FORT WORTH, Texas (SWBTS) – Jazz musician Stockton Helbing drums like a chameleon, changing the shades of his rhythm and style to blend with any musical setting.
“Every weekend, I’m playing contemporary Christian Rock at my church,” says Helbing, an artist in residence in Southwestern’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, he says, must have the “chameleonesque ability to blend in with each musical situation,” and 31-year-old Helbing is no stranger to musical success. Colleges and high schools throughout the nation invite him to teach during the year, and he has produced three of his own albums. His most recent jazz album, Battlestations & Escape Plans, is based on a short story he wrote, inspired by one of his ancestors, who served as a chaplain and drummer during the Civil War.
Helbing has also performed with a variety of artists throughout the world. In February and March, he is scheduled to go on tour with Doc Severinsen, a Grammy winning trumpeter and former band leader for Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show.
During college, Helbing played big band jazz with the One O’clock Lab Band at the University of North Texas. Upon his graduation, jazz legend Maynard Ferguson invited Helbing to go on tour with him and, in time, made him the music director for his band—a rare opportunity for a young drummer.
“This was my musical hero,” says Helbing, who first became enthralled with the sounds of jazz when his middle school band director played the song “La Fiesta” from Ferguson’s album, Chameleon. “I was excited and inspired to be sharing the stage with someone who I really felt was largely responsible for me being a musician.”
As Ferguson’s music director, Helbing was not only responsible to prepare the band for each performance, but he also played in and produced Ferguson’s Grammy-nominated album, The One and Only, which was recorded only a few weeks before the jazz legend’s unexpected death.
“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.
“To be a great musician, you have to be a servant to the music,” Helbing says.
A successful jazz musician must not only 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,” and for this reason a jazz musician must be able, like a chameleon, to blend in with the band.
“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, which I think is clearly what we learn in our Christian lives,” he says. “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 not only trains Southwestern’s students, but he also serves during the seminary’s spring Youth Ministry Lab, helping young musicians understand how they can enhance their musical abilities for God’s glory.
While Helbing has always tried to be a witness for the Gospel in the secular jazz world, he is excited to work at Southwestern, where he can help ministers-in-training 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.
“I do feel confident,” Helbing says, “that we are seeing growth in these students 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.”
Southwestern students who study jazz, he says, gain the ability to “musically minister in any environment,” whether they serve at megachurches 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.
To learn more about Helbing, visit his website at stocktonhelbing.com.
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