Al Stewart, a first-chair swing trumpeter who recorded on some of the most significant big-band recordings of the late 1940s and '50s and toured with many of the era's marquee jazz orchestras, died on Oct. 17 in Sarasota, Fla., according to his daughter, Amy Abigail Stewart. He was 89. [Photo above of Al Stewart courtesy of the Stewart family]
A superb studio sight-reader, Al was in the trumpet section on Benny Goodman's bebop recordings for Capitol in 1949, Machito's Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite (1950), Chico O'Farrill's Second Afro Cuban Jazz Suite (1951), Maynard Ferguson's Birdland Dreamband (1956), Nat Pierce's Big Band at the Savoy Ballroom (1957), Johnny Richards' Experiments in Sound (1958), Chubby Jackson's Chubby Takes Over (1958) and Gene Krupa Plays Gerry Mulligan Arrangements (1958).
In tribute to Al, here's my five-part interview with him in 2009 combined into one post:
You may not recognize Al Stewart's name. But back in the late 1940s and '50s, he was one of the most in-demand East Coast trumpeters in the big-band business. Over the past 55 years, Al has played trumpet along side the biggest names in post-War jazz, including Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Bobby Hackett, Lee Morgan, Charlie Shavers, Buck Clayton, Conrad Gozzo, Maynard Ferguson, Bernie Glow, Gene Krupa to name just a golden handful.
In the 1940s and 1950s, there was only one type of trumpeter: exceptional. If you weren't great, you quickly found yourself doing something else for a living. As a trumpeter in those days, you had to be a superb player and sight-reader. You also had to have chops that could withstand two or three shows a day, week after week, plus rehearsals. And you had to have a strong stomach for the road, since bands often traveled hundreds of miles in one day, which meant you did your sleeping on the band bus and ate on the fly. Al did it all and saw it all. And played it all.
JazzWax: Did you grow up in New York?
Al Stewart: Yes, in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn. My father was a lady’s shoe cutter—meaning he was responsible for the upper parts of shoes. He had brothers who cut soles. Both of my parents came from Russia and Poland. Like all kids then, I grew up listening to the radio.
JW: When did you first pick up a trumpet?
AS: One day in high school, a friend came home with a trumpet mouthpiece. He told me he got it from the assistant principal, who also was the band director. I wanted to get into the band, too. My friend told me to go see Mr. Levy, the assistant principal. My friend said, “He’ll look at your teeth and give you a mouthpiece for the instrument he thinks you should play.”
JW: What did Mr. Levy think?
AS: He looked at my teeth and started to go for a clarinet. I said, “Wait, can’t I play trumpet like my friend?” Mr. Levy looked at me for a second and gave in. He swirled a trumpet mouthpiece with disinfectant and handed it to me. From then I on I knew I’d play the trumpet.
JW: How did you do?
AS: I worked very hard and became good fast. Eventually my mother decided I could use a trumpet of my own. So my father bought me a Wurlitzer trumpet for 10 bucks. I could read music early on. My mother found a teacher who came from Brownsville. He took two buses and a train and walked 20 minutes to get to my house. He came once a week and charged a buck and a half. My mother gave him an apple. Within a short period I was playing first trumpet in the school band and listening to Harry James and Louis Armstrong on live radio broadcasts.
JW: What did you do when you graduated?
AS: I enlisted in the Navy and went into the service in 1945. Toward the end of my 16-week basic training, they auditioned me for the Navy School of Music at the Anacostia Naval Receiving Station in Washington, D.C. I was accepted.
JW: How was the school?
AS: I was assigned a teacher, Leo Prager. I loved to practice. Scales, etudes, whatever. Soon I was sent as a single replacement to Admiral Pat Bellinger who had just come back from a tour at sea. I was to join his band—the Air Force Atlantic Fleet Band—in Norfolk, Va. We played officers’ clubs and events on the base.
JW: Who in the band was most helpful to you?
AS: Bill Forest. He already had played with Del Courtney’s band. Bill taught me a lot about phrasing. By listening, you learn.
JW: When were you discharged?
