On the side, however, Stewart pursued his own musical muse, playing tenor saxophone in jam session situations and as the leader of his own groups. By 2011 he had relocated from New Jersey to the Bay Area with the intention of becoming a full-time jazz musician. The release on March 25 of his first CD, The Street Is Making Music, is the culmination of that goal, and it happens to coincide with Stewart’s 70th birthday.
“I had done my part as a jazz advocate, and I really didn’t want to write about other people anymore,” explains Stewart, who is now based in Richmond, near Berkeley. “So I decided to leave journalism, which can be so demanding. You can’t really think about anything else while you’re doing that. I enjoyed it, but after a while I just wanted to find out who I was as a musician.”
Featuring Stewart with his working band of pianist Keith Saunders, bassist Adam Gay, and drummer Ron Marabuto, the album contains uncompromising performances of three popular standards, one tune by Bud Powell, two by Charlie Parker, and five of Stewart’s own, including two different takes of his “Gals ’Round the ’Hood.” The whimsical CD title comes courtesy of a young former neighbor of Stewart’s in West Orange, New Jersey, for whom Zan’s practice sessions sounded like “the street is making music.”
Stewart’s impressive “Daddy’s Blue Song,” “Zansky,” and “Mobes’ Symphony”—in honor of his Boxer, namesake of his Mobo Dog label—take their place alongside “Love Letters,” “Polka Dots and Moonbeams,” and Charlie Parker’s “Laird Baird” on the new disc. “I feel very grateful to be able to put tunes together that I like and other people like as well,” the saxophonist says of his compelling originals. “It’s a gift I didn’t really know I had until the last few years.”
Born in Los Angeles in 1944, Alexander “Zan” Stewart studied classical clarinet between the ages of 6 and 10 with Ola Ebinger, who had once been Eric Dolphy’s teacher. Stewart took up alto saxophone after seeing Count Basie’s orchestra in 1960 and switched to tenor six years later while hanging out with musicians like Mike Morris, Steve Wolfe, and Tom Harrell in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district.
In 1975, a year after graduating from the University of California at Santa Barbara with a B.A. in Film Studies, he began writing about jazz for the Santa Barbara News & Review and moved to the L.A. Weekly four years later. His work at the Weekly attracted the attention of veteran Los Angeles Times jazz critic Leonard Feather, who persuaded the paper to employ his talents in 1980.
After two decades at the Times, Stewart moved East to work as the staff jazz writer at the Newark Star-Ledger. He continued to play his horn, participating in jam sessions and leading his own groups in New Jersey and occasionally in New York City, including two appearances at Smalls Jazz Club. He also studied formally with altoist Jim Snidero and informally with trumpeter Joe Magnarelli and saxophonist Grant Stewart. In 2010, he decided to devote his energies to music rather than writing, and planned his move back to his native California.
The saxophonist, jazz critic Andrew Gilbert wrote on the Berkeleyside web site, “possesses a fat, rounded tone that owes more to Don Byas and Coleman Hawkins than latter day tenor icons like John Coltrane and Michael Brecker.” Stewart himself cites Sonny Rollins, Charlie Parker, Hank Mobley, Clifford Jordan, Noel Jewkes, Yusef Lateef, Harold Land, David “Fathead” Newman, and early Coltrane as primary influences.
With The Street Is Making Music, Zan Stewart offers a document of his improbable and inspiring musical journey to date. “It is indeed gratifying to have finally fulfilled a longtime dream by recording this album, and revealing who I am as a musician,” he says. “And I am very excited to discover where this action leads and what comes next.”