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Grant Stewart: The Sound of Hard Bop Today

Marta Ramon By

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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?

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