Bassist Stephan Crump’s musical journey from East Memphis to Carnegie Hall.
photographs by Nathan James Leatherman
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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.