Tim Warfield

Tim Warfield: Musical clarity and the value system of Jazz

Tim Warfield

Tim Warfield is a gifted saxophone player, who has graced our stage many times before. He is also a respected educator whose influence has impacted a generation of students. He returns with Terrel Stafford to the Ferring Jazz Bistro from February 19 – 23. We got a chance to catch up with Tim and get his take on the jazz scene, teaching and what’s next.

Jazz St. Louis (JSL): Tell us about your influences.

Tim Warfield (TW): It started at home, and for me it started in the womb. My parents are huge jazz listeners. Dad is from west Philly. He told us stories about going to downtown to these legendary jazz clubs, like Pep’s and the Showboat. He’d use eyebrow pencil and a cap, because he was too young to get in. He saw Art Blakely, Coltrane, and Duke Ellington. He told us all these stories. So jazz was a natural and the most common music in the house, along with some classical and gospel. But it was primarily jazz.

For me, from an early age I listened to everyone. I tried to emulate their music. The first was Dexter Gordon. I saw him in Harrisburg when I was 16. He was playing for an organization there, the Friends of Jazz. I’m now on their board and heavily involved. Very serendipitous.  And now that I think about it, Junior Cook was really my first influence. He played with Horace Silver. People think that you find a sax player you like and then you try and play like them. For me, I really liked Horace Silver’s music and this guy, Junior, just happened to be the sax player on those records. I transcribed the solos. Then I saw Dexter and really appreciated him.

The next one was a tenor player, Billy Pierce. I was nearly 18 at the time and about to go to Howard University. I heard Billy play, and he became my hero, and brings up an interesting point.  As far as my influences go, I read the stuff I was supposed to read if you wanted to be a jazz saxophonist. But I made it a point to study the musicians who were influenced by the people I listened to and read about. It’s kind of a puzzle. You keep going back and back and back. Who influenced who? I found out that Billy Pierce ran a program at Berklee (Berklee College of Music in Boston). He had students like Jean Toussaint and Branford Marsalis. So, you also study the people who were influenced by your heroes.

That kind of research got me connected to younger musicians. Remember there was no social media or Internet or anything. Searching for music was truly a labor of love. I tried to study everyone and everything I could get my hands on, no matter the instrument. It’s musical clarity. It helped me figure out who I wanted to play with. For instance, I wanted to play with Art Blakely and knew John Jean Toussaint was leaving that band. I wanted to play in the band. Also with Wynton Marsalis’ quintet. Branford had left to go play with Sting. I auditioned informally when I was 20 years old. Neither happened but no regrets.

JSL: Was there an “aha” moment for you in regards to you choosing to pursue music as a career?

TW: No “aha” moments. If you believe in this sort of a thing, it’s by grand design, but we still have the opportunity for choice. Sometimes our choices are cool. You make a left or right. One choice is just as valid as going the other way. Both journeys all lead to the same destination. For me, I had no desire to play the sax or play music for a living. Visual art and interior design was what I wanted to do. I studied architecture in my first semester and music as a minor. I ended up winning a bunch of jazz awards but scared that I wouldn’t make money. But after the transcripts came out after the first semester, it was “Mechanical Drawing – F, Music – A.”

JSL: How come the saxophone?

When I was really young, I wanted to play drums. Mom said that was not a remote possibility (laughing). I tried it all out and couldn’t get a sound out of anything. But when I was 7 there was this assembly at school. I sat on the floor cross-legged. They pulled the curtain back, and all these instruments were there. Sax was new to me. It was so beautiful. The curves. The pearls. It was so pretty. I wanted to play that. I blew into it and made a tone. I decided then and there.

JSL: Tell us more about the teaching you do.

TW:  My life is crazy. I’m not going to fake that it was a real desire to be a teacher. Terell (Terell Stafford) was interested from the beginning, but he had a different lifestyle. I was playing all the time. Then, 9/11 happened and the world stopped. Everything changed. Decisions had to be made. How would we exist? No money was being spent. And being on the road just changed. “Life” notified me that I was older and so were my parents. They looked different, moved different, and started having ailments. My priorities changed, and I wanted to be close to them.

So, I played locally in Philly which allowed me to stay in York where my parents were. Philly is a city of tri-cities. It’s close to Baltimore, Philly, DC and New York isn’t too far.  It allowed me to work a lot and become part of the jazz communities of these other cities.

Terrel ran the program at Temple. He asked me if I would be interested in taking over a class for him. I told him, “No. Please… No. Seriously. Are you serious?” He had seen me work at jazz camps and had good success. I ended up doing it for him.  Now for me, the moment a decision is made about something, I want to be the best at what I decide to do. I worked hard at teaching. Temple has amazing professors, like Dick Oates. I wanted to teach as well as them.

