For the last five years, Zan Stewart has been the voice of New Jersey jazz. A tenor saxophonist who occasionally plays in local clubs, Stewart, who has also written for the Los Angeles Times
, appears several times a week in the Newark Star-Ledger
, the Garden State's largest newspaper. He reviews performances in a variety of Jersey and Manhattan venues, offers comprehensive artist profiles in the paper's Friday "Ticket section, writes brief notices of upcoming gigs, and critiques recently released compact discs. Stewart's accessible style of writing features astute observations that appeal to the casual listener and avid fan alike.
AAJ contributor David A. Orthmann spoke to Stewart about the responsibilities of covering jazz for a daily newspaper.
All About Jazz: You refer to yourself as a jazz writer, as opposed to a jazz critic. What's the difference?
Zan Stewart: I don't know if there is a difference. I just never liked the idea that I'm a critic. I consider myself a jazz advocate. My main role is to expose people to the music in a way that would encourage them to participate in it.
AAJ: In an age when the print media's coverage of jazz continues to dwindle, I'm impressed with the Star-Ledger's ongoing commitment to the music. How did you go about getting the position?
ZS: I found about it through friends and applied. I came in and interviewed and got the position. Some of the major names in jazz journalism did not apply. The job also required living in New Jersey. Perhaps they didn't want that.
AAJ: Do you generate your own assignments, or does an editor suggest events to cover?
ZS: Maybe five percent come from editors, like, "This is something we ought to cover. Let's do it this way. But generally I'm coming up with all of the ideas.
AAJ: Musicians regard media coverage as part of getting gigs, or getting more lucrative gigs. Considering how many capable players are competing for so few opportunities to work, how do you go about deciding who gets profiled or reviewed?
ZS: It's a combination of what I feel is important that people need to know about, who is appearing when and where, proximity to a new recording, and locale. This is a New Jersey newspaper I write for. The focus is on New Jersey artists. I'm trying to cover a broad spectrum of the art, but I do focus on the music that I feel is the most important. Modern music that swings is the kind of music that communicates that best, I feel. I find that in looking at audiences, people have an emotional response to it, more so than the avant-garde. Pop jazz definitely has a tremendous rhythmic advantage. People can feel that beat. But it doesn't have the melodic and harmonic complexity of mainstream jazz, modern mainstream, hard bop, post hard bop, or whatever names we want to call it. To me that's the richest music out there. So that's what I focus on.
AAJ: I remember speaking to your predecessor, George Kanzler, several years ago at a concert, and paying him a compliment about an article published in the paper that very day. Without any prompting he said, "That's what I can do when I'm not under such a tight deadline. How does deadline pressure affect the way you write?
ZS: It's a drag. Deadlines are terrible, man. Having to get up on a Friday morning and write a lengthy review. These are not short reviews I write. They run somewhere between fifteen and seventeen inches, five hundred to six hundred words. Still, I think that almost every writer needs a deadline. Writing is a very challenging means of expression. It's very easy to say the wrong thing, or to not say what you mean. It's slow. It just doesn't come bursting out. I would prefer to have a couple of days to write a review, but that generally doesn't work. I would say the same thing about profiles. But I guess I've always been more of a person who wrote under close deadline than someone who wrote way ahead.
AAJ: In what ways has the necessity of continuously covering a wide range of sounds affected the way you look at the music?
ZS: I think it's been said by several people that, in different ways, you fall in love with a sound. I fell in love with the sound as a kid, and that's still the sound I love. For me, the music I heard early on was Basie, Parker, Monk, Miles, Sonny Rollins, and Coltrane. That's still the music that moves me. It's the music that has the most impact, it has tremendous creative potential, and it can be moved in many ways. To me, it has the best beat. One guy who is out here now who has a similar viewpoint, I feel, is Joe Magnarelli. I thought he was a great trumpet player when I first ran into him in the early '90s, and I still feel the same way today. He has a modern edge while also embracing the past.
AAJ: How does your activity as a working musician enhance or complement writing about the music?
ZS: I'm a musician who writes. I know a lot that people who don't play music don't know. I know what it's like to get up there on that bandstand and the hassles you might go through. It adds depth. It gives you more of a feel of what's going on, of what a person is going through to produce what they're doing. It gives me a sense of what the music is supposed to sound like, and it helps me describe it sometimes. But people who don't play can describe music just as well; they don't have to be musicians.
AAJ: When Gary Giddins left the Village Voice a few years ago, he wrote that part of the job he would miss the most was the interaction with his readers. Do you find that contact with your readers is an important part of the job?
ZS: You want to know that people are reading your stuff. I hear from some. It's nice to be read. Writing is an alone experience. Somebody will say, "Gee, I really loved your story, or "I really loved that review. So people are reading and that's great.
AAJ: Have other journalists and scholars influenced your thinking and writing about the music?
ZS: A little bit. I liked the way that Whitney Balliett wrote. Because I liked the fact that he was a poet, and his use of metaphors was fabulous. I started reading Down Beat around 1960, and I used to read it cover-to-cover. And I used to read Metronome cover-to-cover. Some of the great namesNat Hentoff, Dan Morgenstern, Ira Gitler, Leonard Featherthey were people I read. I don't know if I ever thought about directly writing like somebody. I did try to write poetically when I was writing for the LA Times, at one point trying to use a lot of metaphors. That's a difficult task because you're asking readers to make a poetic step with you, and a lot of times that's not the way it's going to be. It belongs someplace elsecertainly not in a daily newspaper.
AAJ: Do you sometimes feel the necessity to fill in gaps in your knowledge of the music by listening to artists at particular points in the jazz timeline?
ZS: Listening to music is very demanding. You have to be fully present or you're not going to hear it. I'm always listening, though I don't listen to every new CD that comes in. And I don't go to CDs for story ideas. My "Ticket piece on Friday is based on a performance within a seven-day period, Friday to the following Thursday. To tell you the truth, there's too much music out there and not enough time to listen. I know it would be good to hear more new and different things, but it's hard to do.
AAJ: Do you ever want to take a sabbatical to recharge your batteries and look at the music from a different perspective?
ZS: I would like to take a break from writing because it's demanding. As far as my perspective, there's never going to be a different one. I look at the music the same way I did when I was fifteen. Any other perspective would be extra musical. It would be about the scene, or about how people are making money or not making money. One of the things I'm asked each year at the paper is what's the best trend of the year? I don't see trends. I see people trying to play music, practicing, writing new material, trying to improve, and slowly but surely moving along. That's the way I approach it out here. It's just about somebody going out and doing their thing.
Courtesy of The Walpack Inn