Photo of
Photo By Laura Roberts
Mark 'Big Pappa' Stampley

Mark Stampley does it all

By Kevin Gibson

Carriblujazzean. Say it three times fast.

As for what it means, well, that's about as creative as the guy who invented the word, a fellow by the name of Mark Stampley. "Big Poppa," they call him. He's a guitarist whose style is kind of a blend of a number of traditional musical genres, including (see it coming?) Caribbean/Jamaican, blues and jazz. He came up with the word about 10 years ago to use as a buzzword to describe his music.

"I call it Carriblujazzean because I have this mixed bag of genres," he said. "I just made it up. It's a catch-all."

Mark 'Big Pappa' Stampley. Photo by Laura Roberts

Given all that Stampley has done over the years, he may need to make up a few more words. This is a guy who has shared the stage with Koko Taylor and ... Oprah. But not at the same time; that would really be something.

But his fascinating career doesn't stop with jamming with celebrities and music legends (more on that stuff later) he also spent many years busking in Chicago, has made numerous recordings and currently heads up an arts programming project that spreads music education to middle school students. Stampley, who holds a BS in communication arts from Columbia College in Chicago, recently presented programs in Farnsley Middle School and Western Middle School here in Louisville, and Stampley also offers a more in-depth residency program.

Oh, and as for that music stuff mentioned earlier Carriblujazzean he also spends a little time gigging around town, playing originals and covers. Oh yeah, and he's working on a new recording which will follow up 2007's Here Come Big Poppa Stampley.

After that, he might get some sleep or have a bite to eat. If there's time.

TV COWBOYS?

How did Big Poppa get started playing the guitar, you ask? Did he sell his soul at the corner of state roads 61 and 49 in Georgia like Robert Johnson? Or did he fall into the Muddy Waters and never emerge?

"When I was kid I know this sounds ridiculous I used to look at those old cowboy movies on TV," he said. Yep, Roy Rogers, Wes Montgomery. Cowboys. He saw those guys strumming guitars and wearing big hats and was mesmerized. Happy trails.

In all honesty, it probably helped that his dad was an avid fan of jazz, so there was always music on the turntable. Charlie Parker, meet Gene Autry.

But like many budding young musicians, Stampley's parents were not so keen on the noise factor, so he had to wait. He had to wait quite a while, actually. If Mom and Dad thought the flame was going to burn out, though, they were mistaken.

"In seventh or eighth grade," Stampley recalled, "I put together a lip sync thing with my brothers, and we were finalists in the school talent show. That really kept the bug going."

Finally, at age 19, Stampley met a guitar player named Reggie Boyd. "That's when I really started playing," he said. Boyd taught Stampley in such a way that it broadened his knowledge of the music he was playing as part of the process.

"Reggie was really a great teacher," Stampley said. "He really knew the guitar well. He taught me things I could immediately apply and learn. Instead of teaching me three-chord progressions, he would say, 'Here's your chord families and here's how they apply for jazz, and here's how they apply for rock ..."

He also encouraged Stampley to spend time playing along with various songs on the radio and to play along as part of the band so as to feel the song, not to play over it like a lead guitarist which obviously helped develop Big Poppa's natural versatility.

Another reason Stampley learned so many styles in so little time was because he grew up in Chicago's Hyde Park, where a number of musicians lived. He was living near people like Chaka Kahn and members of Earth, Wind & Fire, and there was always music going on around him.

The lesson? "If you could play lots of styles, you could work a lot," Stampley said. So he learned to branch out.

GETTING AROUND

As the years progressed, Stampley got better and better, and he played with more and different people. In fact, he ended up with quite a resume, one that has continued to grow since he moved to Louisville about six years ago to be with his girlfriend, Paula.

He has his resume of folks with whom he has had musical associations classified by genre easier to break down that way. Otherwise, you'd just have a list of names two or three pages page long.

Seriously, a look at Stampley's resume is a walk through music in general. On his list of people with whom he has played/appeared/recorded are names like ... Queen Latifah. The Kentucky Headhunters. Maya Angelou. John McLaughlin. Billy Always. Malcolm Jamal-Warner (yes, he backed Theo Huxtable for a spoken-word piece the only male Huxtable child is a bass player).

We already mentioned Koko Taylor; here's the story: Through a mutual connection, Stampley got invited to play at a big neighborhood party, at which Taylor happened to be jamming. "So we go to the show, everybody's jamming and having a great time," Stampley said. "Then somebody calls the cops. I go talk to them, and one says, 'What's the problem?' I said, 'We got Koko Taylor over here.' They look at each other, and one says, 'Keep jamming. I can't tell Koko Taylor to get off the stage.'"

Stampley also was with a band who got hired to play a New Year's Eve show for Oprah Winfrey a number of years ago. "So we did the show, and she said we were the best band in the world," Stampley said. "I love that line, I get to use that over and over."

He said he ran into Oprah again years later, said hello, and she immediately remembered where they had met.

Another celebrity of sorts in Stampley's life is the aforementioned Boyd, his guitar instructor. Boyd was one of the main studio musicians at Chess Records, which is regarded by some as one of if not the greatest blues labels in America. The list of Chess artists is a ridiculous who's who, and Stampley said Boyd was fortunate to play on some important recordings including a couple by a guy named Chuck Berry. And an artist named Etta James.

Stampley also has plenty of hip-hop and funk on his resume. He opened for Ivan Neville, DumpstaPhunk and played with members of Wu Tang Clan.

