Article by Ruth Eckles, Photos courtesy of Stephen Coffman
Somewhere in the triangle, at any given moment, Stephen Coffman is keeping the beat. Maybe he’s playing in Durham’s hip-hop influenced The Beast, or the improv jazz band Peter Lamb and the Wolves, or the North Carolina Jazz Repertory Orchestra. Perhaps he’s freelancing as a session drummer, teaching a drum lesson, or backing local singer-songwriters such as Shana Tucker and Greg Humphreys. Wherever he is—a smoky bar, a sound-proofed studio, a concert hall, a classroom—he is why you find yourself tapping your foot, and nodding your head, drawn into the pulse of the music.
For as long as he can remember, Stephen Coffman felt called to the drums. Born and raised in Durham, Coffman was exposed to percussion through his father, a guitarist in a R & B funk band. Only three years old at the time, he remembers tip-toeing down the basement stairs, feeling drawn to the band’s drum set. The attraction continued, as he went from pots and pans, to a child-sized drum set to an adult set. By the 4th grade, he and three of his friends, Duncan Webster, Joe Hall and Will Goble started a precocious Nirvana-esque Ska punk band called Slippery Chicken.
”People would freak out because we were just these tiny kids playing these cool songs,” Coffman remembers.
Their first big gig was at the famed Cat’s Cradle in Chapel Hill, opening for Quintessential.
”I don’t think we really knew what the Cradle was back then, but once we were in high school we liked to brag about it,” he laughs.
Coffman began taking drumming more seriously when he enrolled in Durham’s School of the Arts, where he would study percussion, symphonies and wind ensembles for the next seven years. Prior to DSA, Coffman had been a natural drummer with a distinct disdain for practicing the rudiments. He’d even flunked out of drum lessons.
“I was a terrible student,” he says. “I didn’t want to study or accept direction. I just wanted to hit the drums.”
That all changed when he met jazz instructor Andrew Sioberg. Sioberg encouraged Coffman to think about music as a career, not just a hobby.
“He really nurtured my curiosity on the instrument,” remembers Coffman.
Sioberg would bring Coffman CD’s, encourage him to practice an hour a day with the metronome, give specific exercises to improve his drumming.
“I started to practice the stuff he taught me every day. I listened to the recordings he gave me, transcribed the solos. I’d almost be eager about it. Kind of like ‘Man, I can’t wait to learn this so I can show Mr. Sioberg’. There were definitely some light bulbs going off when I met Andy.”
When Coffman graduated from DSA, he headed for Florida State’s prestigious jazz program, on a full scholarship. At the last minute, he changed his mind and instead went to Carolina where he majored in Music with an emphasis in Jazz. Coffman forged friendships in UNC’s small, intimate music department that would influence his career for years to come.
Jim Ketch, the chair of UNC’s Music Department and the Director of Jazz Studies, was a fiery perfectionist with a passion for getting results. It was a quality Coffman admired, and for the next 4 years, under Ketch’s instruction, he grew to the next level as a professional jazz musician taking weekly jazz drum lessons, big band drumming, jazz combo, Charanga (a Cuban drumming style), marching drums, and general percussion.
“It was life-changing working with Ketch. He taught me from when I was just a baby. By the time I was a senior, he was hiring me for gigs outside of school,” says Coffman.
He also met Peter Kimosh (bassist) and Eric Hirsh (pianist), who to this day are his first calls for any gig. While still in school, the trio landed a steady gig at Maggiano’s at Southpoint Mall, playing twice a week, for three hours per session.
“We’d play jazz, bossa nova’s, Afro-Cuban grooves, ballads, maybe throw in a funk thing. The more I did that, the more confidence I gained,” says Coffman.
Almost as soon as he graduated from Carolina, Coffman was making enough money to cover his bills, and even save some. He toured all over the country with Who’s Bad: The Ultimate Michael Jackson Tribute Band, and The Hugh Swaso Project; all connections he’d made while at UNC. Yet initially, he didn’t think he’d settle locally for his musical career:
“I figured I’d play here for a little while then I’d go to grad school, or move to a big city and get a ‘real’ scene. But the more I’ve been here and started bands and networked with other musicians, I’ve realized the talent pool and music scene we have here is one of the best in the country. I thought about it, and I was like ‘Why would I pay 7 times more money in rent in New York, when it’s all here?’”
Eventually Coffman saved enough to buy a house on Huron St. in Durham, and Kimosh and Hirsh moved in as roommates. Practice in the basement became a regular event, and The Beast, the kinetic hip-hop jazz-influenced quartet, was born. The band is fronted by lyricist Pierce Freelon (son of jazz singer Nneena Freelon), also a UNC graduate. Coffman, Freelon, Hirsh and Kimosh all write the music together. The group also does musical outreach in schools, educating kids about the culture of jazz, hip-hop, and collaborates with other singer-songwriters.
As a freelancer, Coffman works as his own CEO and booking agent. Making phone calls, negotiating rates, scheduling lessons, rushing to gigs and recording sessions are all part of the daily grind. Although the hustle of making a living as a musician can be challenging, Coffman loves the freedom it affords him.
“75% of being a professional musician is about business acumen and personality. Do people like you? Are you reliable? Are you going to show up on time, in the suit?” he asks. “The other 25% is being able to play well.”
Overall, drumming up business in Durham has been a non-issue for Coffman:
“I was born and raised here, so I know a lot of people. It’s the sort of thing where this friend’s brother started a bar, so I can get gigs there. I’ve started teaching at DSA, where I went to school. I play in the North Carolina Jazz Repertory Orchestra, where Jim Ketch is the Musical Director. It’s probably like that with any trade. If you search through your network of people, you’re going to find outlets and ways to make money. It’s all about relationships,” he says.