My Son The Musician
The Gift Of Talent
Ruth Ramona Stewart
The Gift of Music
Jimmy’s love and responsiveness to music was evident almost from infancy. His small body would sway in rhythm and arms swing like a musical director from the platform of his Taylor Tot.
My own love of music and career as a vocalist made me aware of the talent and my desire to direct him into this field to his greatest benefit became my greatest priority.
As soon as feasible, he took piano lessons. His teacher was delighted, but Jimmy’s heart seemed to be searching for some other means of expressing himself. When he was six, someone gave me a very inexpensive guitar they were no longer interested in and the love affair between Jimmy and the guitar began. They became inseparable.
Although the guitar or like instrument have a long history, in the forties, the acceptance of the guitar in the mainstream of current music was very limited. Even in the early fifties, the guitar was rarely used except to augment the rhythm section. Only Western music used it for accompanying singers.
My musician friends tried to discourage me in my search to find a teacher of guitar. “Have him learn saxophone,” they chided, “guitar is an ‘off’ instrument.” But I persisted. I bought self-help books and I believe there was a Mel Bay among them. Jimmy spent long hours working with these books practicing, learning to read simple notes and chords.
One evening, I met Kenny Burke and his trio. After his performance, I approached him about teaching my son to play guitar as he did. Although not enthusiastic about it, he agreed and Jimmy received his first formal instruction. In lieu of a lesson one day, Burke instead took Jimmy to the Musicians’ Union where he was tested for his musicianship and accepted into their professional ranks. I believe Burke taught Jimmy as much as he knew, and then referred him to Paul Miller, an experienced studio man in San Francisco, who played banjo, mandolin and guitar. He taught Jimmy all of these instruments. At age 16, Jimmy was invited to play with Earl (Fatha) Hines. Mid-way through the set, Hines pointed to him and said “Solo.” After the set, Hines said, “You play good, son. From now on, you stand up when you solo.”
Jimmy’s love and appreciation for the guitar grew constantly. I had always enjoyed listening to guitar music myself and had recordings which stimulated his interest. Belgian guitarist Django Reinhardt and classical masters like Vincent Gomez and Segovia. He was impressed, fascinated and challenged by their skill. We bought him a Kay guitar on the promise that he would practice. This he did. He listened and experimented with every type of guitar music of the time; classical, country-western and modern. His heroes were Laurindo Almeida, Alvino Rey, George Barnes and Rusty Draper. In western, there were Tex Williams, Merle Travis and others. He haunted music stores for the latest books and records.
As he became more proficient, I used him as an accompanist. The guitar has much to offer the vocalist. It caresses and compliments the voice as no other instrument does. It never competes or overpowers the singer but augments the most delicate of tones.
In high school, his talent was recognized immediately, but since the guitar could not be used in the orchestra, he tried for other instruments. He learned to play bassoon, baritone horn, tuba and violin. One teacher recognizing his ability, taught him to write for all instruments, how to orchestrate dance band music and even how to write for marching bands. From this training he began to write arrangements for himself and small groups. He played with one group in Tahoe at fifteen years of age. Then he joined a group at the Russian River (Rio Nido), a resort area above San Francisco, and played there every summer until college.
During these formative years, Jimmy met some of the influential shapers of the music of the day when they played in the area, such names as Tito Puente, Harry James and Machito, and all their sidemen. He would hang out with them after they finished playing, and his love of music and youthful enthusiasm opened their hearts to him. He took lessons from some of the arrangers.
In San Mateo College the music department again recognized Jimmy’s talent but did not quite know what to do with him. They established a dance band program; one of the first of its kind in the country. The director had been an arranger for Les Brown in Hollywood. He was much impressed with Jimmy’s abilities and even advised him to go to Southern California if possible where his talents would have the exposure they needed. Meantime, Jimmy had been offered a scholarship to Redlands University to study classical guitar. He chose the dance band program for he felt it would develop his writing skills.
From college, he went on the road. At nineteen or twenty, he was musical director and arranger for singer/actress Ginny Simms. He was still collaborating with her on her return to Hollywood as well as doing some studio work when he was drafted into the army. During this period he studied with George Smith, a noted guitarist of the day. An article about him in the Army Times caused him to be transferred from Post of Regimental Band Leader into Public Information Office where he was put to work on Variety shows, writing and playing commercials for the Army as well as composing a story and music for a regular radio show called “At Ease”. Stationed in Chicago for his full Army term, he attended Chicago School of Music for classical guitar.
After Elvis Presley’s appearance on the entertainment scene, the guitar exploded into popularity. As the popularity of the instrument increased, so did Jimmy’s knowledge and expertise.