Of DumpstaPhunk, he said, "That is the baddest funk band I've seen, period. They were not wild and nutty people; they were laid-back people, but put on the most explosive funk show I've ever seen. And I've seen George Clinton!"

He's also collaborated on musicals, recorded with Interscope artist Latanya, played guitar on a Toni Braxton recording and recorded in Jamaica with Chinna, who played guitar with both Bob Marley and Ziggy Marley. And he also worked with Calypso Rose, who "is like the Aretha Franklin of the Caribbean."

Another highlight for Mr. Stampley? Busking street performance for money in Chicago and other cities. Stampley claims to have made some decent pocket money over the years. (For tax reasons, we'll not use any figures.)

"I had already performed in front of thousands of people and done all types of recording and everything," he said. "I did it to pick up some extra money. Turns out I made a lot of money doing it."

He said sometimes random people would show up and play or sing along, and once in a while a notable face was in the crowd.

"One of the people who sat in with me was Jack Black," Stampley said. "He played harmonica. This was way before Tenacious D."

Jack Black? Really?

OK, take a deep breath.

LIVE AND LOCAL

Did anyone mention that Stampley plays around town once in a while? True: three different entities, many different venues. Over the years, by Stampley's estimation, he has played more than 2,000 shows. That number keeps growing.

He currently does solo shows, duo shows with drummer/percussionist Jack Muenz-Winkler, who has played with the Juggernaut Jug Band and Crush, and has a trio combo with Bill Hueglin on bass and Chuck Hooten on drums. Hugh Peterson also sometimes fills in on drums; he has worked with a number of people, including Weather Report and Miles Davis.

While it stands to reason that the trio would be the more rocking of his outlets, he is quick to point out that he and Muenz-Winkler can shake things up pretty effectively: "We can do a lot with the two piece; we get people dancing and the whole deal."

Singer-songwriter Leigh Ann Yost met Stampley at an open mike night about four years ago, and the two became fast friends.

"The thing I love about Big Poppa is that no matter where he is or what he's playing, he is having FUN on the stage," Yost said. "He's got a way about him that makes you want to shake your hips to the beat, no matter what the song is.

"What I try to pride myself on," Stampley said, "is the variety of what I can do ... . If I'm doing my album material, I'm doing a little more blues. It's kind of a mixture of rock, blues, a little R &; B and some Caribbean music.

"In the cover set, it's got all that too, but I'll do country, I'll do jazz. I have 800 or 900 songs on my list, and I do lot of requests. I feel each evening should be as special as it can be for who is there."

He takes special notice of his audience's makeup, socially speaking and age-wise, and takes a lot of requests when appropriate. "Literally," he said, "I feel it's important to play the music from when the person in front of you was in high school."

His forthcoming CD release working title Universal Bluesman - will be a mix of solo and full-band recordings, and will feature some originals and other surprises potentially including a Yost original called "Breathe." He hopes to finish and release it in the next couple of months, assuming no delays.

But perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of Stampley's huge resume aside from his big ol' jolly Santa laugh, of course is his interest in education and sharing music and music history with children. That's where his Music-History-in-Motion project comes in: He presents a combined classroom workshop in which students "meet" important music personalities from all walks, hear a live performance of some of the music, and a participate in a post-performance workshop that involves lyric writing that will get set to music on the spot.

He does it to help students not only better understand and appreciate where various types of music originate, but also to help encourage them to carry on the tradition of creativity and art. His idea started with his occasional work as a substitute teacher.

"I actually brought my guitar to school once because I had a gig that night, I think," he said. "If you know anything about substitute teaching, you know it can be hell on earth a really bad experience."

He laughed and continued: "The kids said, 'Are you gonna play it? Are you gonna play it?' I said, 'If you do your work.'"

They did their work; he played. So he started bringing his guitar along more often, and this led to the concept of Music-History-in-Motion.

"The concept is that the music almost always reflects the life and times of the musician," he said. "I use that to teach music, history and creative writing."

He bemoans the diminishing role the arts continue to play in primary education. Kentucky's education standards, as of 2006, are directly related to the accepted National Standards for Arts Education (1994). But Stampley is quick to point out that schools with higher academic achievements are usually schools that have a greater emphasis on arts and humanities.

The Arts Education Project, with funding from the U.S. Department of Education and the National Endowment for the Arts, published the 2002 study Critical Links: Learning in the Arts and Student Academic and Social Development, which details the importance of the arts in the social and academic success of students by linking higher concentrations of the arts in school curriculum with higher test scores. It is one of many studies that seem to confirm this.

"Creative thinking is what built this country," Stampley said. "And the arts are critical to developing creative thinking. Any of your students who have had arts will have higher science and math scores [on standardized tests] than students who don't have art."

And so he battles on, lending his voice to school programs whenever possible with his program, which directly address many of the Kentucky Core Content for Arts &; Humanities requirements. The program is aimed at students from grades 6-8, but Stampley will customize it for younger students.

By the way, Big Poppa also does some voice-over work as well; his booming tone has been compared to none other than James Earl Jones. Ask him to say "This is CNN," and he is quick to appease, followed with more jolly laughter.

"I'm from Chicago, but I consider myself a Louisvillian," he said. "I've been here five or six years; I really enjoy the scene here. I'm kind of bouncing around on the scene. I'm considered an artist because I do originals, but I also do lot of cover stuff in what I call the guitar bars. You know, like the piano bar? I call it the guitar bar."

OK, so it isn't quite as memorable as Carriblujazzean. But give Poppa some space, he's got a lot on his plate.