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Zan Stewart

Zan Stewart Bio by Lyn Alexander
In 2009, when he was 65, Zan Stewart felt it was time for a major life change.
He decided to leave daily journalism – where he had worked as a jazz writer for close to 30 years at The Los Angeles Times and the Newark Star-Ledger – to focus on music.
“It felt like it was time to see what might happen if I devoted myself to the horn, to writing music, and to teaching, seeing where they might take me,” says Stewart, a student clarinetist at age six and a tenor saxophonist since 1966. “I had done a ton of writing – around 2000 profiles plus many more reviews and other short pieces. I had contributed to the music that way, and now I wanted to explore another avenue.”
And so he has. The multi-talented Stewart – who has also written for Down Beat, among other music magazines, and has penned liner notes to over 200 albums and multi-CD sets, earning a prestigious ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award in the process – has moved to Richmond Annex in San Francisco’s East Bay after a 9-year-stretch in West Orange, N.J., and set up shop.
“My days are centered around practicing, writing music, and developing other aspects of my musical career,” says the saxophonist. “It feels great.”
Since arriving in Berkeley in 2011, Stewart has been an active participant in the Bay Area’s jazz scene, sitting in at various jam sessions and fronting quartet performances at such rooms as Duende in Oakland, and the Firehouse Gallery and Nick’s Lounge in Berkeley. The band, whose members are absolutely top drawer, features two bebop-to-modern masters – drummer Ron Marabuto and pianist Keith Saunders– and the on-the-rise bass ace Adam Gay. The leader is featured on saxophone, and also offers microphone commentary.
The band has recently completed its first CD, The Street Is Making Music, which was released in late March. “We mix it up on the album, playing hip songs from the jazz repertoire along with my originals,” says Stewart, whose jazz heroes include Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, Hank Mobley, and Thelonious Monk, to name just four.
In playing gems from jazz’s past, like Parker’s “Diverse” and Bud Powell’s “Webb City,” Stewart feels he is helping to keep a deep music alive.
“These songs may have been written in the 1940s, but when played with vigor and punch, as is our style, they have a contemporary aspect, because they are being played in the present, not the past,” he says.
“In this context, the idea – currently in vogue among many artists and writers – that playing older music is simply a voyage in sentimentality is absurd,” Stewart goes on. “What’s important is whether the music has life, not what era it comes from. That’s also why classic standards can be so vital and engaging, both for players and listeners, when they are played with emotional heft.”
Stewart’s originals are often upbeat tunes with potent rhythmic feels. “I try to write listenable tunes with good melodies and interesting, varied rhythms that the players can dig into and which listeners can enjoy,” he says.
Stewart’s passion for jazz has been at the center of his life since he was about 15 and fell in love with the music. That love led to many fruitful bandstand experiences as a saxophonist, and to that long run as a writer.
“I have been very lucky,” says Stewart, who was born March 29, 1944 in Los Angeles, Ca. into a particularly fertile artistic environment. “I’ve been able to express myself both as a musician and a writer, and have made my living in and around this music I love.”
In the course of his life, Stewart has encountered a wealth of creative people whose work made an impact, some of whom he interviewed and wrote about. “These men and women expressed their inner feelings through artistic action, setting an example which played a major role in shaping my life,” he states. “When the musicians I interviewed spoke about their lives and how they approached music, I felt like I was taking a lesson as well as getting a story.”
As a budding professional journalist, Stewart, who has a BA from the University of California Santa Barbara, first wrote for the Santa Barbara News & Review (1975-1977), then the L.A. Weekly (from 1979 to the mid-1990s). He subsequently wrote for the Times (1980-2000), the Star-Ledger (2002-2010), Down Beat (from the 1980s onward) and other publications.
His liner notes cover such top musicians as Sonny Rollins, Sonny Stitt, Horace Silver, Joe Henderson, and Eric Dolphy.
For the 9-CD Dolphy box – Eric Dolphy: The Complete Prestige Recordings (1995) – Stewart’s biographical essay, “Out There: The Angelic Passion of Eric Dolphy,” earned him a prestigious ASCAP–Deems Taylor Award. He was also awarded the Los Angeles Jazz Society’s Leonard Feather Jazz Communicator Award in 1994, which included a Certificate of Commendation from the City of Los Angeles.
From 1972 to 1982, Stewart was also heard on the radio, playing jazz on such FM stations as KBCA, Los Angeles’ lone commercial jazz radio outlet, KCRW, KCSB, and KTMS. “That was enjoyable, exposing music that I enjoyed, and hearing from listeners how I improved their days,” he notes.
As a musician, Stewart has previously fronted bands that boasted such other fine artists as pianist Tardo Hammer, trumpeter Joe Magnarelli, guitarist Bob DeVos, bassists Paul Gill and Mike Karn, and drummers Gary Frommer, Clarence Johnston, Steve Johns, and Tony Reedus.
The saxophonist has also shared bandstands in spontaneous situations with such notables as saxophonists Gary Bartz, Art Pepper, and Joe Lovano, guitarists Dave Stryker and Peter Bernstein, pianists Albert Dailey and Mike LeDonne; and drummers Jimmy Cobb, Brian Blade, and Billy Drummond.
“As fortunate as I have been to have written about so many great musicians, I have been equally blessed to have been on bandstands with scores of ace jazz artists who showed me first hand what playing jazz was all about,” relates Stewart.
Stewart considers himself a bebop-based modern artist who tries to follow Charlie Parker’s conceit: to play clean lines and to look for the pretty notes. “My heroes played beautiful music that had a ton of energy,” he says. “That’s what I try to do.”
Tone is an essential element of Stewart’s oeuvre. “I was fortunate to study briefly with saxophonists Victor Morosco, Lew Tabackin, and Grant Stewart, and extensively with Charles Oreña, all of whom stressed getting a full, rich sound out of the instrument,” he reports. “Following their advice, I think I have ended up with a nice, weighty sound that is my own.”
Stewart’s performances include a degree of mike patter. “I feel it’s important to communicate verbally with your audience, make the listeners really a part of the goings-on,” he says.
Since arriving in the Bay Area – where Stewart previously lived in 1966-67 (in the Haight-Asbury) and 1971-72 – he’s found a very fertile community with scores of fine players.
“There’s a strong sense of creativity in the air, and musicians have good opportunities for self-expression,” he says. “I look forward to seeing what direction not only my music will take me, but also my writing, as I have a book or two in mind. It’s an exciting time in my life.”