication of 1950, it wouldn’t shock me that young people would have a hard time connecting to it, but we’re making music that sounds like their neighborhoods. Right?
It sounds like something they’ve been through in their life. And we try to inject as much excellence, authenticity and vulnerability into it. And I don’t think I can respond to just any audience. I think the highest value in our art form is authenticity. I mean, what service do artists fundamentally render to society? I think we are basically storytellers. Right? We work hard to develop the tools needed to amplify voices.
And so if you tell the story of your world, people are going to feel connected because it’s their story. This is not just my personal experience. It’s really about painting the picture of the world as I see it right now.
When interacting with students, how much of your goal is to get them interested in jazz as an art form rather than just getting them interested in music and listening in general?
My goal is not to create the next generation of jazz musicians. It’s not one of my passions at all.
The reason jazz is valuable is because it is one of the best examples of authentic expression in the world, in terms of community coming together, learning to support each other, being in the moment and demonstrates empathy, understands when to step forward, when to step back, how to be an effective contributor to the community. This is why jazz is precious. As a style, I don’t think that’s what matters. So I want to teach young people to feel.
All of my classes are all about giving young people permission to discover new information from an intuitive perspective. Often in other fields of study there is a lot of memorization. Right? So you use an intellectual approach to discern your surroundings. But through arts education, we empower people to navigate their way through new experiences. And when you have the ability to engage your intuition in new situations coupled with intellectual mastery and craftsmanship, you are going to be far more effective than someone who is only a master craftsman.
How can you even perceive how to make a team effective in the long run if you don’t understand the people around you? If you don’t understand why they are there, what will motivate them? It’s not just about having the right idea. Sometimes the good idea will give you bad results. So that’s the kind of stuff where I don’t care if you become a musician or if you become a scientist. But I know that in all fields of study, it is important that we learn to be connected and to listen to each other.
Obviously, you don’t just come to San Antonio to teach. You have a concert at the Carver. What should people expect from this?
Well, one of the things I love about working with my band is that we love each other. This is a collection of people who have known each other for decades at this point. And we are incredibly connected. We surprise each other night after night. And I think there’s a lot of joy, and there’s a lot of vulnerability, and there’s a lot of soul. So we’re having a good time. And I can never tell anyone in advance exactly how a show is going to go, because you really don’t know. But we are truly always thrilled to get on stage and come together as brothers to create something beautiful far beyond what any of us could do alone.
Can you tell us about your latest album?
Sure. The most recent album is called Sonic Creed. And Sonic Creed, I think, is a great example of the underlying concept of the band, which we were talking about a moment ago about jazz. Our approach to life in this space that people call jazz. It’s really a matter of cultural heritage. And for us, we look at our cultural heritage, and we include classical music, but we do it in a way that our ancestors would be proud of us.
I don’t think our ancestors would have wanted us to simply repeat the work they did. I think they would like us to continue the vital work of amplifying voices in the world, of speaking our truth, so that we can all know each other, so that we can learn about people who are different from us, so that we can find common ground. It’s kind of the underlying concept of the Sonic Creed. It’s really about our legacy dance.
It’s interesting, I was listening to some of the standards you did. They have modern influences like hip-hop, for example, but they’re still very recognizable as that original piece of music.
Yes. We’re trying. And the other thing, I think, with Blackout is that it’s not just about creativity. Sometimes people take a standard and twist it and do it in odd meter and things of that nature. That’s not what drives us. Because of who we are as individuals, we bring our personal, emotional, and authentic vulnerability to our choices and how we arrange music. So I think our music has a little more soul than a lot of other choices that other people can make.
It sounds like you’re saying that when you’re updating this music, you don’t want to over-intellectualize and ruin the essence and soul of these tracks.
It’s true. It depends on your motivation. Our motivation is authenticity.
We are not driven by creativity. Creativity is a fatality. You don’t have to try to be creative. You don’t have to try to be different. You must try to be vulnerable and honest. And when you’re in that space, of course, you’re going to be different. There is no one else in the world quite like each of us.
$35, 8 p.m. Friday, November 4, Carver Cultural Center Jo Long Theatre, 226 N. Hackberry St., (210) 207-2234, thecarver.org