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Ernest Stuart: One Step Ahead

Geno Thackara By

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There's something very attractive to me about the chaos. You kind of just have to go out ... [and] give new things a chance. —Ernest Stuart
It ain't exactly Rome, and it's not all roads, but many of them (especially in the jazz world) certainly seem to lead to Philadelphia. It's unavoidable for a city where the music has such deep roots (birthplace of Billie Holiday, home of John Coltrane, hangout of Dizzy Gillespie and Sun Ra among countless others), and it's certainly been the case for the omnivorously eclectic trombonist Ernest Stuart. The Temple graduate has also shuffled between New York and Indiana during his relatively young career. When I find a lunchtime slot to catch up with him, though, he's ducking out of a restaurant in central Philly—a neighborhood that keeps calling him back, not least because it's the site of the Center City Jazz Fest, which he went out on a limb to Kickstart back in 2012 and has curated for International Jazz Day each year since.

The day-long event packs a heavy musical punch, taking over five downtown venues and offering twenty different performances under one ticket price. "This festival has had a great mix of people in the audience, which is amazing and completely unintentional," he tells me, still sounding surprised and amused at how it's developed heading into its sixth year. "I just created a small festival the way I thought one should be. And the people who came just came, and they happened to be a great mix of young people and older folks and everything in between."

This idea of bringing people together is the heart of the event, after all. 2017's festival arguably hits a new level in well-known names, bringing city legends like Larry McKenna and Odean Pope on board. Stuart sounds satisfied at the cachet: "It's funny. I've been waiting so long to book Larry McKenna. There are certain guys to me that define the Philadelphia jazz sound or Philadelphia pop, like Bootsie Barnes, and Larry McKenna is definitely one of those guys. It's a pleasure having him."

More importantly, though, it's not really about presenting or publicizing the names. It's about giving adventurous players and listeners both a chance to connect and try something unexpected. There are always discoveries to be made and the excitement among the crowds is always infectious. He explains, "there's something very attractive to me about the chaos. You kind of just have to go out—you're not going to know everyone who's playing, so you have to give new things a chance. And if you're not into it, just go to a different venue. It's one day, so it's a very quick endeavor. I'm looking into either expanding the number of venues on that one day or expanding the number of days. It'll be interesting to see if I can get more people into the fold."

What, planning the whole thing isn't crazy enough? Actually, according to Stuart, "this is the first year that [the planning] doesn't feel chaotic. And, you know, that's a good thing and a bad thing. I have other things—I have something new happening in my life, so it's good to not be afraid that everything's going to fall apart. But it can be a bad thing because I always want to feel like I'm pushing and the festival's growing. I want to keep it interesting for the attendees."

Judging by the enthusiastic crowds and the fact that it's sold out more often than not in recent years, this would seem to be a needless worry. The venues are still happy to be on board, the players are delighted to be part of it, and there's a presenting sponsor in addition to the usual smaller-scale ones to help make things more feasible. If the city is lucky enough to consider such an active music scene as normal, it's precisely because of all this behind-the-scenes work to keep things going. "I'm trying to sponsor a community of folks. Not completely—it's not just my job to do it, but it's everyone's job, anyone who's presenting music. It's incumbent upon us to make sure we're showing Philadelphia jazz in a very positive light," he asserts.

From tinges of rock-ish guitar, hard bop and soul to sit-ins with Branford Marsalis or the Roots, Stuart's own musical sensibility ranges just as wide. Since his debut album Solitary Walker (Self Produced, 2011), he's gone more small-scale and flexible by concentrating more on EPs and all those wildly different gigs. One key role was playing several years with Red Baraat, an Asian-influenced Brooklyn collective that gives Indian bhangra as much weight as jazz swing. The time for another solo project of some kind has been drifting closer now that he's settling down from that crazy pace; now it's just a matter of finding the right moments.

Stuart explains, "I've actually been in Indianapolis for quite a while. I was living in New York for the better part of a year before I came back to Philly. I was still touring with [Red Baraat], based out of Brooklyn. My girl and I had been splitting our time. Now we just had a baby, so I've been sort of getting my ass kicked." However the words may sound, it's clearly said with a big smile.

In other words, it's not quite time to ask about a followup to his last EP Same Walking Animals (Self Produced, 2015) just yet. "Well, now I got this little walking animal," he laughs. "I'd been trying to figure out when to record. I have a lot of time on my hands when I'm just holding the baby and everything, and my mind doesn't slow down. I've been antsy and really excited about the idea of recording again. I've not put pen to paper just yet, but I've been collecting ideas. Normally I sing into my phone—you know, voice memos. I just sing a bunch of ideas, and after I have a mass of them, I kind of sort through them and see if there's anything good there. I'm going to see if it fleshes out. I might expand my typical sound for a moment in pursuit of something else. But we'll see what happens."

It's hard to imagine what's typical about it already, so time will have to tell what that something else might be. There's plenty going on to celebrate Jazz Appreciation Month in the meantime, including the inaugural run of the newly-formed Philadelphia Jazz Festival over a whole week leading up to the big day, so there may also be opportunities for the various events' planners to work together and help each other in the future. "That's something that's on the table. I'm having some pretty good meetings with folks from around the Philadelphia musical spectrum involved," he says.

Hopefully and with the right help, Stuart is dedicated to helping the Center City Festival continue and grow. "I'm always thinking forward," he states. "If anything, the financial hurdles are what's been holding me back. I don't know about other festivals, but this one, even at this size, it needs sponsors. And if you don't get enough sponsors, it's even harder to make everything work at the end of the day. The thing is, I also want to make sure the tickets are affordable. I always try to keep the prices low, and that's the last thing I want to change."

Thus far the numbers still work. With barely a week to go, Stuart already sounds equally tired and exhilarated. "I'm going to have a lot of work on my plate this upcoming week. I'm sure I'm going to be so exhausted after that Saturday that I'm just going to relax. After that we have some of those meetings coming up, so we'll see what happens. It'll be nice to kind of hash things out and help plan the future of jazz in Philly."

And of course, we can't get too wrapped up and forget what's really important. "I've been touring for the last six years," he continues. "So I decided to take a break from it and focus on the little guy. And the festival, of course." Once the craziness is over? Clearly the work really is never done: "Right now I'm on the business side of the spectrum. Then after this is done, I'm going to put my musician hat back on and get back to work."
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