Stephen Norfleet: Fond farewell

The saxophonist and founder of the one-time Richmond super group Devil’s Workshop Big Band is heading to the west coast for good.

photo: Sam Allen

It’s Sunday and I’m wading through boxes and boxes of used CDs. They’ve been thoroughly loved, but there are still lots of great ones to buy. They belong to Stephen Norfleet. He’s trying to get rid of them to make some extra cash and minimize his belongings before making a one-way drive to San Francisco. He leaves Friday. I leave with tons of Hank Mobley.

It’s Monday and Stephen and I are having a beer at Mekong, the Vietnamese restaurant and one of his (and my) favorite spots to get a good beer in Richmond. Between sips of a Belgian and spoonfuls of seafood phở, the tenor saxophonist talks about his days in Richmond and his days to come in California. The owner, An, comes over and asks the Mekong regular, “Is this your last supper?”

Stephen answers, “You can bet I’ll be back.”


Stephen Norfleet: I’m from Newport News. Funny story: when I was in fifth grade I saw the movie Stand By Me and got the soundtrack. There was a song called “Yakety Sax,” played by Boots Randolph. My friends and I lip-synced to this song for a talent show at school and I pretended to play the saxophone. I honked on it and dug it. There’s video footage of me honking on this saxophone. The next year was the first year I could sign up for music in school, so I did that in sixth grade. I played in middle school, then I signed up for it in high school. I had to do marching band, which I couldn’t stand. I just wanted to play in the jazz band and lead the show band behind the show choir. Somewhere along the way there I realized that I could actually play music and make money, and that’s a lot cooler than work!

They were doing the high school recruiting stuff at VCU like the weekend Jazz Day. So I came up for that and liked it. I auditioned for Berklee [College of Music], which was the only other place that I knew of. They actually [offered] me a scholarship, but I kind of got the idea that if I went to Berklee I’d be like “Saxophone #75,” and then if I came to VCU, it would be a lot more personal. So I picked VCU and went there between 1994-2000. Six years! Doug [Richards] and Skip [Gailes] were the ball-busters. Those were the guys, thank God.

After graduating from VCU, I played with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra. I only ended up doing one tour because I didn’t really like it. The musician pays for everything out of pocket, and the gig didn’t pay very well. I had to pay for all my own lodging and all my own food. I was only 22. I did a three-week tour and came back. What I really wanted to do at that point was play in a rock band. I was working at Mars Music, playing in this rock band based out of Charlottesville called Buzby. Lydia [Ooghe] was in it, Todd Herrington was in it, Joel DeNunzio was in it. Basically it was the Modern Groove Syndicate rhythm section with two vocalists and myself. I was also touring with Bob Miller with this other indie-soul-funk band called Hobex from NC around this time as well. Soon thereafter I started Devil’s Workshop Big Band, and that was it for me. I wanted that to be my career. I had the best intentions, man. I was like, “Man, I’m going to do this.” I put everything I had into it. It was working, and then it just fell apart. The cats in the band got pissed at the way I spent the money for the band.

RVANews: How did you spend the money?

Just putting out a CD, building a website, doing a radio campaign so we’d chart on the CMJ. Legitimate stuff. I was also paying myself for all of the time I was putting into making things happen. But after a couple years I decided to move to New York because whenever I was doing business stuff for the band and it was always in New York. It was like, “I always wanted to live in New York and now I have THIS. It makes perfect sense. I’m just going to go. I could come back to Richmond once a month and we could play a bigger show,” because we had been playing every Monday. When we played our CD release party seven or eight years ago, we had like 300 people there. So it made sense to me to move to New York. I wanted to make money and just keep DOING it.

What did you plan on doing for the band in New York while all the musicians were still in Richmond?

Not playing [that music]. I was just going to live there and get a job and hold it down, come back once a month and play. Make connections, book gigs up there. I got us a gig at the Williamsburg Jazz Festival up in Brooklyn.

Did everyone come up for that?

No. Everyone bailed. Everyone hated me, man. There were a couple of guys that created a shit storm. Slandered the hell out of me. But whatever. It just fell apart. Basically, the band that I started and conceived decided to kick me out, and then it was just over as far as I was concerned. I just kind of walked away. It really sucked. It got too muddled and too much time had passed and too much had happened. It took about two years for me to get over all of it.

I was just in New York with nothing to do, which I don’t advise. Don’t go to New York without knowing why you’re there. I was there for the band, and then I just wasn’t. So I got a day job, and would just go to sessions. It’s just kind of cool checking out the different neighborhoods and listening to different music. I was there for four years total. During the first year, everything was going on with that band. That first year was tough emotionally. My mojo was gone because my band and all of my friendships were gone. It took me two years to get over it. I ended up going to grad school and studied with some great people. I just wanted to stay in New York, but I took a job outside of Charlottesville at Woodberry Forest School teaching saxophone. They were going to pay me really well for what I just got out of school to do, and I had borrowed a lot of money to go to grad school, so it was like, “I’m going to be responsible and take that position.” I did that for two years and I didn’t like living in Charlottesville, so I moved back to New York and started working for Apple. My goal was to get certified in Logic, but the economy tanked and my hours got cut. I ended up having three jobs, hustling around, and it was the coldest winter ever! One day I reassessed everything and I just decided I was done. Just like that. I had ceased to pursue New York.

