Call and Answer

Call and Answer for
Terell Stafford
by Bob McMurray

I was once asked how my wife and I and my three small children stay so active. I answered by saying I guess our philosophy is “Do…not view”. It explains why I like to not only listen to and study music but why I sit down to the piano and play as best I can for myself and others. It explains why I spend as much time playing tennis each week as I spend in the stands watching my sons play soccer and baseball. The funny thing is it may also explain why I have chosen jazz as a passion in my life and perhaps why it has chosen me.

A live jazz show is an interactive experience between the musicians and the audience. It is a participatory adventure for the audience and has always demanded “doing” not just “viewing”. The musicians are expected to play beautifully and we, the audience, are expected to reciprocate with thoughtful applause and motivating energy. In my discussions with saxophonist Tim Warfield and trumpeter Nicholas Payton they have been vehement in their assertions that jazz musicians feed off of this kind of interplay with the audience. Warfield is fond of saying that he is inspired on stage to more and more innovation if he knows that the listeners are hip to what he is trying to do. Payton was unbelieving when I told him a woman sitting beside me at one of his shows in Iowa told me I was clapping too loud! He didn’t think it was possible for the audience to clap too loud for him. It is this mutual experience and artistic collaboration that separates going to a set of live jazz from going to the symphony or to a large rock concert.

I may have found another kindred spirit regarding this subject in trumpeter Terell Stafford. A gifted and established jazz performer in his own right Terell was recently touring as part of the “The Rising Stars of Jazz” series promoted in the Chicagoland area. Despite the rising star label Stafford proved time and again during his very joyous set that his was a graceful, swinging, and mature sound and style. But it was his vocalized need for that audience collaboration and partnership that was most memorable about Terell Stafford. The venue wasn’t very big – a new cozy performing arts space in suburban Chicago near where Stafford grew up that seated maybe 150 people. So, Stafford insisted that the people that were there be his partners in what was about to be created.

He invited us into the process early on by explaining that playing jazz makes the musicians playing it very vulnerable, “We play with our hearts and you will receive our message.” He frequently implored the audience for responses. I was always ready to do my part and offer my exuberance and energy. For every clap or shout I invested in them I received a nearly immediate harmonic dividend in return. From my seat in the front row I could stare right down the hole of his trumpet and one time was treated to the illusion of horizontal bands of color coming forth.

Another dividend of this collaboration is when Stafford felt comfortable enough to provide context by showing small bits of himself to us. On ‘Dear Rudy’, a Stafford original, everyone gained an understanding into the life lessons passed on to Stafford from his beloved grandmother Rudy through the fond tributes of his muted trumpet and saxophonist Steve Wilson’s lyrical flute. He featured the music of his ex-partner Victor Lewis on ‘Hey! It’s Me You’re Talking To’ as we were given the opportunity to eavesdrop on a conversation between Stafford and Wilson. Wilson played the excitable end of the conversation and Stafford played the apologetic response as if to say, “Yeah, I’ve been bad” finishing with a humorous transition to “test” the relationship and voila friends again! This vignette echoed the typical participatory relationship between audience and performer at anytime during any set in any jazz club on earth.

Supported by the creative accompaniment of pianist George Colligan, Stafford went on to choose the standard, ‘Old Devil Moon’ to honor Frank Sinatra’s influence on his playing. He used his trumpet to literally illustrate a scary Halloween style “Devil Moon” as he wound his way through a modern retelling of the tune. After that excursion he asked us if any of us had recognized it making sure that he was still aligned with his partners in the cushy seats.

Stafford’s focus on a sustained partnership with his audience didn’t go unappreciated as each of the four people in my group bought a CD on the way out. I thought that was terrific since it is important to support your favorite jazz performers whenever you can. In fact, one of the very best ways to support jazz is to participate at a live show and imprint yourself onto the fabric of its success.