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Grant Stewart: From Smalls To The Big Time

By Published: June 5, 2007

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" Waller—it 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?

GS: By that point, I was. I was a goalie in hockey when I was young. That was one of my aspirations until I turned fourteen years old and the kids started to weigh two hundred pounds. Pucks being shot at you at two hundred miles per hour wasn't as fun as it was when the kids were a little smaller. So I thought there was more of a future in music.

AAJ: Did your folks think music was a good career choice?

GS: Yeah, my folks were 100% behind me. [They gave me] a lot of support. They let me get away with a lot of stuff. I used to cut a lot of school to practice. Then I'd sometimes cut school and not practice. In retrospect, if I was my own parent I would have whupped my butt, but they were very good.

AAJ: What was the next logical career move after high school?

GS: I thought that if I got a scholarship to Berklee [College of Music in Boston], I would go to Berklee. But I ended up getting a Canada Council grant and I moved down to study and live in New York after high school.

AAJ: A Canada Council grant is...

GS: They give you a chunk of money that pays for your rent and lessons and expenses. It was great.

AAJ: And you studied with some cool people.

GS: I went to the [pianist] Barry Harris class for a year or so. I took some lessons with [trumpeter] Donald Byrd, which was interesting.

AAJ: Why?

GS: He said some stuff that really made it clear to me how important Charlie Parker was.

Before I moved to New York, I was hanging out a lot with [saxophonist] Bob Mover, and he really helped me out a lot. I never took an official lesson from him, but I'd call him up and say, "What changes do you play over the last few bars of 'Lush Life'?" And he'd say, "You do this and this and this—why don't you just come over?" And I'd go over to his house and hang out until 6 in the morning, just playing and listening to tapes and talking about music. He lives in New York now, so I see him every so often.

I also took a couple lessons with different people—Joe Lovano, George Coleman. But mainly it was just shedding and going to the Barry Harris class and different sessions.

AAJ: What happens at the Barry Harris class?

GS: He has a class every Tuesday night in midtown [Manhattan]. He has a whole system that he teaches. It was great to watch his mind work. He's like the Yoda of the jazz world. He's a genius.

AAJ: So what was the importance of Charlie Parker that you got from Donald Byrd?

GS: He said that [saxophonists] Trane [John Coltrane] and Sonny [Rollins] and Sonny Stitt—everybody after [Charlie] Bird [Parker] was just playing Bird. They may sound a little different but all their stuff is Bird-derived.

AAJ: Do you think that's the case?

GS: Yeah, I do.

AAJ: How do you see yourself in that lineage?

GS: I don't. [laughs] I still listen to Bird. Every time I go back to it, I hear something new. He's a genius, and every time you go back your ears open up and grow.

AAJ: The list of people with whom you've performed is long and impressive. How did you first open doors for yourself when you got to New York?

GS: It's not like I've had a stellar career for sixteen years since I moved down there. There were a lot of lean years. When I first moved down, my roommate was going to The New School, which was great, because I would go to The New School and practice and hang out. They thought I went there for the first six months, then they got hip to the fact that I wasn't paying any tuition, and they asked me not to practice there. But I got to meet [guitarist] Peter Bernstein, [pianist] Brad Mehldau, [organist] Larry Goldings, [saxophonist] Jesse Davis. There were a lot of great young players there at the same time. I made a lot of friends there. I'd end up playing with them. It was a good decade to be around there.

AAJ: Was there a moment for you—a particular phone call or gig—that opened some doors for you?

GS: It's just been accumulation. I mean, I was very fortunate to get called by [drummer] Jimmy Cobb to play with his group, and [trombonist] Al Grey.

AAJ: How did you get the gig with Al Grey?

GS: I got that gig through [drummer] Bobby Durham, and Joe Cohn had been the guitarist with Al Grey for a long time, but it was Bobby who got me on the gig. It was great. I wish Al was still alive because I was just starting to work with him. I think Joe had worked for him for about fourteen years, and Bobby had worked with him for about thirty. I mean, [Al] had been there—he'd worked with [big band leader Count] Basie and everyone.

And he was a hard-ass. He was really old school. If he didn't like something, he'd let you know on the spot. It was intimidating, but it was good. If he didn't like what you were doing—if you were trading with the drums and went a beat over on your fours—he'd be screaming, "Get out of there! Get out of there!" But he'd also let you know when you played well. He was cool to me. It was a great experience.

AAJ: And there aren't many guys still around with that depth of experience.

