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What Is This Thing Called Soul

Conversations on Black Culture and Jazz Education


Damani Phillips

How does academic jazz education impact the Black cultural value of soulfulness and esthetic standards in contemporary jazz music? Through candid conversations with nine of the country’s most highly respected jazz practitioners and teachers, What Is This Thing Called Soul explores the potential consequences of forcing the Black musical style of jazz into an academic pedagogical system that is specifically designed to facilitate the practice and pedagogy of European classical music. This work tests the belief that the cultural, emotional and esthetic elements at the very core of jazz’s unique identity, along with the music’s overt connection to Black culture, are effectively being "lost in translation" in traversing the divide between academic and non-academic jazz spheres.

Each interviewee commands significant respect worldwide in the fields of jazz performance and jazz pedagogy. Noteworthy subjects include: Rufus Reid, Lewis Nash, Nicholas Payton and Wycliffe Gordon—along with the late jazz masters Marcus Belgrave and Phil Woods. Interviews are supplemented by original analysis of the nature and validity of these issues contributed by the author.

What Is This Thing Called Soul offers a candid and objective look into pressing issues of race, culture and ethnic value in relation to both jazz music and jazz education. Sensitivity, marginalization and even a fear of offending others has limited open discussion of how the soul of jazz music can be lost in technical boundaries. What Is This Thing Called Soul is the first attempt to directly address such culturally urgent issues in jazz music.

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Chapter 2. The Black Church: Stefon Harris Interview (1973–)



The Black Church

Stefon Harris Interview (1973–)

Stefon Harris is an American jazz vibraphonist from Albany, NY who has earned both Bachelor of Music (classical percussion, 1995) and Master of Music (Jazz Studies, 1997) degrees from the Manhattan School of Music in New York City. Upon completing his schooling, Harris formally began his career as a national recording artist to high critical acclaim. He has released 4 solo albums as a bandleader (including 2 on Blue Note records and 1 on Concord Jazz), 1 as a co-leader, and no less than a dozen appearances as a sideman on recordings with artists such as Jason Moran, Terell Stafford and Joe Henderson. Harris’ list of accolades is expansive, including being voted best mallet percussionist in the 2004 Jazz Times critic’s poll, best mallet player by the Jazz Journalist Association 6 consecutive years (2000–2005), Downbeat Magazine’s Rising Star Award (2003 and 2004) and Critics Poll winner for best vibraphonist in 2006, and Jazziz Magazine’s Reader’s Poll best vibraphonist for 1999–2000 among others. Mr. Harris is very active as a touring musician, with appearances at the Playboy, North Sea, Umbria and Montreal Jazz festivals to his credit along with a host of significant performance venues of national and international significance.

Harris is also active as both a composer and educator. He has numerous commissioned compositions to his credit, including “Suite Moments” (debut 2005), “The Grand Unification Theory” (2001 debut) and “Portals of the...

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