Stefon Harris’ Nurturing Spirit

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Stefon Harris’ latest album, Sonic Creed, includes a number of original compositions, as well as “Now,” a track written by vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson.

(Photo: Jimmy & Dena Katz)

“Part of the challenge is the institutionalization of the art form, which is not a bad thing; you’re going to be more successful when you work in concert with institutions. But as an educator, part of my task is to look at the existing system and to recognize that it is lacking in cultural competencies.”

If one values authenticity and empathy, he said, the first order of business is listening. So, on assuming his posts at the Manhattan School of Music in July 2017, he undertook an analysis of the school’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats—interviewing students, faculty and people at other schools.

“The primary asset of the Manhattan School,” he concluded, “is place.”

Setting out to exploit that fact, Harris adopted the phrase “Harlem is the birthplace of modern jazz”—a claim supported by the musical flowering of the Harlem Renaissance—and he arranged for the school’s big band concerts to be held at Harlem Stage, CCNY’s Aaron Davis Hall, the Apollo Theater and the Harlem School of the Arts.

He also began efforts to diversify the MSM faculty and student body. “You see a percentage of people of color at 1 percent or whatever it is,” he said. “That’s a problem. And if you don’t have women included, that’s a problem. You have to do something about it.”

Edward Lowenthal, a trustee on the school’s board who recommended Harris’ hiring, stressed that the hiring was not in itself an attempt to increase diversity. “But it was important to me that we have greater diversity in the student body and the faculty. Stefon’s very presence has been a catalyst for that.

“There’s been a mild revolution. He’s been able to change the tone. If you talk to the student body today—including classical musicians aware of what’s going on in the jazz program—there’s a high level of excitement. It’s inspirational.”

Harris—who has been associated with the Brubeck Institute, the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, Rutgers University and New York University—has recruited Carter to tutor MSM classical music students in the art of jazz.

He also has enlisted Buster Williams—a mentor in whose quartet Harris played on and off for nearly 20 years—to lead an ensemble dedicated to exploring the bassist’s music. “Everything I’ve learned as a leader has come primarily from standing on that bandstand with Buster Williams,” Harris said, “watching him deliver compassion, kindness, joy and art with a high level of integrity.”

Williams, who was at the forefront of the music’s radical changes half a century ago, recalled the speed with which Harris, whose formal training largely had been in classical percussion, transformed himself into a nuanced jazz artist—and propelled himself to the top of the field’s change agents. “Connecting to him is like a fly connecting to a great stallion horse,” he said. “He’s setting a course for the future.”

Harris’ educational mission reaches beyond MSM, where he earned a bachelor of music degree in classical music (1995) and a master of music degree in jazz performance (1997). “I have this one vehicle,” he said. “But I want to help as many people as possible across the world.”

Harris, who this year added a Doris Duke Artist Award to his list of accolades, has opened avenues of communication with new audiences. In 2011, he gave a TED Talk—13 minutes of commentary and music accompanied by pianist Christian Sands, bassist Burniss Earl Travis and drummer Jamire Williams—that found its way onto YouTube and into the business media. (The talk has been translated into more than 30 languages.) Soon, Harris was in demand from industry groups interested in hearing his thoughts about how jazz can illuminate the connection between leadership and improvisation.

“This art form has at its core the blueprint for creative teamwork, for innovation,” he said. “I can unpack the way we work together as a team, the way a leader truly should be in terms of guiding a community of brilliant minds. This notion of micromanaging people and ‘I’m the smartest person in the room’—our culture has never hyperfocused on the individual. You’re only elevated in black culture in many situations when you’re giving voice to the people.

“What we do as musicians is translate vibrations into emotion. That’s the science behind it. The difference between jazz and other art forms is we do it so it’s completely unpredictable, and that is empowering. Our roles are so fluid—ultimately, it’s a science of empathy.”

Harris has taken the science to another level with his ear-training app, Harmony Cloud. Released through his Melodic Progression Institute, the app, developed with engineer and trombonist Clif Swiggett, uses an algorithm that simulates the improvisation of chord progressions. First marketed in 2016, the app is being updated to include chords that extend to ninths, 11ths and 13ths.

Demonstrating the app in his studio, Harris stepped to the computer and, from the 500 or so chords loaded in its program, chose a group of varying complexity without specifying the order in which they would be played. The computer then organized a progression over which Harris, manning the vibes, was able to weave lines that clearly bore a relationship to the sounds emanating from the machine.

“What I’ve done is mapped out the DNA of Western harmony,” Harris said. “A chord may go five hundred different ways. I’ve taken every chord and figured out its behavior.”

Developing the app has involved an extraordinary level of sustained concentration, yielding notes covering thousands of pages in multiple notebooks. The contents are an idiosyncratic mix of musical analysis and psychoanalysis; in revealing them, Harris good-naturedly displayed an awareness of how they would be received.

“Want to see something crazy? You’re going to say, ‘This guy is weird,’” he said.

The notebooks, he said, constitute a kind of “neurological network,” with innumerable permutations of chord combinations and long series of adjectives applied to seemingly every chord he knows. Interspersed are notes to himself that, in whole or part, hint at the ups and downs he experienced in the long hours spent developing the app.

The first note, written 12 years ago, reads: “I need to design an algorithm for my harmonization. This requires a thorough understanding of the fundamentals of progressive harmony.” Later, doubts seem to creep in: “Either I’m very brilliant or delusional, based on the thoughts in my head.” Later still, he appears to overcome those doubts: “Man’s ability to dream is just as beautiful as his or her ability to achieve. Design an entire curriculum—college first, then backtrack. Why not you? If not you, then who? NOW!!!!”

The project, he explained, grew out of a bout of ennui suffered at the age of 33: “I looked at the vibraphone and said, ‘I’m not touching that until I understand what I need to do.’ I got sick of it. I thought, ‘I can play concerts, I can tour the world. But it’s not enough. I can see something, and I have to have enough courage to go after what it is I see.’”

While he did not give up performing, his recording output slowed and he began devoting much of the time he would have spent practicing to developing the app. “Sometimes, people think I’ve disappeared,” he said. “But I haven’t. I’m trying to develop something to help people.”

The app certainly has helped him in the classroom. “It’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me as an educator,” he said. His answers to students’ questions have become clearer and more concise, because working with software—which, lacking intuition, is unforgiving—has forced him to analyze more precisely his own thinking. That process, he asserted, will be a lifetime project that runs parallel to the evolution of Blackout. Both, he added, are “authentic expressions of myself.”

For the moment, as he is unveiling Version 2.0 of Harmony Cloud, Blackout will be embarking on a tour. In October and November, the band will play the East and Midwest, before closing out the year on Dec. 1 in Harris’ hometown, Albany. The tour will resume in the new year with a swing westward, before concluding next July in Europe.

Some of the venues will resonate more deeply, among them the Apollo Theater in New York and the Carver Community Cultural Center in San Antonio, Texas, a historic hub of African-American culture retooled for the 21st century. But the Albany date, at the Egg Performing Arts Center, might loom largest. There, Harris will come face-to-face with that earlier version of himself, the ambitious young musician with limited means—and limited access to the tools he needed to succeed.

What better place to ponder the potential for an inexpensive app to make music education more accessible?

“I want everybody to have the opportunity to express themselves,” he said. DB

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