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Bob Stewart: Brassy Bass Lines

By Published: October 9, 2008
AAJ: So the gig with Arthur Blythe got you into the small group thing: walking, playing bass lines?

BS: Exactly. Through Dixieland, I had a consciousness of chord changes and how to move through them, but I had to figure out a whole other approach, particularly because Arthur wasn't playing standards. I couldn't approach it the way some other bassist had been doing it all along. All his tunes were his own, so I couldn't even listen to anyone else do it. I had to figure out how to play them myself.

AAJ: And you were working with Lester Bowie at that time?

BS: Lester first called me to do an overdub for an Art Ensemble recording. He must have heard me with Blythe. Actually, way back in 1971 we played in a brass band led by Bill Lee, Spike Lee's father, called The Brass Company. It featured Billy Higgins, Clifford Jordan and Bill Lee on bass. That was one of the first brass groups I ever played with. In '84, Lester put Brass Fantasy together. We did our first tour, and while we were over there, we recorded an album for ECM—I Only Have Eyes for You (1985). And from then on, we did lots of touring, right up until the time he passed away.

AAJ: And you've been teaching that music to brass students in Europe as part of your Blow Up clinic this summer?

BS: That's correct; over in Austria. It's been fantastic. I was playing a duo gig with Blythe a few years ago and the gentleman there asked me about running a brass clinic. I said, "No problem." I suggested that we do the clinic through the music of Brass Fantasy. This is my second time doing it and we decided to make it a full week of brass clinic stuff and created a small and large ensemble to play Brass Fantasy music. We had a big concert at the end of the week.

AAJ: Did you come from a classical background?

BS: I went to classical school [Philadelphia College of the Performing Arts], but they never invited me in particularly. To give you an idea, you weren't even allowed to practice jazz in the practice rooms back then. In fact, we had what was called a "performance hour" where groups would play, and one day a trio got up and played a jazz piece. When they began, the head of the school stood at the back and set off the fire alarm. That tells you something.

AAJ: You've been a part of the academic world as a teacher for over 20 years.

BS: A lot more than that, actually. That's the thing about New York. You see, I was determined to play, but at the same time I had to make a living. I was teaching in Philadelphia at the same time I was playing, driving back and forth to New York. I would drive in on Thursdays to make Howard's tuba ensemble (Sub-Structures, which is now called Gravity), go back to teach in Philly on Friday, drive back to play at Father's Mustache on Saturday, hang out with Howard on Sunday, go over to Slugs, then get back in the car. I did that for the whole winter of '67 and spring of '68 before moving up to New York. I was just determined to play. I was teaching public school and playing with Sam Rivers and Gil. I was on the road with Gil and Carla Bley while I was still teaching.

AAJ: You were in an interesting position, because you entered the scene at a time when there were declining opportunities for musicians, but you were playing the tuba. That could be seen as a kind of advantage—jazz was declining in popularity, but the tuba was beginning to gain acceptance.

BS: Well, maybe I was just stupid, or too innocent to know better, but I didn't really know that jazz was failing. I had a lot of opportunities. Right at the time I entered the scene, the loft jazz movement was starting, though we didn't call it that at the time. That type of thing doesn't exist now—for a young player to be able to experiment and to find out how to be a tuba bassist and have the experiences needed to figure it out. So I didn't know that jazz was failing; from what I saw, it was thriving.

Selected Discography

Bob Stewart/Ray Anderson, Heavy Metal Duo (self-released, 2004)

Arthur Blythe, Night Song (Clarity, 1997)

Bob Stewart, Goin' Home (JMT-Winter & Winter, 1988)

Lester Bowie's Brass Fantasy, I Only Have Eyes For You (ECM, 1985)

McCoy Tyner, 13th House (Milestone-OJC, 1981)

Arthur Blythe, Metamorphosis/The Grip—In Concert (live) (India Navigation, 1977)

Photo Credits

Top Photo: Juan-Carlos Hernandez

Bottom Photo: Carolyn Appel, courtesy of Bob Stewart

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