Interview: Al Stewart (Part 4)
By the mid-1950s, trumpeter Al Stewart was appearing as a sideman on a growing number of top big band dates and recordings. With the rise of the 12-inch jazz LP in 1956, album production ramped up as the larger format required more music per disc than had appeared on the smaller 10-inch LP releases. The change in disc size also meant longer, more complex arrangements, which in turn boosted demand for musicians who could read and play parts perfectly the first time around. Between 1956 and 1958, Al played and recorded steadily with a range of top East Coast bands, building his reputation with arrangers, contractors and producers. [Photo of Al Stewart with Quincy Jones in 2008 by Tandy Stewart; courtesy of Al Stewart]
In Part 4 of my interview series with Al, the big band trumpeter talks about his ongoing friendship with Louis Armstrong and playing in the trumpet sections of three top bands in the late 1950s led by Dizzy Gillespie, Maynard Ferguson and Johnny Richards:
JazzWax: Did you ever go out to Louis Armstrong's house in the Corona section of Queens, N.Y.?
Al Stewart: Yes. In the late 1950s, when Louis played New York's Basin Street East. I was working at the Paramount Theater with a band. After the show, I went over to hear Louis play and hang out at the club. While there I ran into [trumpeter] Bobby Hackett and [pianist] Lou Stein. We stayed until the club closed. Then Louis invited all of us out to his house [pictured].
JW: What did you do when you arrived?
AS: We went upstairs to Louis' den. One wall was completely covered with trophies and awards. On a econd wall was all of Louis' recordings and stereo equipment, which played constantly. On another wall, framed letters were hanging from famous fans all over the world, including kings and queens. On the fourth wall were different newspaper and magazine articles and photos of jazz musicians. But these weren't just clippings. Louis had added mischievous comments to them. It was purely playful.
JW: Like what?
AS: Let's say there was one of Ella [Fitzgerald]. The clip's headline might say that Ella was appearing nightly at some club in New York. Louis would add words to the clip in pen, like, "I knew her when she could sing." Stuff like that [laughs]. There was no malice there. Louis didn't have a mean bone in his body. This was just fun, one musician needling another.
JW: What was on the ceiling?
AS: A photo of Louis and [cornetist] Muggsy Spanier [pictured]. In the picture they're both completely stoned, looking down on the whole scene in the den [laughs].
JW: When did you leave Louis' place?
AS: Just as dawn was just breaking. When we all went downstairs to leave, the door leading to the outside was at the end of this 30-foot living room. But before we reached the door, Louis said, "Hold on you cats, I want you to dig this." The room was dark, but when Louis flipped the switch, a light illuminated a mural that covered an entire wall on the far end. An artist had painted it for him.
JW: What did the mural depict?
AS: Duffy Square [located at the northern triangle of Times Square at 47th St.]. The perspective was as if your back were against the old Latin Quarter nightclub looking south. The scene was a rainy night, so there were lights reflecting in the gutters. You saw the Astor Hotel on the Broadway side and the Lowe's State theater marquee on the 7th Ave. side. And people were walking across the street. [Photo of Times Square by Andreas Feininger for Life]
JW: What did you guys say?
AS: Nothing. There was dead silence. We were astonished and were taking it all in. After a little silence, Louis said, "Sometimes I get so high I see somebody I know walk by" [roaring laughter].
JW: In 1956 you played in the band Dizzy Gillespie formed for the U.S. State Department tours.
AS: Yes. I never recorded or traveled with them, though. I just played Storyville in Boston and Birdland in New York with the band. E.V. Perry, the lead player, left the band, and Diz asked me to take his spot at Birdland. [Photo: Dizzy Gillespie's band in 1956 at Birdland. From left (visible): trumpeters Lee Morgan, Al Stewart, Dizzy Gillespie; saxophonists Phil Woods, Jimmy Powell, Benny Golson and Marty Flax; trombonists Bill Elton and Rod Levitt; drums: Charlie Persip. Courtesy of Al Stewart; click to enlarge]
JW: How were your interactions with Gillespie?
AS: Great. The trumpet section was Lee Morgan, me, Carl Warwick and Burt Collins. The saxes were Phil Woods, Jimmy Powell, Benny Golson [pictured], Billy Mitchell and Marty Flax. The trombones were Melba Liston, Bill Elton and Rod Levitt. The rhythm section had Wynton Kelly on piano, Paul Chambers on bass and Charlie Persip on drums. Every night we opened with Ernie Wilkins' arrangement of Walkin'. A great way to start the evening.