GS: Yeah. [Trumpeter] Clark Terry. I was very lucky to get to hang with Al.

AAJ: Did you get to hear some good stories?

GS: He had some good stories. The best one I'll tell you later. [laughs] I don't want to work blue.

AAJ: Talk about recording your first album.

GS: The first album as a leader was for Criss Cross [Downtown Sounds (Criss Cross, 1992)] with [trumpeter] Joe Magnarelli and Brad Mehldau and [drummer] Kenny and [bassist] Peter Washington. It came from a steady gig I had with the drummer Johnny Ellis at a place called the S T Bar. This was probably in 1991. It was down in Alphabet City [in Manhattan] on 11th St. between B and C, which back then was a seriously bad neighborhood. A lot of drugs. It was kind of scary. But we had a regular Thursday night gig there, and it became the hang. It was one of those magic gigs where for a year or so it was a really good gig and everybody would come and hang out.

Peter Bernstein recommended me to [Criss Cross founder] Gerry Teekens, and I sent Gerry a tape. He liked it and called me up and we did a record. I was like twenty-one or something. I think back now and think, "yeesh." It was great for me and I'm grateful to have done it, but I had to listen to a bit of it lately—and I was really young.

AAJ: What was it like stepping into the studio for the first time?

GS: It was cool, because I knew Brad and he was a friend of mine. And Joe was on the gig, too, at the S T Bar. It was fun.

AAJ: Over the years, you've recorded a number of albums including your new one, In The Still Of The Night. It has Peter Washington and [drummer] Joe Farnsworth and [pianist] Tardo Hammer. Talk about this record.

GS: It's a date I did last October. It's my first date for Sharp Nine Records. The recording quality is great on it—Systems Two [recording studio] did a great job. Joe Marciano engineered it. You can't really go wrong with Tardo Hammer and Joe Farnsworth and P-Wash. It was a relaxed date.

AAJ: Are any of these guys the regular Smalls gig that you do?

GS: No, but I work with Tardo in different groups.

AAJ: Tell us about the Smalls gig.

GS: I'm there every Tuesday night with Joe Cohn on guitar, who is unbelievable. He's just a fantastic guitarist. My brother, Philip Stewart, is on drums. He's not just my brother but he's one of my favorite drummers. Ehud Asherie, a great young pianist, and Joel Forbes, a bassist with a huge sound.

AAJ: Smalls is a real "musicians' club," right? A lot of your colleagues are in the audience.

GS: Yeah, a lot of the guys come down and hang.

AAJ: How did you get that gig?

GS: I got a call—I can't remember what year, I think it opened in 1994. I got a call from a friend of mine, a guitarist. He called me and said, "I just me this guy and I'm booking the music at his club." He gave me all these dates and told me to come down and meet him. So I went down to the club. It hadn't even opened yet. It was Mitch Borden, the owner, putting up all the stuff on the walls. I just started working there.

When they opened up it was $10 to get in and they had free beer and wine. [laughs] It was open all night and they had free beer and wine for $10. And the cops put an end to that because he didn't have a liquor license so you can't even give it away. I guess if you're charging a cover you're not technically giving it away.

So then they had free food. Free rice and beans. I love Mitch, but he comes up with some crazy ideas. It was a great hang. It was open until eight in the morning. There's an early show then a middle show then a jam session.

AAJ: What does a regular gig like that do for you musically?

GS: It's just great to have a steady gig. It's great to be with your own band and go in and build up repertoire and work out. And it's great to have a place where you're always at.

Selected Discography

Grant Stewart, In The Still Of The Night (Sharp Nine, 2007)
Reeds and Deeds (Grant Stewart & Eric Alexander), Cookin' (Criss Cross, 2006)
Grant Stewart, Estate (Video Arts Music, 2006)
Grant Stewart, Tenor And Soul (Video Arts Music, 2006)
Grant Stewart,
Grant Stewart +4 (Criss Cross, 2005)
Sasha Loukachine Quintet with Clark Terry, Stars Fell On Alabama (Alexandre Loukachine, 2005)
Reeds and Deeds (Grant Stewart & Eric Alexander), Wailin' (Criss Cross, 2005)
Grant Stewart, Buen Rollo (Fresh Sound New Talent, 1999)
Grant Stewart, More Urban Tones (Criss Cross, 1996)
Grant Stewart, Downtown Sounds(Criss Cross, 1992)

Photo Credit
Courtesy of Grant Stewart

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