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Grant Stewart: The Sound of Hard Bop Today


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Grant Stewart is regarded as one of the most influential tenor sax players of the contemporary jazz scene. After nine formative years of intense learning and playing in his hometown of Toronto, the 19 year- old Stewart took his saxophone and bought a flight to New York. Once there, he did things his own way from day one: he decided his best bet would be to seek tutelage from musicians he liked, such as trumpter Donald Byrd, pianist Barry Harris and saxophonist Joe Lovano. He is, perhaps, a prime example of an accomplished jazz musician who never attended a formal college. Instead, he devoted his time to transcribing and to studying alone, and it wasn't long before his efforts began to pay off. Since then, he has recorded 12 records as a leader and has performed with many prominent jazz artists, among them singers Jon Hendricks and Etta Jones, and pianist Brad Mehldau.

Stewart looks comfortable with the Spanish environment, like he's right at home. Maybe it's because he was living in this country not long ago. He takes off his American jacket. He holds it from the collar and won't leave it on a chair until the sound check starts. He passes the time talking about daily stuff and making jokes about his red skin tone: the day before was his birthday, and he spent it at the beach.

The saxophonist needs just half an hour to set up everything for the concert at Jimmy Glass Jazz Bar, and then he is ready to talk. He takes his jacket again and brings it to the chosen table. He doesn't sit down on the front chair, he sits beside it. Unconsciously—and naturally—the conversation before the sound check broke the ice. This Canadian man keeps an upright position; he expresses himself without marked body language because he can make sure that you pay attention to his words simply by staring at you with his intense blue eyes that are prominent on his face, below his bushy white hair.

All About Jazz: You first got involved in music because your father was a guitar teacher.

Grant Stewart: Yes, my father was guitar teacher, and I started with music when I was a child. I started when I was 10, and I wanted to play drums, but my father wanted me to play saxophone. So he took it. [Smiles.] And my first saxophone teacher was really good, and he had me playing jazz and also classical saxophone, so I did it my own way.

AAJ: You started with alto saxophone, and then you changed to tenor. Why do almost all jazz sax players change to tenor?

GS: I don't know! [Laughs] Maybe it's because everybody likes John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins. I mean, I like the alto, you know. Sometimes I still prefer to play alto. It's fine. But maybe because of my voice the tenor is better.

Grant Stewart—Around the Corner AAJ: Are they—Coltrane and Rollins—also your main influences?

GS: You know, the musicians that I like ... Coltrane influenced me, but I'm most influenced by Sonny Rollins, Sonny Stitt, Coleman Hawkins. They are really big guys. I remember when I first came to New York City, I had a lesson with a great trombone player, Donald Byrd. He told me that he had recorded 16 or 14 records with John Coltrane, and he said it was great but that if there was a guy that he was really scared of, it was Sonny Rollins. And then he said that the bottom line is that both of them were just playing Charlie Parker. So what Charlie Parker did is what we have.

AAJ: And what other music styles do you listen to?

GS: I listen to a lot of classical music. I listen to a lot of Mahler, Brahms.

AAJ: When someone talks about you, they tend to define you in terms of the hard bop expression, nowadays. Do you agree?

GS: I think hard bop refers more like to the '60s. I mean, when I think about hard bop, I think about Horace Silver, Lee Morgan. I mean, I'm more influenced by Sonny Stitt and these guys. Kenny Dorham is hard bop, too. I don't know, I just try to play melodically, make my stuff and go along.

AAJ: Do you think that young musicians undervalue, in a certain way, traditional jazz, despite the new tendencies that emerged during the last decades?

GS: I think ... What I see happen a lot is people that go to extremes—like they are really traditional or the opposite side, very obsessed with being original. The way I look at it is that there is so much to learn. I have been listening to Charlie Parker for 31 years, and I'm still hearing new things. There is so much music out there that's new to me, and there's a lifetime to study. If you start with your goal of being to be original and not imitating anyone and just being yourself, you lose the knowledge and the wisdom of years and years of jazz. So you could have all that information in you. And nothing comes from nothing. There is nothing new under the sun; everything is influenced by things. So the best we can do is to take it. Because of that, I don't understand guys that say that they don't want to hear something because they want to do their own thing. That's foolish.

AAJ: Is there any kind of tension between musicians that just think of jazz in a traditional way and the ones that think of it in a modern one?

