Doubling Down 

Gerald Stephens on mastering the jazz life.

click to enlarge Gerald Stephens
  • Gerald Stephens

Next week is a busy one for Gerald Stephens. Stephens teaches jazz piano at Rhodes and at the University of Memphis, where he is finishing his master's in piano. Stephens will play with his new band, Every Tribe, at Stonewall Hall on the 15th, and he has a recital at the Tuthill Performance Hall of Rhodes College on the 17th. He will perform at Otherlands on the 22nd as part of a three-act jazz bill. He recorded his first solo album, Cycles, last year and plays live in a variety of ensembles. He's played with everyone from Valerie June to Levon Helm. Stephens has made a living playing jazz in Memphis. Many complain about the lack of work for straight-ahead jazz, but Stephens has made his way and enjoys the challenges of doing what he loves.

Flyer: Who played on Cycles?

Stephens: A lot of people: Jim Spake and Scott Thompson. Sean Murphy and Jason Northcutt. Paul Taylor's on it. Logan Hanna, Wesley Morgan, and Chad Anderson.

That's half of the jazz scene.

It's a mish mash of several different sessions. I would save up some money, do a few songs and then forget about it. We recorded some of it at my house, some of it at Jeremy Shrader's house. He uses his place for Electric Moon, which he has with Matt Timberlake.

My other band is an improv group called Every Tribe. This is only our second gig. That's based around a vocalist from Dayton, Ohio, whenever she can be in town. I've got Jeff Burch and Neal Bowen. That's on the 15th at Stonewall Hall.

You and your brother are going to play together at Otherlands. Did you grow up competing with each other?

My parents didn't play. But we took piano lessons. I stuck with it, and he switched to drums. I grew up in Southaven. I used to do trombone in high school band and four years of college band for scholarship. That's where [my brother] Daryl learned drums, junior high band. But he was in a Beatles cover band in high school. But I was just old enough that we weren't in the same bands. I was off at college. He plays in Jocephus and the George Jonestown Massacre and with Special Shoes, a punk band. But it's the first time we've played a gig together in a long time. We made a record in 1998 that we never put out. It's just him and me; it's pretty good. We should probably release it.

How has it been going back to school?

I'm all mixed up in finishing my master's degree. I'm doing recitals for that. That one week, I've got Every Tribe on the 15th, a recital on the 17th, and my tunes on the 22nd. Busy.

All I heard until I was 13 was country music and Elvis. That's what my parents had at the house. When I got my radio, I was listening to Memphis stations. K97, Rock 103. By high school I had gotten into hard rock and psychedelic stuff. By college, the free form stuff got me into Miles [Davis] and led me over into jazz. I got into blues from hearing Clapton talk about Robert Johnson.

They don't tell you about that in school. You have to find out on your own. I'm trying to change that in whatever adjunct capacity I have. I'm thinking about a Memphis music class in the fall. A seminar. I'm like OK, somebody's in town who would come and talk to the class.

I hear jazz musicians complain a lot about the challenges of playing jazz for a living. But you seem to have made it work.

There is so much more supply than demand in the arts, whatever you do, not matter how good you are. This year 1,500 more young Americans will graduate with music degrees. Do you think 1,500 jobs are going to open up? Not unless they create it. Not unless they hustle. They have to create a gig. If you think in the old model of 'Where are the jobs, man?', you can get that way. I can't say I haven't thought that way, but ever since 1997, the only income I've had is from teaching music and playing music. I'm still alive. I'm still happy. I'm not a millionaire, but I made more than I made last year. And last year I made more than the year before. I've had a concept of stepping it up. But you have to do that yourself. You can't ask what is the next thing for me. You have to say this is the next thing for me. People are maybe scared of that.

See Gerald Stephens with Every Tribe on Saturday, February 15th, at Stonewall Hall and at Otherlands on Saturday, February 22nd, with Ed Finney, Jeremy Shrader, and Michelle Bush.

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