Q&A with Don Stewart – 2010 NJA finalist

When did you start playing jazz and why? For example, was there a ‘moment’ when it came to you as a calling or vocation?
Aaaahhhhhhh….The Beginning
My mother was a music teacher at high schools in Sydney. She was also 17 years younger than my father. When he retired, about the time I was born, Mum taught him how to play the trumpet. My old man was born in the depression, so he grew up poor. This reflected itself in the manner of broken cars, nuts, bits and bobs around the place. By the time I was kitting around on two legs, the house was full of trumpets, trombones, tubas, mellophones, a myriad of brass instruments. And Mum’s piano. I have always regretted that I didn’t learn piano to any great standard. My earliest ever memories however, are of the Australian Jazz Conventions, between Xmas and New Year each year. We would always spend Xmas day on the road to either Forbes, Adelaide, Perth, and be soaked up for the next five days in Jazz. Trad Jazz. So by the time I picked up a cornet at about 4 years old, I already knew a great number of forms, and melodies of these type of tunes. When my two younger brothers were old enough, at 4 and 6, we went busking at Circular Quay in Sydney. Whilst there, we held down a residency for about 5 years, and I got some serious endurance chops. And some more songs in my head, even if the stuff I was listening to and playing was still very basic. As entry to bars became possible, I moved to Melbourne, got gigs, but never truly entertained the idea of a full-time musician. Still haven’t. Musician rates seem to represent the opposite of inflation.

Which musicians (jazz or otherwise) have been your greatest influences? What about them stood or stands out for you?
The greatest players for me are, Louis, Cannonball and Stan. Oscar as well. Guns. Jazz guns. Then Curtis, Booker T, Gil Heron, JB and the like. Lately Bill Frisell and Withers have both been tickling my insides… but the things these guys have in common is the commitment, the she-bung-pow!!; to pull something off, state it like it’s the truth, and bam–make you believe it. They ain’t all the choppiest dudes, and don’t have the most interesting lines or anything, but the inside line that they take always seems to be the smoothest, cleanest and least-troublesome way to get from “how ya feelin’ brother?” to “that’s a swell moustache man”.

When composing or arranging, where do you get your inspiration?

Composers and arranging… I’m a sob story there. Coulda been great. Ears like a hawk. Great face for radio. Unfortunately due to my limited knowledge of fundamentals of music theory verses my functional ability to play a tune in a key, and not understand either, I have never been much of a reader or arranger. Could do if pushed, but limited. However Stan Kenton and the like lay out some seriously full chords, and that is one of the sneaky feats of the trombone. Having no sharp zing to your tone allows you to fill up the chord with bone. Positively drench the thing in bone harmonics, and it’ll sound great. People will twist their necks trying to hear better and comprehend. But that feeling is what I get with the late arrangers, Gil Evans; I mean have a listen, actually have a listen to the individualism of Gil, and forget about soloing. That texture and depth create a brand new rainforest with showmanship not necessary. Obviously The Count, The Duke and The Riddle deserve a mention here, as they all were masters of seriously tangled up wonderful chords. Bartok too, was a gem.

What’s your favourite place to play or practise?
On my favourite place to play or practise… I had the pleasure of sharing the stage a few times with the late great Jeff Healey, who was blind. The guy had some seriously good ideas, but could have done with a little more ‘practice in the mirror’. Generally my favourite place to play is standing up on a stage, at a joint where I am getting paid. I do some loud gigs that actually require ear plugs (young-ins; I know they’re not cool, but they protect you and make later life reasonable) but tend to shun them bigguns as well as shun the little non-talking jazz clubs. I suppose the music I have always played and liked reflects that it is an audience based music rather than of jazz aficionado taste. Therefore, I tend to enjoy playing in Beer Gardens and the like. There are a few good-uns around Melbourne, but they’re becoming less and less, as bands don’t tend to be profitable anymore. (Parliament isn’t profitable but we still have it.) This would seem to be because people are going out less and less, and there was a time when music was exciting. These days, it’s passé, and a band on the next block will play for nothin’ if you don’t like it. It’s a shame, but seems within the nature of a such a wonderful career or hobby as music. I also like playing in the bathroom as your tone rolls around the room like aural liquid sherbet even at the softest of volumes. Regarding all that I have stated above about musician rates and such, I too would probably rather do a stress-free gig for fifty or sixty bucks than get out the horn at home and take on Mr Arban or Aebersold. Or iJazz.

What does Wangaratta Jazz represent for you?
Wang Jazz and what it represents? Sore head. Jazz Alley Motel. My shout again? I’ve got nasty scars from a shopping trolley accident a few years ago. I’ve slept in the park before. I’ve borrowed a battery out of a parked car behind the Pinsent in order to start my own once. Me and Stephen Grant, both sleeping in my car. You learn from the older pro’s there. They’ve got fridges and eskies and bikkies with cheese. And cars that got there. I always enjoy Wang, and have had the pleasure of attending a few over the years. It’s a credit to AJ and the team of helpers that the fest goes on. There are a multitude of dead or dying small town Jazz Festivals out there, and Wang seems to be nearly the only one on the up and up. The rider is never enough though.

What are you listening to now?
The stuff i got on my radio right now is… A pretty mixed bag of not much. Seriously digging some 70?s Nigerian funk. Gil Scott Heron’s new album is something else. Still catchin’ up with LP’s I got hanging around. Too much beautiful stuff out there. Remember when a serious stack of LP’s was something to be proud of? Even a wall of CD’s demanded a few moments of respect. These days it’s too easy to download swap copy etc all musics, and so it seems folk less and less get to the bottom of records they’ve owned for ten years. One mate still collects and plays (and preaches the goodness of) 78?s. Try carrying an hour’s load of those to a party. And getting people to listen. It’s too easy for everybody to just skip to the next track now and let the wallpaper effect wash over them. But I’m still preaching the good stuff. Rahsaan, Miles, Yusef Lateef, Ahmad Jamal, those dudes who were always listenin, feelin, groovin, and smilin’ while drivin’ that rhythm train. Oh yeah, and rhythm’s pretty important too,

Return to the main Q&A page… These annual Q&As with National Jazz Awards finalists are coordinated by Miriam Zolin.