photographs by Nathan James Leatherman
Stephan Crump has lots of stories. Those stories are a link to his past and key to his prodigious musical output. And the story of this renowned upright bassist and native Memphian’s musical journey from Memphis to New York, Paris, Carnegie Hall, and the list of Grammy nominees is one worth hearing.
This particular story should probably start with his grandmother, Diana Wallace Crump.
“She was a true matriarch . . . and the one who instilled in all of us a deep appreciation for the arts,” Crump says. “Especially literature and storytelling. I loved the improvised stories, and I believe that’s a big part of what I try to do in the moment with my bass as well as in the longer-term crafting of my compositions. As a child I ‘worked’ now and then at Burke’s Book Store, which she owned for a time in the ’80s. But I was thrilled to dust and straighten the books on their shelves, surrounded by all the journeys and mysteries they offered.”
That appreciation for the arts ran deep. Diana’s children exhibited great talents. Crump’s uncle Stephen is a respected woodworker/artist/furniture maker, and his father, Metcalf, is a prominent architect in Memphis.
“Lots of my fondest memories are of Tuckahoe,” Crump says of his childhood neighborhood in East Memphis. “I remember spending time with my dad as he listened to music. He had a great collection of classic jazz.
He would stay up late at night working. That stereo system was on the other side of the wall from my bedroom. Modern Jazz Quartet, Coltrane, Monk, Bill Evans. I always heard the bass, that’s what was coming through the wall as I went off into my sleep.
“I was taken by the mystery of being an artist,” he continues. “I used to spend summers working for [Steve] in his shop. I was able to witness firsthand how he was creating: meticulousness, endless working over with the hands in the sanding phase. All the grades to the super-fine where you do it with oil. Working the wood until it’s like skin. That’s very relevant to what I do. Continuing on that path of making things. The work ethic.” The Tuckahoe neighborhood provided a welcoming environment for an open-minded child with a good ear. Soon, Crump was attending his older brother Patrick’s band practices with the Garner brothers, Richard and Tommy.
“I used to sit at Richard’s feet, looking up at him, trying to absorb all that and loving it,” he says. When Richard went to college, Crump took his place on bass. “I got a lot out of playing with Tommy early on, getting the bass and drums going.”
Crump played saxophone at White Station and continued on his musical path through high school, playing with notable local musicians Robert Barnett (Mouserocket, Big Ass Truck) and Rob Gowen (Galactic) in Platypus Rex.
“That was the beginning of focusing on instrumental music in a band context, focusing on the music and the groove, composing.” But late in high school, he reached a turning point. He loved his dad’s records but “I was frustrated by my lack of understanding about them.”
Crump’s most notable failure is probably a key to his success: physics. “I had gotten really into math and physics,” he recalls. “That was the plan: music and physics. But I started treading water in the physics class. It was taking all my time, and I started to go nuts. It clarified that I had to be a musician. That’s fundamental to me. I spent a month backpacking in Spain, going to jazz festivals. I saw Dave Holland, Pat Metheny, Herbie Hancock, Jack DeJohnette.”
When he arrived at Amherst College in 1990, Crump was a man with a mission. Among his classmates was Ricky Q, aka Ricardo Quiñones, a Brooklyn-based guitarist and “hotshot young gunslinger” with whom he began playing on “what was left of the Bleecker St./Greenwich Village blues and funk scene.
“He had weekend gigs playing in New York. We’d hire a drummer and another guitar, play from 10 to 2, and drive back to Amherst Monday morning. I got a taste for the level of musicianship here in New York. I knew that’s where I was going as of my freshman year.”
Amherst is part of the Pioneer Valley system of colleges, where students can take classes and transfer credits among the five different schools. Crump took great advantage of the system, studying under luminaries Jeff Holmes at the University of Massachusetts and Andy Jaffe at Amherst. He put 100,000 miles on his Subaru learning to play in big bands and ensembles.
During his junior year, Crump went to Paris, where his father had met and married Michele, Stephan’s mother and the source of his ebullient joi d’vivre. Says Crump: “It was a critical time, engaging directly with my French heritage on family terms.”
He lived there for a year and established an important personal relationship when he happened upon double bassist Patrick Hardouineau, one of the world’s foremost players and at the time the only “German bow” player in France. (The German bow is an older version of the now standard “French bow,” which includes something of a handle for the bassist; proponents claim that it is easier to use for heavy strokes that require a lot of power.)
Crump was blown away and asked the master for a lesson. “He said, ‘Let me see your hand.’ He opened the palm and looked at it.” Through his palm-reading, Hardouineau determined that Crump had “the right stuff” to rise to the level of a true professional and took him on as a student. “I’m still dealing with what he taught me, 20 years later, when I have students of my own.”
When he graduated from Amherst, Crump got a job with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra doing summer tours. “It was a gig right out of college. I got a paycheck and could pay the rent. It also enabled my grandparents to think I was for real about being a musician. Kind of perfect.”