AS: In 1946. I went home to Brooklyn and started hanging out at Charlie’s Tavern in Manhattan. That’s’ where all the musicians hung out. Trumpeters Jimmy Maxwell and Carl Poole told me about trumpeter and teacher Benny Baker. Benny had been Arturo Toscanini’s principal player with the NBC Symphony Orchestra. A lot of my experience came through classical training. That’s what guys studied then.
JW: But jazz required a different approach.
AS: It sure did. When I looked at a page of music, I taught myself to play the notes as though singing the phrase rather than just blowing into the horn. In 1947, someone at Charlie’s Tavern told me that Louis Prima was looking for a trumpet player. So I went over to the Strand Theater and auditioned for Jerry Greco, a trumpet player in the band. He gave me the first trumpet part to Chinatown, My Chinatown. The arrangement had a very involved four-trumpet soli. I read it down flawlessly, and the next thing I knew, I was replacing lead trumpeter Don Rose, who was leaving.
Here's the Prima band's arrangement of "Chinatown, My Chinatown" that Al played...
JW: How did your first appearance with Prima feel?
AS: Unbelievable. I remember the first time I was on the bandstand. The stage rose up from the basement to four or five feet above the audience. As we came up, we were playing the band’s flag-waver, Robin Hood, which was a big hit then. The spots were scanning over the band, the audience was screaming, and the instruments were gleaming. It was a very exciting moment for me.
JW: What were you wearing?
AS: Don Rose’s band jacket [laughs]. He must have weighed about 250 pounds and I weighed 156. I just folded up the sleeves to keep them off my hands.
JW: How long were you with Prima?
AS: Nearly a year. At the time, I was rooming with lead alto saxophonist Harvey Nevins. When he left Prima to join drummer Ray McKinley’s band, he brought me over. The trumpets in that band were Nick Travis, Joe Ferrante and me. We played Eddie Sauter’s arrangements, which were more complicated and more exciting than what I had played with Prima. Marcy Lutes was the singer. She used to sing For Heaven’s Sake with Mack’s band. She had a good sound.
JW: How long were you with McKinley?
AS: Only one road tour. In 1948, I joined Benny Goodman. I was one of the last guys to join Benny’s new bebop band. Nick Travis, Doug Mettome, Howie Reich and me were the trumpets. The day I came to audition, Benny called the rehearsal short. He had just heard Stan Hasselgard, his protégée on clarinet, had died in an auto accident. Benny was fairly shaken by that.
Here's how the Goodman bebop band sounded live in 1949...
JW: Was Goodman tough during your stay in this band?
AS: Not so bad. He was probably less tough because we were playing Chico O’Farrill’s arrangements, which were bop charts.
JW: Did Goodman have trouble with them?
AS: Not with the notes but a little with the feel. Benny was Benny. He tried. He gave it his all. And Benny, of course, was beyond a fantastic clarinetist. He had the greatest time and flow. But he didn’t quite capture the bebop nuance or attitude on the instrument. He was tough in that he expected from his players no more than what he expected from himself. Which is an extremely high standard.
JW: Did Goodman get under your skin?
AS: No, he never needled me. He always treated me well. When we went to California, Nick Travis left the band to join Woody Herman’s band, Benny called me in and moved me up to first chair and gave me a nice raise. From then on I played the lead chair.
JW: How was your relationship with Benny?
AS: For whatever reason, Benny liked me. He used to call me “boychick,” which is a Yiddish for young boy. We occasionally played duets together from a practice book I had. Benny liked my lead sound. I wasn’t a solo player. I played a couple of short solos on ballads in that band, like Don’t Worry ‘Bout Me and Intermezzo. Like any lead player, I was the guy who had the top notes in arrangements, so my horn stood out and I had to set sound for the section.
JW: On records, O’Farrill’s arrangements sound tough.
AS: They were. Chico traveled with us on the road. He wrote one or two arrangements a week, and we’d rehearse along the way. Benny did have Chico update a few of his standard tunes, like King Porter Stomp. They were the most intricate of his charts, with fast figures. These ensemble things Chico wrote were different than the kinds of swing Benny was used to.
