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Grant Stewart: From Smalls To The Big Time

By Published: June 5, 2007

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.

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Download jazz mp3 “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” by Grant Stewart