GS: No ... I mostly see that stuff happening between weaker players, but the good players, generally, have respect for other genres and styles. Because it's not about a style, it's about good music.

AAJ: You learned by yourself and by taking private lessons with musicians. What do you think about music schools?

GS: Well, they can be good for some things, but the best things that I learned were on records that I listened to. My answer is the recordings: transcribing and listening, working on songs. It's a very elusive thing to learn to play jazz—there is a lot of stuff that can't be taught, that can't be put to a formula. It's very elusive in that way. Sometimes the only way to learn is to have a good teacher that sits down with you to play. He leads you personally, but it's hard to teach a lot of students. For example, I can teach one person at a time. It's a very hard thing, how to teach jazz to many people at once.

AAJ: Do you think jazz schools are essentially just production lines?

GS: No, I just think that if someone is gonna be original, they are gonna be original. It's up to the individual. I know a lot of good players that went to school and other ones that came up as copies. You know, it's a very hard thing to play jazz, and some people learn it, and some people don't. It's a difficult thing to do, takes a lot of time—it's a lot of study. As I said, it's elusive. But yeah, they can be like factories because, as I said, it's very hard to teach, and the tendency is to want to put it on a formula and teach people with the formula, and that produces a kind of people that sound the same.

AAJ: So they are good for getting the control of the instrument, and then it's up to you to develop your own voice?

GS: Yes, I think so. The one thing that I have seen most is people that don't have the basic stuff done, like arpeggios, scales. I mean, when I was a kid, I learned those things, and I had them running on my head. So when I teach, what I see a lot of times is that guys don't have the basic things.

AAJ: Now, talking about you, how do you compose your music?

GS: I don't really write that much. You know, I write once in a while. Sometimes if I do a record, I write the tunes. But I don't have focused time writing because when I play, I make stuff up. I make melodies up all the time, and that's how I feel it, so because of that I don't write that much.

AAJ: Lots of musicians say that you have "the sound." How did you find it?

GS: [Laughs.] I just try to get a pretty good sound. I worked on having a big sound. Actually, I did it when somebody, when I first came to New York, made a very mean comment. It was a friend of mine, and he said that my sound was really shitty, and that really angered me. [Laughs.] And it helped me to improve my sound. And yes, there is a lot of work thinking about the sound, a lot of long tones. I mean, my favorite player is Dexter Gordon, followed by Sonny Rollins and Coleman Hawkins. So I listened to them, and I imitated them to work on my sound until I found my own voice.

AAJ: How was your tour in Spain?

GS: My tour in Spain was great: several gigs with my good friend and great pianist Fabio Miano in Valencia, Almeria, Alicante, and then the final gig was a really fun concert in Santander with a group led by Harry Allen. It's four saxophones: Harry, Eric Alexander, myself and Gary Smulyan on baritone with Dado Moroni piano, Daryl Hall bass and Mario Gonzi on drums. It was a great concert, and the audience was fantastic. I found that, despite whatever crisis is happening, people seemed to come out to listen and were really enthusiastic.

AAJ: What projects are you running nowadays?

GS: Currently, I'm doing some writing and just working around with my quartet. I have a tour of Japan next month with my group. I'm looking forward to that, and later in the summer I should be back to Europe for some stuff.

AAJ: Your last record as a leader was in 2010. Is a new album coming soon?

GS: I have a new "live" CD coming out next month on the Smalls Live record label. It's my brother Philip Stewart on drums, Tardo Hammer piano and David Wong bass. It should be out about the middle of July.

Selected Discography

Grant Stewart, Around the Corner (Sharp Nine Jazz, 2010)
Grant Stewart, Plays the Music of Duke Ellington & Strayhorn (Sharp Nine Jazz, 2009)
Grant Stewart, Young at Heart (Sharp Nine Jazz, 2008)
Grant Stewart, The Shadow of your Smile (Sharp Nine Jazz, 2007)
Grant Stewart, In the Still of the Night (Sharp Nine Jazz, 2007)
Grant Stewart, State (Video Arts Music, 2006)
Grant Stewart, Tenor and Soul (Video Arts Music, 2006)
Grant Stewart, Grant Stewart +4 (Criss Cross, 2005)

Photo Credits

Page 1: John Abbott

Page 2: Steven Sussman



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