Back in New York, Crump got his first steady gig with a piano trio at a restaurant on Bleecker Street. “It paid 20 bucks for four hours and bowl of pasta. But I was learning a lot. Pretty degrading, but it was a gig.” Crump met singer-songwriter Jen Chapin in the fall of 1996. At first the couple collaborated musically and then started dating in 1997.
At this point, Crump began recording music in his home studio, doing some film soundtrack work and producing albums of his own. In 1997, he released his first album, Poems and Other Things. “That was an enormous learning experience, getting the band together, arranging and running a session, producing a record. Composing gave me a sense that I had something to offer; that I had the power to create a different space.”
Meanwhile, Crump married Chapin in 1999. “Our musical connection is so deep and undeniable,” he says. “That aspect has been growing ever since.” They released their first joint album, Open Wide, a bass and voice duo project, in 2001. The couple still collaborates and tours the world, kids Maceo, 8, and Van, 4, in tow.
“We had a record deal with a dysfunctional label,” says Crump. “Anguish, heartbreak, frustration. But it allowed for a second album: Ready in 2006. That’s when Jen was pregnant with Maceo. We were recording basic tracks when she was eight months pregnant. She overdubbed her background vocals on a yoga ball, nursing in the baby cave.”
Around this time, Crump formed his main group, the Rosetta Trio, an all-string ensemble of two guitars and upright bass. “It’s drumless, which clarified a lot of things. We work a lot at the functioning of the roles in the group: when to push, when to lay back. We work deliberately on making that function. So much is understood now that we get to other levels of detail.”
The group released its self-titled debut in 2006. In 2010, they released Reclamation, which featured cover art by Crump’s friend and Memphis artist Maysey Craddock. This year, they will release Thwirl. Crump is enthused about how Rosetta Trio has come along. “We went into the studio having just returned from our first European tour. It was empowering for the group to play every night for a few weeks, to get a feel for how audiences were responding to the unique chemistry of the ensemble. We went right into the studio. All three of us felt the process went so smoothly.”
In the meantime, Crump’s third active project, being a member of the Vijay Iyer Trio, has taken him to the highest levels of recording and performance. Iyer is a renowned composer and pianist. The New Yorker has singled out Iyer as one of “today’s most important pianists”; in 2014, he’ll be joining the music faculty at Harvard.
“I met Vijay Iyer in 1999, when he had just moved from the Bay Area to New York,” says Crump. “It was immediately clear that we had a lot in common as serious people. That was the beginning.” The two began working as part of a quartet that was eventually winnowed down into a trio — Iyer, Crump, and Marcus Gilmore — to great effect.
“The key point in that collaboration, the turning point, was when it shifted from quartet to trio. The magic of three. When you strip things away, it makes each role more significant. You give each member more agency and responsibility. As a bassist, ensemble playing can be more conservative, shoveling coal in the engine room. A trio can bring more of the aspects I have to offer.
“The band [now] has been together for 14 years,” continues Crump. “At this point, when we step on the stage, it’s like an ongoing conversation. The material that [Iyer] develops is challenging and satisfying.” And well-regarded by the public. The Vijay Iyer Trio received a Grammy nomination in 2010 for Best Instrumental Jazz Album for Historicity, which won accolades as “album of the year” by Downbeat magazine and “jazz album of the year” from The New York Times, NPR, and the Village Voice. The trio played Carnegie Hall last April.
Even from the stratosphere of musical success, Crump acknowledges Memphis as a touchstone to his success. “One of the things I hold onto and appreciate, that’s not present everywhere, is the creativity that’s in the air.
“As a kid, my next-door neighbors used to take me to Blues Alley [downtown on Front Street] on my birthday to eat tamales. There was this crimson, dark light, a mysterious magic to that place. I remember hearing Edwin Hubbard at book fairs. Going down to Beale Street.”
Memphis, says Crump, is a place apart. “There is a sense of creativity and individuality in the people. What some think of as Southern eccentricity, I take as an acceptance of nurturing that individuality. A strong sense of warm humanity is embodied in the music of Stax. Whenever I listen to that, it takes me to that place.”
Memphis’ creativity is apparent away from home too, as one last story illustrates: “One huge moment for me was one of the first concerts with Jen at Town Hall in New York. Isaac Hayes was there. He said, ‘You were all up on that bass.’ When he said good night to Jen, he said, ‘Take care of my homey, now.’ That was more than enough for a lifetime.”
Crump has gained some perspective on other people’s respect and reverence for Memphis music. “People who know music ask where I’m from, and they’re always like, ‘Oh!’ I guess I am from a special place.”
Joe Boone is a freelance writer and a copy editor at the Memphis Flyer. He played guitar in Cold Cozer with a 15-year-old Stephen Crump. He is also owner of Memphidelity, a music-production company.