The How To Issue

How to Improvise: Stefon Harris


How to Improvise: Stefon Harris

Getty Images(3); Magnum Photos; The Image Works

You have to be willing to fail. That’s the way I approach every performance. People want you to get up on stage, let go, and take the risks that a lot of them would never take themselves. We don’t plan anything before shows anymore. We just walk out and start playing. We don’t know what’s going to happen. Neither does the audience. That’s the whole point. We’re on a journey together. I learned a lot about this on tour with Wynton Marsalis. I can recall a specific moment. We were playing a blues in A-flat at Chicago Orchestra Hall. I was taking a solo, and I hit the most wrong note that you could possibly hit. And I hit it really hard. You could hear everybody in the room hold their breath. The other musicians started yelling, “Hit it again!” The audience was like, “What’s going to happen?” I hit the note again, and the band started to react to it. It was a “Eureka!” moment. It was the beginning of the realization for me that there are no mistakes in jazz. Now, sometimes, I get bored with the so-called right notes. I will consciously hit a random note just to see where it goes. When things go wrong, people come together. That’s when my band is most creative. — As told to Devin Leonard 

Harris plays the vibraphone.

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