JW: Were you familiar with bebop?
AS: I didn’t have much experience playing bop at this point. Just after I got out of the Navy, I used to go to 52nd Street to see Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. But I was still too young to get into the clubs. So I’d have to stand outside, and when the doors opened I’d hear some bars of a bop song. But it wasn’t tough for me to make the switch from swing to bop once I had the feel.
JW: Was Benny generous?
AS: [Laughs] Sometimes, but that wasn’t one of his big traits. One time when we were at the Riverside Theater in Milwaukee, Benny invited Buddy Greco and me in between shows to Mader’s, a popular German restaurant. When we sat down, Benny ordered a liver steak. When they brought him the plate, the plate was loaded with mashed potatoes and peas. As Benny cut into the steak, he applied too much pressure and the meat slipped. Everything on his plate went flying into his lap [laughs]. He looked like an omelet. He just calmly cleaned himself up.
JW: Who paid?
AS: [Laughs] Benny made us split the bill three ways. Benny always took the bill and figured out who owed what, even though he was loaded. And the bill always wound up being a few pennies in his favor [laughs]. When we got back to the theater for the next show, I took my seat in the trumpet section. When the curtain started to come up, Benny walked out in an old three or four-button double-breasted suit from the 1920s. I looked like it was made before the Charleston. Someone backstage must have loaned it to him. Wardell [Gray] looked over, put his hand over his mouth and started laughing. It was the funniest thing.
JW: What was Wardell Gray like?
AS: Wardell was a fantastic player. He was the only African-American in the band, and it must have been hard on him given where we toured. They wouldn’t let him stay in any hotel. In fact, when we played in Columbia, S.C., we were staying at the Wade Hampton Hotel, and Wardell had to stay at a private home. The place we were playing was an arena. At the time, Benny's band traveled with a couple of Katherine Dunham Dancers, Walter Nicks and Frances Taylor, who later was married to Miles Davis. They were modern dancers and both were African-American.
Here's Chico O'Farrill's bop arrangement of "King Porter Stomp," with Al Stewart in the trumpet section and a tenor sax solo by Wardell Gray...
JW: What happened?
AS: The audience saw a white band with Wardell sitting there in the sax section and the black dancers and went nuts. A riot almost broke out. The band was quickly hustled back to the bus by the police. We didn’t even play the concert.
JW: Was race an issue in the band?
AS: Not at all. As musicians, we didn’t think anything of race. Nor did Benny. Musicians always played together no matter what color. Benny had broken the barrier before and just assumed the race thing wouldn't exist. But these were still tough times down South. I can’t imagine Wardell felt too good about that. Doug Mettome used to stay sometimes with Wardell in the rooming houses so he didn’t feel completely like an outcast.
JW: Did you ever get Benny’s famous glare?
AS: Not me. I think the famous ray thing was a bit overdone by the press and publicists. That blank glare only came when Benny was firing someone. All other times Benny was just in a fog. He lived and breathed music from the moment he got up to the time he went to sleep. Little else registered. Most of the time that "ray" was really a daze. He was distracted.
JW: For example?
AS: One time we were in Detroit. Benny was staying at the Book Cadillac Hotel while the rest of us stayed at the less expensive Detroiter Hotel. Benny called and asked me to come over. When I got to his room, he took out this box of six new custom-made white shirts. Each one cost $75 back then, which was a fortune. He said, “How do you like them?” I was puzzled. I said, “Yeah, Benny, very nice, very nice.” And that was it. There was no other purpose for him calling me over [laughs].
JW: Was Benny oblivious?
AS: No. But he knew he was prone to fogging out, and he liked to snap out of it and catch people goofing off. When we were playing the Hollywood Palladium, Benny left early one night. Naturally, the band after the show started cracking up, playing things we wanted to and imitating Benny. Maybe Wardell and Doug Mettome were doing that. What they didn’t realize was that Benny was watching from the back of the ballroom. He told us that later.
JW: How did Goodman treat Wardell Gray?
