As a young man, Stafford James enlisted in the Air Force; after his discharge he studied at the University of Chicago with Rudolf Fahsbender. In 1969 he moved to New York City and studied under Julius Levine at the Mannes College for Music. Here he met Pharaoh Sanders, with whom he played his first jazz concerts in New York. James played with Monty Alexander and Sun Ra at the end of the 1960s as well. Soon after he worked with Alice Coltrane and Albert Ayler. He did the first road tour of the Broadway show Hair and toured Canada with them in 1970. In 1971 he met Melba Moore, and played with her as part of the David Frost Revue. Other performances in the early 1970s included gigs with Rashied Ali, Roy Ayers, Al Haig, Barry Harris, Andrew Hill, Andrew Cyrille, and Chico Hamilton.
In 1973 he toured Europe for the first time with Gary Bartz. In 1974, he was a member of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers. At the same time he met Betty Carter, sparking a lifelong friendship, and Woody Shaw. During this period, he started teaching at the United Nations International School in NYC. His first album as a leader in 1975 on the Horo label featured Enrico Rava, Dave Burrell and Beaver Harris. In 1976 he founded a quintet, featuring bass, cello, saxophones, drums and percussion which also toured Europe. He met Dexter Gordon there while touring with Al Cohn and recorded Homecoming with him upon his return to the United States. He then toured Europe with John Scofield and performed on his album Rough House. In 1978 he recorded his second album as a bandleader, The Stafford James Ensemble, featuring Frank Strozier, Harold Mabern and Louis Hayes.
In the early 1980s James toured Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Mexico, and South America. In 1983 he began collaborating with Jimmy Heath, and did more work with Woody Shaw, including a world tour with the United States Information Service. In 1986, he composed an Ethiopian Suite for two basses, string ensemble, drums and dancers for the Celebrate Brooklyn Festival Dance. That same year, he arranged compositions by Duke Ellington for an ensemble consisting of himself, pianist Mulgrew Miller and cellist Akua Dixon. In 1987 he composed Sonatina for viola d'amore and double bass, premiered at Bates Recital Hall at the University of Texas, Austin, and at the European Music Festival in Stuttgart in 1988.
In 1989 James moved to Paris, collaborating with Pharaoh Sanders, Barney Wilen and Lavelle, after which he formed the Stafford James Project, then studied with Ludwig Streicher in Vienna. In 1991 he played Igor Stravinsky's The Firebird on tour with the Ukrainian National Orchestra of LVOV. In 1994 he played in his trio with pianist Onaje Allen Gumbs and drummer Ronnie Burrage. He then composed Les Alpes aux Carpates for solo bass, two pan flutes, string orchestra, women's choir, synthesizers and drums in 1995.
In 1998 he toured Belgium, Holland, Germany, Austria, and Italy in a quartet with Buster Williams, Miquel Diaz (later Don Alias), and Ronnie Burrage (later Jeff Boudreaux). In that same year he won the Civitella Ranieri Fellowship to compose new music for contrabass soloist and orchestra. In 1999 he was invited to Uzbekistan.
In 2001 he recorded his third CD, Le Gecko, in co-production with the WestDeutschlandRundfunk (WDR) radio of Cologne, Germany. The CD also features Don Alias and Gene Jackson. During this period there were also recordings with Radio France and NPS radio of the Netherlands.
In 2005 he re-formed his seven-piece string ensemble consisting of solo bass, rhythmic bass, string quartet and drums with tours in Austria, Germany and France. He also did corporate conferences on the "History of Jazz 1889 to the Present" i.e.; GTM-Bâtiment, Vinci, GTPR and Chateau de Ermenonville for the French Minister of Finance and Taxation. Also in 2005, the University of Chicago included his compositions into the Regenstein Research Library.
In 2008, his new recording The Stafford James String Ensemble was released on the (Staja Music) label featuring Ralph Morrison, Sara Parkins, Jennie Hansen, Wolf Sebastian and Douglas Sides.
In 2009, masterclasses at the University of Graz, Austria, Brückner Universitaet, Linz, Austria, Roosevelt University, Chicago, and tours with members of the Brückner Orchestra of Linz, Austria and concerts in the United States.
In 2010, the Chicago-based WFMT Radio Network, which is the official radio station of both the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic, did a two-hour program on his life and compositions, entitled Composing for the Contrabass, that was heard worldwide.
In 2011, James became founder and president of Top Hat Music Society, Inc., a dinner/concert music series including Jazz, Classical, Operetta and Cabaret with international artists. Also in 2011, Stafford's composition "That's what dreams are made of" was utilized in the French film Le Grand Restaurant by Pierre Palmade, starring Gérard Depardieu, Gérard Jugnot, Thierry Lhermitte, Chantal Lauby, Gérard Darmon, Nathalie Baye, Pierre Cassignard, Marie Bourlet, Alex Lutz, Maxime Godart, Virginie Hocq, Anne-Elizabeth Blateau, plus a stellar cast of others and was aired on France 2 (FR2).
In 2012, Stafford James married Gunda Hennig from Bremen, Germany((Gunda James)). The Stafford James String Ensemble recorded new CD, Round About Midnight, live in Chicago. Thomastik-Infeld of Vienna, Austria, maker of fine strings, and the WFMT Radio Network of Chicago are also sponsors for the event.
In 2013, the Stafford James String and Percussion Ensemble with special guest M'Boom (the percussion ensemble of jazz legend Max Roach), performs at the Chicago Jazz Festival's Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park. This concert is in conjunction with concerts in Austria. Musicians include: Richard Davis, Ray Mantilla, Warren Smith, Ely Fountain, Steve Berrios, Geof Bradfield, Scott Hesse, String Quintet and Stafford James as soloist.
- 1975: Stafford James (Horo Records) recorded in Rome, Italy
- 1978: Stafford James Ensemble (Red Records) recorded in London, England
- 1985-2001 Multiple studio recordings of his compositions for Strings including his arrangements on the musics of Rossini, Boccherini, Solér, Bach and Brahms.
- 2001: Le Gecko (Staja Music), recorded in Klaus von Bismarck Saal of West Deutschland Rundfunk( WDR ), Cologne, Germany
- 2008: A Song for our Heroes, (Staja Music), The Stafford James String Ensemble, recorded "Live" in Zürich, Switzerland
- 2012: Round About Midnight, (Staja Music), The Stafford James String Ensemble, recorded "Live" in Chicago, Illinois
With Albert Ayler
With Dexter Gordon
With Jimmy Heath
- Peer Pleasure (Landmark, 1987)
With Pharoah Sanders
- Welcome to Love
- Moon Child
With Gary Bartz
- I've Known Rivers
With La Velle
- Tribute to Nat "King" Cole
With Cecil Payne
With Woody Shaw
- Little Red's Fantasy (Muse, 1976)
- The Woody Shaw Concert Ensemble at the Berliner Jazztage (Muse, 1976)
- For Sure! (Columbia, 1979)
- United (Columbia, 1981)
- Lotus Flower (Enja, 1982)
- Master of the Art (Elektra Musicia, 1982)
- Night Music (Elektra Musicia, 1982)
- The Time Is Right (Red, 1983)