Louis Stewart dies

One of the greats

Let me say at the start that I didn’t understand what Louis Stewart did but that’s not his fault. That’s because, when it comes to jazz, I’m an uneducated clod.

On the other hand, if you asked me what I thought of Louis Stewart, I’d have to say that I found his art staggering, even though it didn’t speak to me. You don’t have to be an educated clod to realise that you’re in the presence of greatness as I was many years ago when I found myself in a little room in Cork’s Metropole Hotel during the jazz festival. I somehow managed to be right up at the front as Louis and the band ran through their set, and if I remember correctly, there was another great guitarist on stage that night with an identical moustache.

They kept winking at each other.

Two Louis Stewarts for the price of one.

(Let me just give credit to Louis in passing for continuing to wear that facial hair unflinchingly through the ups and downs of the moustache. A lesser man would have shaved it off).

I know full well what a wonderful musician Louis Stewart was and it seems deeply unfair that such a gift should die with the man. It’s illogical I realise, but the unthinking part of me asks why this gift, this knowledge, couldn’t somehow have been transferred to another person instead of simply evaporating with the man. I suppose that’s the essential tragedy of existence, though at least it has an upside. When I’m gone, nobody will have to read this kind of nonsense any more.

But let me return to the Metropole for a moment, snuggled up at the front of the gig with Louis, his moustache-wearing doppelganger and an appreciative audience of men in light v-necked pullovers with white polos under them. Aficionados of sympathy and knowledge, the Spanish might call them, if the Spanish spoke English and if jazz happened to be bullfighting, which it wasn’t, last time I checked.

I could tell the audience appreciated what Louis was doing because every time he played something clever they all clapped and looked around to make sure everyone else noticed they were clapping and frowning. Naturally, I clapped and looked around me too because you wouldn’t want to feel left out but the truth is, I didn’t know why they were clapping, being an uneducated clod. So I just frowned and nodded like everyone else.

When you  see a dog walking a tightrope, you are truly astonished, as you should be. Dogs are not meant to walk tightropes and for that matter, neither are men, but we still stand agog when we see them doing it because we are so staggered by the virtuosity of it.

That’s how I felt about Louis Stewart’s performance that night. It was amazing but how long did I have to stay here? Like watching the dog on the tightrope I’ve seen it now so let’s move on.

I was staggered by Louis Stewart’s virtuosity when I saw it close up but, as the saying goes, I wouldn’t eat a whole one, even though I had no other choice in the Metropole since I had a seat right at the front. It would have been bad form to stand up and thread my way among these men with their v-necked pullovers and their polo-necks.

What would I say to them as I eased my way past?

Sorry but I just don’t get it. Thanks. Excuse me. Sorry but I just don’t get it.  Thanks. Excuse me. Sorry but I just don’t get it. Thanks. Excuse me. Sorry …

It was easier to stay up there at the front and admire the endless virtuosity of his playing even though I had not the slightest understanding of what Louis was doing, because I was an uneducated clod.

I’m still an uneducated clod, of course. I’m not a musician. I still don’t understand what Louis Stewart’s art was about but that doesn’t mean I’m not astonished by it. Who could fail to be astonished by that man’s gift? Any fool, even an uneducated clod such as myself, can see that he  was a stellar musician and an irrecoverable  loss to the worldwide brotherhood.

Louis Stewart will not be replaced. I know this, even if I don’t know what it means. (Being an uneducated clod).


12 thoughts on “Louis Stewart dies

  1. Great writing Bock and true, but I have to disagree on one point, most
    people that love jazz are genuine and recognize where it comes from, it
    certainly does not come from polo wearing pseuds as you know. Its black
    American culture and in that way can be in the same context as Irish trad, and
    like Irish trad expresses the feelings of the people.

  2. Great post Bock. just like to say that most people who like jazz are not
    polo wearing pseuds but have genuine love of that Black American art.

  3. Maybe it is easier for me as an amateur jazz musician to extoll the brilliance of Louis’ musical abilities.

    I knew him over a twenty-year period in the 80s and 90s and played rhythm guitar behind him on a few occasions.

    To understand Louis’ virtuosity in modern jazz, you have to ‘get it’. By that I mean to be able to hear the complex harmonic structures, the sometimes lightening speed melodic flights and the syncopated rhythms as REAL music.

    Also, most importantly in jazz, to understand the concept of improvisation.

    You need to listen to a lot of music to get to get to love his kind of music.

    In my opinion, jazz is music as art just as classical is music as art.

    Strangely – jazz, essentially a back musical form is the only unique art form created in America.

    I recall in the mid-nineties Louis played with his quartet in the Old Stand pub on Exchequer St. in Dublin. That evening, the New York saxophonist Joe Lovano was in town and he arrived in halfway through the first set.

    From the get go, both musicians gelled and both brought the absolute best out of each other. Louis could always up his game when he played with musicians of a high caliber. The huge crowd (I was standing up on a table at the back) loved every moment.

    Like all good jazz guitarists he mixed all styles from those of Django Reinhardt, to Joe Pass, Wes Montgomery, Charlie Christian, et al and added a thick layer of Louis Stewart on top.

    At the funeral on Wednesday, where about 250 people attended, it struck me that jazz is of such a narrow interest that no more turned up.

    In fairness to our President, he attended.

    Put quite simply, Louis was Ireland’s greatest ever virtuoso musician.

  4. I agree with you Niall, I was at one of his last concert’s in Vicar St.. He asked for requests I asked for a Bllie Holiday number. He played six. It
    was magic.

  5. Saw him in 2005 in Shannon Rowing Club in Limerick. Very small, almost privat gig, with tea lights on tables. There were maybe 30 people there. Magic… Few weeks after that, he somehow remembered that the bar in the club used to be open all night. He landed in Shannon airport after some foreign travels and arrived in the rowing club long after midnight begging for a pint of Guiness, which was not available anywhere else :-). Yes, I saw Louis on knees thanking barman, who at the time was training as a priest… incredible times.

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