AS: Benny had huge admiration for Wardell, and he needed him for the bop sound he wanted. Benny liked Wardell so much he gave him a Bundy Selmer clarinet, which was a student model. But something happened.
JW: What do you mean?
AS: Benny had one big scene with Wardell, and I have no idea what it was about. In early 1949, we stopped in Las Vegas to play the Flamingo Hotel for a couple of weeks. Hotels out there had terrible segregation rules, and Wardell had to go through the kitchen to enter the club. One night during this engagement, while Wardell was playing a solo in the spotlight. Benny walked up to him and said, “Get off the bandstand—and leave the clarinet.” This is while Wardell was playing in front of the audience. I have no idea why Benny did that. Benny was moody, Wardell often drank to ease the pain of all that racism, and Benny could be very cold.
JW: How did trumpeter Ziggy Schatz wind up in the band?
AS: When trumpeter Howie Reich left, I moved over to first chair and got trumpeter Ziggy Schatz on the band to replace me.
JW: Schatz was a bit of character wasn’t he?
AS: And how. In August 1949, after Benny took a break and re-formed the band, we played the
Cavalier Hotel in Virginia Beach, at the Surf Beach Club there. It was a big club on the beach. In those days, when you arrived at a new location, the guys who used drugs all scored on the various things they needed.
JW: In Benny’s band?
AS: Yes. Now in the back row you had Sonny Igoe on drums. Next to Sonny was the trumpet section starting with Doug Mettome in the jazz chair. I was in the lead chair next to Doug, next to me was Johnny Wilson and next to Johnny was Ziggy Schatz. Next to Ziggy on the wall was a big ship’s bell, which was in step with the club's theme. During the set, somebody in the audience requested Mission to Moscow, an old Benny Goodman tune.
JW: Did the band play it?
AS: Well, Benny called it up, but the band had never rehearsed it. And the song had a very difficult sax soli and syncopated things, and brass peck notes here and there. Most of the band at this point was totally out of it, because they had dropped the stuff they scored. Personally I never touched the stuff. It never interested me. So Benny calls off the tune, and we start playing.
JW: How did the band do?
AS: One by one guys start falling out. A couple of saxophones stop playing. A trombone stops. Sonny Igoe stops keeping time. The band falls completely apart.
JW: What did Benny do?
AS: Benny whips around, and he’s the color of a tomato. He’s absolutely enraged. He was about to say something, but then Ziggy stood up. He always wore dark horn-rimmed glasses and had pushed them off to the side of his face, so the left lens covered the right eye. He reached back and grabbed hold of the bell’s rope and pulled it three or four times. It was the loudest gong you ever heard.
JW: What happened next?
AS: Ziggy lost his balance and teetered back against the wall. He quickly steadied himself and said with his pronounced lisp, “We an-ther all re-quethsts.” There was a momentary pause, and the band broke up [laughs]. Ziggy, with that comment, had cut through all of Benny’s rage. The band had been so out of it that the notes ran together. To play those charts, you had to have your wits about you.
JW: What was Benny’s reaction?
AS: He fired the whole band that night. But he hired us back in a week or so. By the end of October 1949, Benny broke up the bebop band for good. Business was down for everyone, even Benny.
JW: After Benny folded his bop band, what did you do?
AS: Around this time, Chico O'Farrill wrote his Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite for Machito, and he brought me into the band that recorded it with Charlie Parker. Parker was a total phenomenon. He was fantastic, but Parker could also be out. All I can remember from that date is that Parker was standing, and that [trumpeter] Harry “Sweets” Edison was sitting next to me on the band.
JW: You were one of only a handful of jazz artists who could play Latin-jazz comfortably early on.
AS: You had to get used to the rhythms, since they were very different from swing and bebop. Almost the opposite. The Afro-Cuban music revolution hadn't fully taken hold yet, but these guys were the pioneers. Soon after the Charlie Parker session, [Clef Records producer] Norman Granz gave Chico his own date, and Chico put together an orchestra to record his Second Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite and a whole bunch of originals. Chico was some writer. Very tricky parts. That was like old home week. The trumpet section, in addition to Mario Bauza, included me, Doug Mettome, Jimmy Nottingham and Nick Travis.