I started to see the results of the energy and it created other opportunities. Working with young people is great for my spirit, and I love it. I stay in touch with my students. Do your best work, and you’ll always been in touch with them. The mentorship doesn’t stop.

There’s Christian Lewis, who plays tenor and is part of the Monk institute. He’s getting ready to graduate.  Joshua Lee is a baritone who plays with Count Basie Orchestra as a regular. Josh has also been doing some things with the Village Vanguard Orchestra. Great people. Mentorship needs to be done, and it’s something we should be doing for each other… sharing and growing as a community.

JSL: What are your thoughts on the current state of jazz, where it’s going, who you have your eye on…

TW: Jazz is not an experiment. My comments may make me the stuffy jazz traditionalist, but people don’t think in depth enough to get clarity as to what jazz is. It’s no different than other genres, like rock, soul and R&B. If it quacks, it’s a duck. If it’s a cow, it goes moo. We know what jazz sounds like. We know because it’s been around forever. We also understand the introduction of a new idea within each genre. It’s the people who can manipulate and amalgamate to where you have a new personality to the sound. For instance, if you remove one personality, the sound changes. If someone sits in taking Wayne Shorter’s place in the Miles Davis Quintet, it’s very different. It’s amalgamating personalities, and you end up with something new and cool.

My point is that sometimes we have to know it’s not jazz just because someone plays a sharp 9 chord and improvises. I won’t get into the history of Jazz, and some campaign against the idea of the history of the word. But we spend a lot of time on labels. Sometimes they can be helpful, if we have clarity when we choose to give a label. For example, it’s easy to say “the music of Miles Davis or Stan Getz” or whoever, but you go to stores, and it’s the name of the people [you look for] and not “Jazz Section.” It’s more about the people and the focus on the individual and what they’re able to present. As for the music itself, it’s an art form, so putting another value system on it is a big problem. Remember that jazz was popular in a segregated time. You had to go to those neighborhoods to hear that music. When it was integrated, things changed. No one thinks about these things or adds it into the systems.

Again, it’s an artform. The dynamic of art is that we won’t have a million people going out to see a Picasso in America. We know the name, but do we actually have a conversation about Picasso in everyday talk? That’s the nature of art. It’s a special thing. We know it’s special. It’s a means of expression, and at times we find people who create something so dynamic that it changes the world. But there’s a difference between Picasso and Michael Jackson. Let’s be smart and stop trying to force our own value systems on things that have their own systems already.

I learned jazz form a heritage perspective, from my perspective as an African American male. Seeing the image of black men in suits had nobility, despite the controversy of things happening in American at the time. It gave me dignity, but not about the suit. There is already a value system. People want to put their own value system on it, because they think it’s cool, and it’s not.

It’s important to have clarity in terms of what things are. In the past, look at what they went through at the time. They couldn’t go to the bathroom in the clubs they played in. Jazz is through their instruments. It’s not about a diminished scale on a sharp 9 chord. It’s way bigger because it’s the art form. Students will have a more realistic understanding of how it is and develop conviction.

That being said, in all honesty, people should do what they want to do and call it what they want to call it. Have an opinion. In the end, it’s what your art is able to do 20, 30, or 50 years after you’re gone. That’s all you’re leaving. That’s what will be here for judgement. My focus is trying to make sure each record is on a certain level. I want to walk away from the studio feeling satisfied that my vision was close to being realized. If it has been, then it has sustenance.

JSL: Any words of advice for young musicians?

TW: Play what you want to play. Doesn’t stop you from being great or life changing. I encourage students to dive into the history but do your own thing at the same time. You have a responsibility to do that. Be creative, but don’t tell someone how they should create.

My advice is to study and enjoy what you’re doing. And if you have a problem that is so serious you can’t discuss it with your peers, find an older jazz person and the info you get will be the truth. Be as happy as you can.

JSL: You’re playing with long-time friend, Terell Stafford (trumpet). How did you meet?

TW: Terell spent time in Miami, Chicago and Kansas, but mostly in Pennsylvania. We knew each other from DC and started playing together in Pennsylvania back around 1989-90. We actually met when he was subbing for Paul Carr at the Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival. Paul said he had to do another gig, but Terell will be there. From the first notes we played together it was like we’d played together before. We became good friends.

Tim Warfield is currently an “Artist in Residence” at Messiah College in Grantham, PA, and also runs the “Jazz Masters of Music” graduate program at Temple University in Philadelphia.

Don’t miss Tim Warfield, who will be joined by Terell Stafford, this February 19-23.

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