The crowd at Clement's Place is primed. The acclaimed vibraphonist Stefon Harris and his band, Blackout, are onstage in this snug jazz club on the campus of Rutgers University in Newark, N.J. Harris has high ambitions. He seeks to use his instrument and his already considerable reputation to change the way people relate to each other — to create empathy. But on this night, he's also there to play.
The band — Harris plus pianist Marc Cary, saxophonist Jaleel Shaw, bassist Ben Williams and drummer Terreon Gully — launches into "Bye Bye Blackbird," the 1920s pop hit that Miles Davis helped turn into a jazz standard.
At first, Harris toys with his listeners, hinting at the melody. Then, in a heartbeat, the rest of the band charges into the tune up-tempo. Harris' mallets ricochet off the aluminum bars of the vibraphone, his face contorted in concentration. The former high-school wrestler, with his compact body, dominates the big instrument — pinning it, clinching it, dancing with it.
A grinning woman at the bar shouts out, "Aw, you're just showin' off!"