Here's Chico O'Farrill's "Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite," with Al Stewart...
JW: In 1952 you recorded with Billy May’s band.
AS: Billy had already had a hit recording for Capitol called Big Band Bash. So Capitol sent the band out on the road from Los Angeles to New York. Conrad Gozzo played lead trumpet and defined what a lead player should be during that period. I got a call from Billy May asking me to cover Goz for seven or eight weeks because he had to complete the Dinah Shore Show on TV. Then he rejoined the band later at the Steel Pier in Atlantic City.
Here's Al Stewart with the Billy May Orchestra on the band's great 1952 recording of Easy Street...
JW: How did you feel?
AS: I flipped. To cover for a player like Goz? This guy was a monster. I joined Billy's band in New York. Billy had custom-tailored suits made for all the players. Then we left New York to go out on the road. It was a drinking band more than anything else. When the bus driver would pull up to a light or crossing in the middle of the night, you'd hear all the empty cans and bottles roll forward and backward [laughs]. Billy was a hard drinker and fell out several times on the floor. All those bottles would roll back and forth and hit him whenever the bus stopped and started.
JW: How heavy a drinker was May really?
AS: We played at Frank Dailey's Meadowbrook in Cedar Grove, N.J., for a weekend. I was standing at the bar when the bartender handed Billy his tab for two days. It was $109 [$875 in today's dollars]. Imagine how much booze you had to drink to get to that dollar amount.
JW: In 1952 you also were in clarinetist Jerry Wald's band. Was he good?
AS: Yes, but he wasn’t in the same class as Artie Shaw or Benny Goodman. Chris Connor was in Jerry's band at the time. Chris was a good singer, but she didn't hang out much with the band or at Charlie's Tavern. The band had a great trumpet section: Ed Badgley and Al Porcino would switch off, Dick Sherman and me. We recorded three songs with Chris, and they still sound great.
JW: In 1953, Benny Goodman asked you to join another one of his bands.
AS: Yes, Benny Goodman and Louis Armstrong were going to take both of their bands out on a tour. I knew that it was going to be special. When I showed up to rehearse in New York, here I was in the trumpet section with Ziggy Elman and Charlie Shavers. Plus there was Teddy Wilson, Gene Krupa, Georgie Auld and Willie Smith. I mean, wow. [Photo above courtesy of Al Stewart]
JW: Why did Benny choose you?
AS: Benny respected my playing, having been with his bands between 1948 and 1950. Years later I heard that Benny originally called Harry James but James wanted $10,000 a week plus a percentage of the gate. So Benny called me—for $350 a week [laughs]. Hey, it was still three times what my father was making at the time.
JW: When did you first meet Louis Armstrong?
AS: We were rehearsing on the first or second day when Louis came by. He said hello to some of the guys who knew him. Everyone knew him, of course, except the younger guys—me, Sol and Rex. Then Louis walked off to the side and sat down.
JW: Did he say hello to Benny?
AS: Benny never seemed to acknowledge Louis from the moment he walked in the door. He had to have seen Louis. Louis had said hello to everyone. Louis was there to set up the songs with Benny. After an hour or two of rehearsing, Benny said, “OK boys, tomorrow morning at Carnegie Hall, 9 o’clock.”
JW: Did he say hi to Louis then?
AS: No. Then slightly audible, Louis said, “Only place I’m gonna be tomorrow morning at 9 o’clock is bed.”
JW: What did Benny say?
AS: Nothing that I recall. The next morning at 9, everyone was there at Carnegie Hall to rehearse except Louis. He walked in around 11. Benny started telling Louis how it would go as though nothing had happened. Benny said, “Then Pops, you’ll come out and play with my band.”
JW: What did Armstrong say?
AS: Louis said, “I ain’t comin’ out with your band.” Benny was taken aback and already getting flustered. He said, “Why? I’ll come out with your band.” Louis said, “I’m not asking you to come out with my band.”
JW: What was Goodman's reaction?