Was it hard to come back to Virginia?

No, because I didn’t have any other options. I had to move in with my parents in Newport News for a couple weeks because the city had exhausted all of my savings. I got rehired by Apple and started back from the bottom. It’s not like I had any other options, so I went home. I needed that. The guys here at Apple totally helped me with my career. Musically, it’s been a bit frustrating. There’s a lot of great stuff going on, but no one really calls me to play. I book my own stuff, and club owners will be sleazy and try to cheat me out of money. That doesn’t really make me want to go out and book more gigs.

Purchase on CD Baby or iTunes

Listen to Devil’s Workshop Big Band, “Oh Snap!”:

[audio:!.mp3|titles=Oh Snap!|artists=Devil’s Workshop Big Band]

Let’s talk a little more about Devil’s Workshop Big Band. Idle Hands is still heralded as a great album around here.

Really? I’m so glad to hear that, because I feel a lot of leftover weirdness from before. But I’ll be out someplace and someone will say, “Hey, man, I love that band.” But for the most part, I just try to not talk about it.

The unique thing about that band was we were all friends–there were 17 of us. We would meet at Bogart’s, I would get there early and set up, cats would show up, and we would write a tune as our rehearsal. I lived on Strawberry Street with Bob [Miller] at the time, and right across the street the Strawberry Street Market had half off fried chicken every Monday. So we would go to my place after rehearsal, eat friend chicken together (me, Daniel Clarke, Robby Sinclair, Colin Killalea, Sam Savage, Taylor Barnett, whoever wanted to come came), we would just hang, then we’d go play the gig. That was just super unique: setting up at the same place at the same time every week, just going for it.

On a Monday night. People still say that kind of thing should happen again.

It was pain in the ass. No one checks their emails, no one will call you back. I’d be calling people like, “Yo, what the hell? You bailed last night.” It was just a pain kicking 17 dudes in the butt making sure they were where I wanted them to be. But it was a labor of love so I put everything I had into it. After we wrote all those tunes, we had enough original material. Our sound developed very quickly because we were doing the same thing with the same people every week. We all were just on the same page. It all just started happening, which was great. We recorded that album, and I still have like a whole other album or two worth of stuff. It will probably never get released. My whole thing was that I’m doing this for everybody. For me, yeah. But for everybody in the band and for everybody that’s coming to hear us. It’s from the heart, that’s all. It was nice to see the way other people responded to that when I was putting everything into it, the guys were too, and then the people that came loved it. It was just a big love fest every night, which is what I wanted it to be.

It’s definitely a model that people would like to reproduce, but they can’t.

[Owner of The Camel] Rand really wanted a big band in The Camel and asked me to do it to try and re-create the vibe of DWBB. Some people said they could do it, but we never had a start date and I didn’t hear back from other people, so I decided not to. I just wanted proof from the musicians (because it meant a lot to me); I needed people to prove to me that they wanted to do it, and not enough people did that, and I didn’t know enough people to fill the rest of the chairs. There’s so many more younger players around here now, and I don’t know all of them. It never came together, so I decided not to bust my hump again to try make it happen.

So this move is somewhat of a clean start for you that will lead to more opportunities. But why San Francisco?

A perfect trifecta happened. My friend Fil Lorenz is a band leader and sax player who lives out there. I met him here when I was in high school. He auditioned for the Navy band, had made the cut, and then they raised the bar, so they just put him in the Navy.

Fil lives out there. He’s also an arranger and copyist, and is going to rent me out a one bedroom in his house for what I pay here.

He has the connections in the music scene because he’s been there his whole life. When I went out there to visit, it was basically like that scene in Goodfellas where they go in the back through the kitchen and know everyone. It was like that everywhere we went. When they saw us, all the doormen said “Hey, man. Come on in.” We’d ask the musicians in the band if we could sit in, and they’d go, “Sure, man!” Opportunities.

What are your goals out there?

To be more of a musician and make more money doing it. I’m not playing a lot here which is frustrating. I’m leaving Friday. Towing the car. I rented a truck. It’s going to be a cool trip, I’m kind of excited.

What has your time in Richmond meant to you?

I’m kind of sad about leaving. I came of age here when I went to school. This is where I met John D’earth and all the guys I consider my mentors, who I call when I need help. This is where I met them. That means a lot to me. The big band that I had, those were all my friends that I met at VCU. A band of 17 people that were my best friends, and we all played music together. It was awesome. I love it here. All my family’s here, all my friends are here. I grew up an hour and a half away. But you gotta live your life. I see other opportunities out there and I feel like I should check them out. I’ll be sad to go. I’ll always consider it home.

Follow Stephen Norfleet on Twitter. Purchase his album Expectations on iTunes.

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Dean Christesen

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