Jazz drummer trains musical 'chameleons'
FORT WORTH, Texas -- Jazz musician Stockton Helbing drums like a chameleon, changing the shades of his style and rhythm for any musical setting.
"Every weekend, I'm playing contemporary Christian rock at my church," says Helbing, an artist in residence in Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary's school of church music. "I may have a recording session earlier in the week where I play country music. I might have a gig where I play big band jazz. I might have a gig with a Brazilian pianist playing traditional Brazilian jazz with brushes. And all of that is a typical week for me."
A successful jazz player must have the "chameleonesque ability to blend in with each musical situation," said the 30-something musician whose wide-ranging career has included a February-March tour with Doc Severinsen, former band leader for Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show," and three of his own albums. The most recent, "Battlestations & Escape Plans," is based on a short story Helbing wrote, inspired by one of his ancestors who served as a chaplain and drummer during the Civil War.
Yet Helbing also makes time for invitations from colleges and high schools to teach throughout the year.
During college, Helbing played big band jazz with the One O'clock Lab Band at the University of North Texas. Upon graduation, jazz legend Maynard Ferguson invited Helbing to go on tour with him and, in time, made him the band's music director -- a rare opportunity for a young drummer.
"This was my musical hero," says Helbing, who first became enthralled with jazz when his middle school band director played the song "La Fiesta" from Ferguson's album, "Chameleon."
As Ferguson's music director, Helbing not only prepared the band for each performance but he also produced and played in Ferguson's Grammy-nominated album, "The One and Only," which was recorded just a few weeks before the jazz legend's unexpected death in 2006.
"It just blows my mind how the Lord gives us unexpected opportunities," Helbing says, who not only started his career by playing with his musical hero but who also met his wife Denise through his work with Ferguson.
Through these experiences, Helbing has learned that musical success comes through service.
A successful jazz musician, he says, must play his own instrument with excellence but he must also have the ability to complement others to make them sound better.
"Often it is not how much we play. It is how little we play, how appropriate what we play is," Helbing says.
"If you want to play in an excellent fashion and make the music excellent, and not just yourself, you are willing to do the small things," he says, "which I think is clearly what we learn in our Christian lives.
"We need to be humble. We need to be servants to others."
As music director at Grace Fellowship Church in Paradise, Texas, Helbing applies the principles of successful jazz to contemporary worship music, and at Southwestern Seminary he teaches students to do the same. He also serves during the seminary's spring Youth Ministry Lab, helping young musicians enhance their musical abilities for God's glory.
While Helbing has always sought to be a witness for the Gospel in the secular jazz world, he is excited to help students understand "how to be successful in playing music that helps others come closer to God through praise and worship."
As in jazz, he says, contemporary worship music requires "a great deal of on-the-fly interpretation" and "split-second decision-making" as well as the ability to adapt to any musical setting in order to improve the music.
Southwestern students who study jazz, Helbing says, gain the ability to "musically minister in any environment," whether they serve at mega-churches with full bands and vast resources or at churches of 20 people with only two musicians. Like musical chameleons, they learn to blend with any worship setting.
"I do feel confident that we are seeing growth in these students," Helbing says, "and seeing them excited and energized, armed with an education that will prepare them for any musical eventuality they are going to encounter in the ministry."
Benjamin Hawkins is senior news writer for Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas (www.swbts.edu/campusnews).