AS: Benny got even more flustered. Finally Benny became exasperated and said, “Jesus Christ, let’s get this goddamn show on the road.” Louis walked over to the trombone riser and sat down with his elbows on his knees and his chin in his hand. Glancing up at Benny, he said, “Man, I been trying to get this show on the road now for two days now. But it seem like some asshole done snuck in here somewhere” [roaring laughter].
JW: What did Goodman say?
AS: Benny didn’t say anything that I can remember. Benny had this hit record so he couldn't understand why audiences loved Louis more. He knew Louis was great, but he didn't understand his tremendous appeal, especially given how Louis added that entertainment component, which seemed to bother Benny.
JW: How rattled was Goodman?
AS: At one point, after our tune-up concert on April 16, 1953 at the Mosque Theater in Newark, N.J., I saw Benny alone walking around in the theater's rotunda. It was all made of stone. He had a glass of some liquid in his hand. Suddenly he flung the glass against the wall, and the glass shattered all over the place.
Here's Al with Chubby Jackson on the band's recording of Loch Lamond with Don Lamond on drums in 1958...
JW: The Carnegie Hall concert was the next night. How did it go?
AS: Great. We were there to do a replay of the 1938 Carnegie Hall concert. I got there early. The stage was all set up with the music parts on the stands. When all of the musicians arrived, we were on the bandstand looking things over. Charlie Shavers sat next to Gene Krupa, Ziggy sat in the middle, and I sat on Ziggy’s left.
JW: Which trumpet part were you playing?
AS: Third trumpet. Ziggy was playing first. But Ziggy was a bit out of it. He was a pretty heavy drinker at this point. A short time before the concert started, poor Ziggy knocked his music stand and all the music off the riser and onto the floor. The whole thing came crashing down. Everyone was on edge given Benny's short fuse and the concert.
JW: What did Benny do?
AS: That was the last straw. Benny had had it with Ziggy. With his forefinger, Benny pointed to Ziggy and pointed to my chair, motioning for us to switch positions and parts. That’s the way it was for the rest of the tour. Charlie played the jazz part, I played lead, and Ziggy played the third chair.
JW: Was Ziggy angry?
AS: No. It was what it was. But I felt terrible. Here was a guy whose playing I had the utmost respect for during the days when he was with Tommy Dorsey and Benny's bands. I felt sad. Ziggy was a guy who was a marvelous musician and wonderful trumpet player. I had heard he even played baritone saxophone in Tommy’s band for a while until a spot opened for him.
JW: For readers who don’t know, explain the lead trumpet’s role.
AS: The lead trumpet sets the concept. The lead plays the top note of the chord formed by all the trumpets. It’s the one people hear most. So the lead trumpeter is listening to the bottom of the band—the bass and the bottom horns—to set the feel. The third chair plays more of a supporting role, and the second trumpet takes the jazz solos. Every one of those chairs is important.
JW: Did the tour start well?
AS: The next day Benny's band went up to Providence, R.I., with Louis and his All-Stars. But Benny wasn’t with us. I think the newspapers said he had been stricken with a mild heart attack in his hotel room. I had heard he canceled himself out of the tour. Gene Krupa took over and led the band for the rest of the tour through the end of May.
JW: Benny Goodman's sour interactions with Louis Armstrong are puzzling. What's your assessment?
AS: I’m not a psychologist. Benny was the King of Swing. No one could touch him. But Louis was the ambassador of jazz to the world. Benny had all the talent to fill that very same role. But he had a different personality. He was a perfectionist and so demanding of himself. He put that feeling on everyone around him. He also was a bit aloof and emotionally sealed off. Louis was the complete opposite. It would have been such a wonderful thing had Benny and Louis gotten along in 1953 and Benny didn't drop out of the tour.
JW: Who handled Benny’s solos when he left?
AS: Georgie Auld played them on tenor with the band, Auld and Willie Smith played his solos on alto in the small group. The tour lasted until May 31st, and we ended it in Springfield, Missouri. During that month and a half, we were doing a concert a night on the road.
