Guitarist Jimmy Stewart remembers coming into Birmingham, Alabama by train, then taking the two-lane U.S. 78 out to the dirt roads and green fields of his grandfather’s farm in Pell City.
“I visited Birmingham not too long ago and went out to Pell City,” Stewart says. “It didn’t used to be that 20 miles of freeway. It used to take you a few hours on an old road. It took forever.”
Stewart, who describes himself as “a parachute musician; you can drop me into any context and I can come up with something,” was born and raised in The Presidio just outside San Francisco. But he still has relatives living in Pell City – Lucille Hodgens (parent of former Mill Alabama Delores Hodgens) – as well as some cousins in Hueytown.
Stewart – no relation to actor Jimmy Stewart, but great-great-great grandson of Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart – remembers visits to his grandfather’s farm and recalls the man he called “Little Dad” as being someone who “was into excellence.”
He also remembers nights spent listening to the Grand Ole Opry on the radio, and the strange and wonderful sounds he heard from the Nashville musicians.
“I’m from California so I didn’t get to hear much of the country music in the sense of the blues-oriented country music,” he says. “but at Little Dad’s we’d all get around the radio and listen to Grand Ole Opry and that was one of my most favorite things.”
“All of that music influenced me because of playing the guitar,” he says. “I started on piano and everyone would’ve loved for me to stay on the piano, but for some reason I took to the guitar and to this day I still don’t know why.”
Although primarily known as a jazz guitarist, Stewart is adept at several styles, including rock, classical, blues and country. During his 30-year career, he has performed or recorded with such varied artists as Michael Jackson, James Brown, Dinah Shore, Carlos Santana, Neil Diamond, Sammy Davis Jr. and Barbara Streisand. In addition to playing, he has published books on how to play every style from heavy metal to classical to jazz.
“What it all really gets down to is: being a jazz musician and being a studio musician, I’m asked to play with so many different people,” Stewart says. “A lot of that is under pressure and at the last minute so I have to be able to get myself into the music.”
As a teacher, Stewart says he tries to get other guitarists to hold the same open-minded attitude. He acknowledges that a few of the young guitarists seem to be interested in styles, outside their own particular genre, but won’t go so far as to say today’s musicians are lacking the initiative to expand their boundaries.
“It should be a goal, something a guitarist would want to be able to do,” he says. “There’s so many different bags, you’d have to be a fool not to want to get into it if you’re into the guitar.”
“It’s hard to find new role models,” he says. “Part of my creed is to break that down and tell them that just because somebody who’s thin and turns the volume up to 10 and makes million dollars for his record company, that person, whether he knows it or not, has a heritage that goes back to blues, country, even Appalachian music.”
After picking up the guitar as a youngster, Stewart quickly learned to play other stringed instruments, including banjo and mandolin. At 15, he was spending his summers gigging at Lake Tahoe. By 20, he was musical director for Ginny Simms, vocalist in Kay Kayser’s band.
A few years later he was drafted, but used the opportunity to get into studio work, recording and producing programs for Armed Services Radio. Moving back to California after the Army, he hooked up with Andy Williams on his TV show, as well as doing other TV and radio work. “Busy around the clock,” is how he has described it.
“I’ve done the whole gamut of the business,” he says. “The complete musician” is what the intellectual musician would say about me. And the person who likes just guitar would say he is on of the masters of the guitar. But because of the way I look – I’m not 18, 19, 20 years old then they’re going to dip back into studio jazz guitar.”
Having played every style imaginable, Stewart says he gets something different from each. Rock guitar is physical and demands throwing yourself into the playing with force; jazz is “the ability to create a nice phrase with a nice sound and be able to play that over sophisticated harmonies.” Blues tells “the sad story” with the guitarist “getting into each note and make it cry,” classical is the technique and practice, requiring an exact knowledge of the classical guitar repertoire.
But the ability to play all styles means the ability to overlap, to include snippets of each in whatever style you’re playing, Stewart says. He notes that he was playing for Tommy Bolan, former guitarist of German hard rockers Warlock, and that Bolan was amazed that in the middle of a hard rock solo “I was tossing in all these classical runs and licks.”
“After you’ve played all of the styles, something transcends,” Stewart says. “My ear starts to take me to nice places. I can step beside myself and I monitor what I’m doing. I listen to myself play, and when I can do that, magic happens.”
As far as other guitarists are concerned, Stewart says he’s a fan of Andre Segovia, a classical guitarist from the ’20′s; jazz guitarists Lonnie Johnson, Eddie Lang and Wes Montgomery; and rockers Eric Clapton, Carlos Santana, Stevie Ray Vaughn and Jeff Beck.
He’s a little less enthusiastic for the new crop of guitarists, although he says Joe Satriani and Steve Vai seem to be willing to try new things and ideas.
“What I’m listening for and I’m still waiting to hear it – and I do hear it some with Vai and Satriani – are new things happening, new sounds,” Stewart says. “The tendency with the common man in heavy metal is you hear the same licks rehashed over and over again. I want to hear the guitarist as an instant composer, where he’s not copying licks, but he’s playing like a jazzman. Where you have the guts and the courage to see what will come out of your mind.”
The Birmingham News