The first time trumpeter and educator Terell Stafford tried to straddle the worlds of jazz and classical music, the attempt didn’t go so well. In the early 1990s, when Stafford was a student at Rutgers University, skipping out on his classical studies to tour with jazz saxophonist Bobby Watson was enough to earn him a yearlong suspension.

In the decades since he’s done much to meld those two disciplines, including his role as both director of jazz studies and chair of instrumental studies at Temple University, which has led to much greater collaboration between the school’s jazz and classical students.

Now Stafford has the opportunity to take his genre-melding to an even bigger audience as the new artistic director for jazz with the Philly Pops.

The appointment will bring the Jazz Orchestra of Philadelphia, the big band that Stafford founded in 2013, under the Pops’ purview. Stafford will also continue to direct the All City Jazz Orchestra, the middle- and high-school level band he’s led since the Pops partnered with the School District in 2015, while expanding the Pops’ “Pops in Schools” educational program.

Jazz trumpeter Terell Stafford and the Jazz Orchestra of Philadelphia will again perform the Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn adaptation of "The Nutcracker Suite."
Temple University
Jazz trumpeter Terell Stafford and the Jazz Orchestra of Philadelphia will again perform the Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn adaptation of "The Nutcracker Suite."

The appointment will expand the Pops’ exploration of jazz, which will include in the upcoming 2019-20 season a tribute to Frank Sinatra next May at the Kimmel Center. The Jazz Orchestra of Philadelphia will be featured in at least two performances this season, beginning on Dec. 14 at the Kimmel with its traditional performance of the Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn adaptation of The Nutcracker Suite.

Stafford told the Inquirer how he sees this new gig shaping up, and why he did a happy dance when the Pops brought him and his big band under its wing.

What do you hope to achieve in this new role as the Philly Pops’ artistic director for jazz?

I would hope that we could provide more opportunities for the community and more opportunities for musicians in Philadelphia, along with exposing artists from outside the city to Philadelphia through different projects that combine jazz, classical, and education all in one.

What will joining with the Pops do for the Jazz Orchestra of Philadelphia?

Basically, the Pops saved the Jazz Orchestra of Philadelphia. We were doing two or three concerts a year at the Kimmel along with a few other gigs, but my wife was writing all the grants and I was doing all the work. It wasn’t a very lucrative venture. In fact, we ended up in the negative quite a bit.

With a 2½-year-old daughter at home, it was reaching a point that we didn’t know [if we could continue]. So when the Philly Pops proposed to adopt the Jazz Orchestra of Philadelphia and provide an infrastructure for it, financially and otherwise, my wife and I did a little celebration dance.

Now this group can stay on the scene, providing music to Philadelphians, and we can invite bigger artists to perform with the orchestra with their support.

What kinds of artists would you like to see perform with the orchestra?

The wish list includes Randy Brecker, Cecile McLorin Salvant, Gregory Porter, Branford Marsalis — to name a few.

How do you see jazz fitting in with the mission of the Pops?

With any pops orchestra, there’s an underlying theme of jazz as well as an underlying theme of classical music. I think it’s the two worlds combining that constitutes a really good pops orchestra, an ensemble that’s flexible enough to go in any direction.

This new role seems to mesh perfectly with what you’ve been doing at Temple.

It’s totally synonymous with my position at Temple as director of jazz studies and chair of instrumental studies. I’m always trying to find ways to strengthen the two individually, but it’s important to me to find projects and ways to bring them together.

I believe that provides an all-around great education for the students. I feel the same way on a professional level. [With this partnership] I think the sky’s the limit as far as programming and bringing artists to Philadelphia, and the community really needs to be exposed to as many folks as possible.

You’ve been working with the Pops through the All City Jazz Orchestra since 2015, but what’s your history with the orchestra beyond that?

Twenty-some years ago I used to sub quite a bit in the Philly Pops. I enjoyed that experience quite a bit, and that position was offered to me but I was afraid to commit to it. I was just starting at Temple and I knew I wanted to develop a jazz career.

I just didn’t want to take on too much at one time, but I always enjoyed performing with the Pops because the level of musicianship is so high, and everybody is so open to playing any style or genre of music.

I always felt that was something I wanted to be a part of, but I’m glad I chose the route I did. Now I get to perform with them on some level anyway, so it’s a win-win situation.