On discharge from the Army, he returned to his home in San Francisco. He became house guitarist at the Hungry I. While there, he accompanied a new singer, Barbara Streisand, on a live recording. He was also busy with recording assignments, as well as putting in five years as staff fretted instrumentalist with the San Francisco Civic Light Opera performing in such hit shows as “How To Succeed In Business,” “No Strings,” “Funny Girl,” “Bye Bye, Birdie” and “West Side Story”.
During this period, he also appeared with the San Francisco Symphony. A modern symphony was presented by a young New York composer. Jimmy rewrote the guitar parts for him to better suit the instrument. The composer was so impressed with Jimmy’s work that he invited him to go on to Hollywood with him.
While house guitarist at the Hungry I, Jimmy had his first meeting with fellow guitarist, Gabor Szabo. He was fascinated with Szabo’s playing and they became friends. It was not until later that they became involved musically in Reno under the guidance of Gabor’s manager. The blend of Jimmy’s classical guitar and Gabor’s unique electric sound were pure magic. This magical sound has been preserved in a series of fine recordings by Impulse Records.
Back in Los Angeles, he gave up lucrative studio work, and musical directing to go on tour with Gabor and became known on the jazz scene. During this period, he played at the Newport Jazz Festival on the East Coast and the Monterey Jazz Festival on the West Coast.
After the Gabor Szabo Group broke up, Jimmy appeared as conductor and arranger for Chita Rivera on the Merv Griffin and Mike Douglas Shows. He also shared the spotlight with her in her night club act on tour. This exposure opened other doors and he came to be in demand. His quality of accompaniment as well as his knowledge of directing, arrangement and composition made him most desirable for featured singers. He was musical director for Andy Williams on tour and Lannie Kazan and had special assignments with such notables as Peggy Lee, and Perry Como. He traveled throughout the United States, Puerto Rico, Australia and Canada.
Tired of traveling, he returned to Los Angeles and started his own group and opened at Dante’s in North Hollywood. He was getting more calls for plum studio jobs and worked on an off with such names as Henry Mancini, Rod McKuen, and Ray Charles.
After establishing himself in the jazz guitar, Jimmy turned his attention to the rock guitar. Earlier while traveling he had performed on the same bill as Jimi Hendrix and Jefferson Airplane. The challenge was too great he had to learn the rock licks. Most studio guitarists at the time were proficient in jazz but found rock a little disconcerting. Jimmy’s jazz following who came to hear him thought he had lost his mind when they heard him play hard rock, but soon he was sought after in this field as well.
While establishing himself in all phases of performance of the guitar, Jimmy was exploring the area of music education books. Still in San Francisco in his early twenties, he edited Wes Montgomery’s “Jazz Guitar Method.” Wes was a totally self-taught musician and could not transcribe each solo from recordings. Jimmy’s faithful interpretations preserved these eloquent works for all time. His meticulous detail in this work brought Jimmy to the attention of other publishing companies. He did some books for Gwyn Publishing Company for the electric bass. He collaborated with another guitarist Howard Roberts, and the resulting “This is Howard Roberts” was published by Playback.
Guitar Magazine ran the feature, “Jimmy Stewart, Sessions Man” invited him to write for them, which he did for ten years. Another book “A Tribute to Classical Guitar” published by Guitar Player Books contains original compositions that interpret and project the style of each artist mentioned. His book “Lead Rock Guitar,” available through Dick Grove Publications was one of the first of its kind.
Although he had never envisioned himself as a teacher, Jimmy became interested in academia. He joined the staff of Dick Grove’s Music Workshop, catering to the professionals. One of his students was Linda Ronstadt and the guitarist with the Bay City Rollers.
His skill as a teacher earned him an opportunity to teach at the University of Southern California where he handled some eighteen hours of classical as well as modern guitar classes per week.
I do not have the background to describe his collection of instruments and accompanying gadgetry. There are some twenty-five of them. Some have been custom built for him and some are gifts from fellow artists. They allow him a tremendous variety of sounds and effects.
Over the past few years, Jimmy’s interest in the recording process reemerged. The recordings in his books are the result of his workmanship, and this activity spawned the opportunity to write for a recording magazine (Recording Engineer Producer Magazine) with articles about Quincy Jones and other producing artists.
Although his accomplishments have been extensive, I feel Jimmy’s potential has not yet been realized. He seems always to be reaching for something new and exciting. His classical study makes him want to do more in the classical field; perhaps a symphony. His contemporary background urges him into modern composition such as writing for feature film. I hope he realizes his dreams.
The gift of talented creativity is a wondrous one, for it not only lives the lifetime of its possessor, but the creative results may live forever.
Ruth Ramona Stewart (circa 1987)
[Ruth Ramona Stewart passed away in 1988, shortly after writing this piece to be used as an introduction to one of Jimmy Stewart’s guitar instruction books.]