Artists From Ireland #1: Louis Stewart

louis stewart

Ireland’s (other) greatest guitar player you probably never heard of.

Jazz is a very broad term. For some it conjures up images of stuffy men in suits theorising their instruments to death, for others it is the pinnacle of musical expression, the cutting edge in terms of harmonic expression, the ultimate musical challenge for practitioners. It has conservative and dead-horse-flogging connotations too, a refuge for musicians who don’t have the imagination to do something novel or exciting, for others it retains the spirit of true musical innovation, revolution, and daring. Others see it as self-indulgent music with stabilisers, confined within tired parameters, suffocated by etiquette and an unhealthy bondage to the past, a musical landscape populated by elitist archetypes either chasing after bebop chords all day long or engaging in an esoteric modal chin-wag.

Its values are misconstrued: it is about energy and lust for life, spontaneity, improvisation, pushing boundaries, and forging new musical departures. In terms of ethos, it is not as detached from rock and roll as some would believe, the approach is just a little bit more Graham Greene than Irvine Welsh. Greene once said, ‘First Master the rules of grammar, then break them!’ Charlie Parker may have said this a little bit better: “Master your instrument, master the music, and then forget all that bullshit and just play”.

For the uninitiated, or the disinclined, it may come as a surprise that one of the great modern players was Irish. He was revered by Kenny Burrell, Jim Hall, Mundell Lowe and Joe Pass; he became a name that held up well with other Jazz guitar legends such as Charlie Christian; George Benson; Django Reindhardt and Wes Montgomery. He played for the Benny Goodman Orchestra, he played with George Shearing, yet up to last year, you could see Louis playing in a small pub/club for a pittance, or for free in his regular haunts in Dublin. His life story is coloured by some legendary anecdotes, such as being told to f**k off by Miles Davis when he informed Davis he was Irish. He turned down a Berklee College of Music scholarship; he played at Montreux; perhaps most importantly, he, with the likes of Jim Doherty, Noel Kelehen, Dick Buckley, John Wadham and a handful of other standard-bearers made being a jazz musician in Ireland a possibility.

Jazz is a language that has been informed by abject suffering, urban strife, war, chaos and revolution as much as it has been informed by African rhythms and European conceptions of harmony. It has been reformed, deformed, pushed and pulled to its limits in terms of a language, infused with the deepest human emotions and concerns, there as many nuances and inflections as there are cultures; its modern iterations are endless, yet the popular image of jazz remains stuffed in the elevator. It is a wonderful tradition and along with Jim Doherty we have some incredible players in our midst: Michael Buckley; Ritchie Buckley; Mary Coughlan; Ronan Guilfoyle; Paul Dunlea; Karl Rooney; Ryan Quigley; David O’Rourke; Cormac McCarthy, to name but a few.

Louis spent a good chunk of his career playing with the great Irish pianist Jim Doherty, you can still see Jim play, there is an opportunity for us to experience incredible live music in this country, to give this incredible subset of Irish musicians their dues and appreciate them while they are still here. Familiarity breeds contempt, jazz is a victim of its own longevity in a way, but jazz was anti-establishment decades before punk was even a twinkle in rock ‘n’ roll’s eye: Mainstream mediocrity will survive without our attention for five minutes.

Check out the rest of our articles in our ‘Artists From’ series.

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