Grant Stewart: From Smalls To The Big Time
“ I have to thank my parents for not letting me take drum lessons, because things would have turned out a lot differently for me. ”
Saxophonist Grant Stewart moved from Toronto to New York after high school, and quickly established himself as a musician's musician. Stewart has played and studied with everyone from Donald Byrd and Pat LaBarbera to Brad Mehldau and Al Grey. His new album, In The Still Of The Night (Sharp Nine, 2007) is an infectious album of classic tenor tones.
AAJ contributor Jason Crane recently spoke with Stewart about jazz's Yoda, hard-asses and Eddie Van Halen.
All About Jazz: I know that you grew up in Toronto and that your dad was a guitarist who introduced you to jazz early in life. Did you take to it right away or did you think, "This is my dad's old music"?
Grant Stewart: There wasn't any immediate rebellion to it. I was just kind of used to it. He used to play a lot of [pianist and singer Thomas] "Fats" Waller, which I liked because I thought it was hilarious. If you're ever depressed, put on some "Fats" Wallerit works better than Prozac. I remember a lot of Waller and [trumpeters] Louis Jordan and Louis Armstrong around the house.
There wasn't any real rebellion musically, although when I was twelve or thirteen I was listening to a lot of rock music and I tried to convince him to let me quit saxophone so I could learn to play guitar because I really liked Eddie Van Halen. Thank god he wouldn't let me quit saxophone lessons. I tried to convince him that he'd save $15 a week if he let me quit saxophone and play guitar because he could teach me. He said, "No. If you want to play guitar I'll give you guitar lessons, too." Thank god he didn't let me quit.
AAJ: Why do you think he was so adamant about your continuing with the saxophone?
GS: Because I was a little punk kid and didn't know what was best for me. They used to make me practice every day and there used to be some fights at the house. I had to do my half-hour a day. When you're ten years old, you don't really want to be practicing. So there was some fighting, but I'm very grateful to my mother and my father for not letting my quit. On top of that, we played hockey and lacrosse and tons of sports, so they were great parents in that they really dedicated a lot of time to lessons, rehearsals, practices and games for me and my brother.
AAJ: A lot of musicians say they loved practicing right from the beginning, but it seems like there must be a lot of folks who didn't want to spend time with a lesson book.
GS: By the time I was fourteen, that's the summer I really started practicing three or four hours a day and really getting into it.
AAJ: How did you first choose the saxophone?
GS: I didn't really choose it. I first chose drums and I called up the music store and set up lessons. Then I told my parents that I had drum lessons and they said, "No way. You're not taking drum lessons." [laughs] I really thought drums were the coolest instrument, and once again I have to thank my parents for not letting me take drum lessons, because things would have turned out a lot differently for me.
They called up the music store and cancelled the lessons, and my father made me take saxophone lessons. I took piano lessons a little bit before that when I was about eight, but my dad's favorite instrument was the saxophone. He rented a saxophone and got me a good teacher in Toronto, a guy named Pete Schofield. It worked out fine, because my brother's a drummer, Phil Stewart. My sister's boyfriend at the time was a drummer and he lent us a set of drums, so there were drums in the house and I got to play.
AAJ: You said when you were fourteen you really started practicing. Was there something that turned on the switch?
GS: I took a lesson with [saxophonist] Pat LaBarbera, and I played my first professional gig when I was fourteen.
AAJ: Was that with the Schofield big band?
GS: It was a New Year's Eve gig. I have a really funny picture of me in a powder-blue tuxedo jacket with braces. It's my first New Year's Eve gig and I look like Anthony Michael Hall from The Breakfast Club. Even dorkier.
AAJ: How did you get a lesson with Pat LaBarbera?
GS: Pat was around. He lives in Toronto. My father was friends with a guy that ran Humber College and my dad knows a lot of musicians around Toronto. He still plays around Toronto. He was a full-time English teacher and part-time musician. Now he's retired and he's playing better than ever.
AAJ: What was it about the lesson with Pat that changed things for you?
GS: He showed me a couple of things that just opened up improvising. Some stuff about chords and scales. I knew about arpeggios and chords and the basics of improvisation, but Pat showed me some things that got me into it a little more.
AAJ: Were you playing in a jazz band in your school?
GS: At fourteen, no. It wasn't until I was fifteen or sixteen that I started going to an arts high school and I had a quartet and quintet there.
AAJ: Were you playing in the Schofield band all that time?
GS: Yeah, I played in the Schofield band up until I was about sixteen or seventeen.
AAJ: And then you changed to small groups?
GS: Yeah, I did quartet things and sat in around Toronto.
AAJ: Were you thinking of it as a career by that point?