Invested in Jazz
Tim Warfield is having a big year. The York born-and-raised jazz saxophonist is releasing three albums with three different bands in 2014 – on top of teaching at Messiah College, practicing, performing, writing music and serving on multiple boards relating to the appreciation and promotion of jazz.
Throughout his 30-plus years of playing the saxophone, Warfield has received high praise for his performances, technical skills and records by media publications, including the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times. The New York Times even chose Tim Warfield’s Jazzy Christmas for its 2013 Holiday Gift Guide.
Before he started performing at notable clubs with the best jazz musicians in the country, Warfield made his bones performing at York bars and parties as a teenager and in Harrisburg jam sessions with guys twice his age. But his musical journey really began at McKinley Elementary School in York.
Warfield began playing music at age 9, when his music teachers began introducing instruments in class. It wasn’t easy at first. Warfield says he first tried the flute, then the trombone and the trumpet. After failing to produce a sound from any of the instruments, he finally found the alto saxophone.
“It was a very attractive instrument. It was very curvy and elegant,” Warfield says. “I tried that because it was the only instrument I hadn’t tried.”
Long before he attempted to play an instrument, Warfield was exposed to music by his parents. As a small child, he listened to jazz, R&B, gospel and classical music. When he started playing the saxophone, his first instinct was to mimic the musicians he was already familiar with – people like Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Art Blakey. Being exposed to such great music so early helped him develop a critical ear for music.
“When I played something incorrectly, I knew it was not right. Then I’d keep working on it until I got it right,” Warfield says.
A life-changing moment came for Warfield when one of his teachers who fostered his love for music convinced him to perform a set of Christmas songs for each class at his school.
“A lot of people would say, ‘That was a rush.’ It definitely wasn’t a rush for me. What it was for me what getting over a shyness,” Warfield says. “It felt like I was going to have a heart attack the first time I performed. Then, by the end of the day, I felt comfortable.”
As Warfield got older, he switched to tenor sax, practiced and started participating in jam sessions in Harrisburg. He learned a great deal from the sessions and started playing professional gigs at 16 years old. He was always the youngest guy in the band.
After graduating from high school, Warfield left for Howard University in Washington, D.C. For the next several years, he had an on-again-off-again relationship with college, but he continued to perform near Howard. Eventually, one of his steady D.C. gigs brought him to the attention of New Orleans jazz trumpeter Marlon Jordon. In 1990, Warfield left Howard and went out on tour with Jordan, performing in major cities like New Orleans, New York, Los Angeles and Seattle.
“It was a lot to digest,” Warfield says. “It was important to me to have the highest level of focus to do the best I could. It was about having a strong sense of discipline.”
Warfield has worked as a professional musician ever since, performing in numerous bands with everyone from Isaac Hayes and Dizzy Gillespie to Shirley Scott and Nicholas Payton. In order to make it as a professional musician, Warfield had to tour – a lot. For two decades, he was on the road for about nine months out of every year.
Then around 2007, he got a teaching offer from Messiah College in Grantham. Warfield says he was reluctant at first, but he signed on when the administration assured him he’d be allowed to teach students the way that he wanted to.
“I’ve never been one to follow the methodology of someone else. I believe you can be more effective when you have something personal to articulate,” Warfield says. “I had to figure out how to articulate what I felt about jazz improvisation – how it’s played and what it takes to learn it.”
Teaching now takes up a good portion of his time, but Warfield’s schedule does give him some room to perform. He plays solo and with three different bands – an organ band, a quartet and a sextet. While Warfield’s sax is the link between the three bands, each project has its own unique sound.
Most listeners would consider Warfield’s style traditional jazz, but he says he’s not interested in classifications. He cares about playing, not defining the sound. “Jazz is like love,” he says. “If you’re spending a lot of time trying to define it, then you’re missing the whole point.”
Improvising and creating a connection with musicians is critical to good jazz, Warfield says. And it’s taken him years to find the right mix of musicians for him.
“When you have four musicians on stage and one of them comes up with an idea in that moment that is brilliant, what happens is the other musicians hear it and are inspired by it. Then they’re forced to come up with something brilliant as well,” Warfield says. “As a listener, you get to experience all the energy happening in a split second.”
Warfield has traveled the world and “made it” in a way few musicians do, but he remains very invested in the communities where he lives and grew up. When he’s not performing at venues like the Philadelphia Museum of Art or the Strand-Capitol Performing Arts Center, local fans can see him on the third Thursday of every month at Bistro 19. The monthly performance was initiated, in part, by the Central Pennsylvania Friends of Jazz – an organization he serves on that’s dedicated to the education, promotion and presentation of jazz.
“I like being able to play in my hometown,” Warfield says. “In a way, it’s like giving back. I’m just going in to play. There’s no cover, so people can just come in and check out the music.”
Tim Warfield & His Organ Band kick off the Dauphin County Jazz & Wine Festival at Fort Hunter Park (5300 N. Front St., Harrisburg) tonight at 6:30 p.m. Doors open at 5 p.m. Weekend passes are $30 at the gate. Click here for more info.