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.