JW: Did Armstrong's personality change after Goodman left?
AS: The whole tour settled down into a relaxed feel and well-played affair. Everyone loved everyone else. Everyone got along. As soon as Benny was out of the picture, the tension ended.
JW: Did you become friendly with Armstrong?
AS: Yes I got close to Louis. I wanted to hang out with him, being that I was a young trumpet player. I also used to ride with him in his bus and sit with him as much as possible. The two bands had separate buses. Benny had a big Greyhound. Louis had a bus that was just a little bigger than a Flxible. Louis and I got along really well. I loved the man.
JW: What were your road conversations with Armstrong like?
AS: They were funny. I did a lot of listening. Once I asked Louis if I could blow his horn. He said sure. So I did. It wasn't any better or worse than mine [laughs].
JW: Was Armstrong cool under pressure?
AS: I don't think Louis ever worried about a thing. One night I was riding in his bus. Louis and I were sitting together about halfway back. Standing in the aisle next to us was trumpeter Charlie Shavers, from Benny's band. He also wanted to ride in Louis' bus. Charlie was staring at the road ahead. Louis had a driver who had taken the governor off the engine, which allowed him to go much faster. He’d pass cars on curves and hills at 70 mph. Charlie was getting really nervous.
JW: Did he say anything to Armstrong?
AS: Yes. Charlie said, “Hey Pops, look at the way this guy’s driving. He's going to kill us.” Louis looked up at Charlie slowly and calmly said, “Sure make your spine tingle, don’t he?” [laughs]. Louis always had the right answer for everything. He could cut right through it all.
JW: Your tour was around the time Louis was writing his autobiography.
AS: That's right. One time we were down in Amarillo, Texas. I was sitting with Louis in the dressing room. Louis was wearing a pair of green boxer shorts and a white kerchief tied back over his head. He had been typing at one of those old metal typewriter tables. We were sitting there talking when Joe Bushkin, who was playing piano in Louis’ band, stuck his head in and shouted, “Hey Pops, what are you doing?” Louis said, “I’m doing my autobiography.” Joe said, “Yeah? You almost done?” Louis says, “I’ve got 600 pages done, and I’m only up to 1929” [laughs].
JW: Did Goodman and Armstrong's bands play together on the tour?
AS: Yes, on one of the numbers. When our part of the concert was completed, Gene [Krupa] and Cozy [Cole] had a drum battle. When they were done, Louis' band came out playing When the Saints Go Marching In. Then Benny’s band joined in, and we all marched around the stage. It was so exciting. Louis sounded fantastic. Everybody was having a ball. I'll never forget that scene.
JW: Gene Krupa took over the band for Goodman on that tour. Was he a good boss?
AS: A dream. Only once during the time Gene took over as straw boss did he feel the guys in the band were getting a little lax. But the way he spoke to us about it tells you a lot about what a leader and people-person this guy was. Gene said, “Guys, let’s not forget that this is Benny's band and that we have to give a big performance every time we get up there." He never had to say another word. Gene had been a bandleader. He knew. He was beautiful.
JW: Sounds like you wished you had played with Krupa's band.
AS: Oh no. But I do regret not going to see him when he was ill just before he died in 1973. I was going to, but I hesitated. Maybe I still felt like a sideman and that I had no place consoling a bandleader like Gene. But I should have made the effort. We got along very nicely on the tour.
JW: Did Armstrong enjoy the tour?
AS: Louis seemed to enjoy every time he picked up the horn to play. And he was around people who loved him on that tour, and he loved them. It was totally different when Benny wasn’t around.
JW: Did Louis pass along any life lesson to you?
AS: His attitude, his enjoyment of playing, his feeling with people. I never forgot all of that throughout my entire career. At the time, I was amazed and grateful that I had the good fortune to be placed in that kind of company. Working with Louis, you couldn't help but come away a better player and a better person. I think I also became more critical of myself and made sure I performed top notch every night of that tour. I didn’t let down at all.
JW: What did you call Armstrong?
AS: Everyone called him Pops. But it took me a while to do that. I was just a kid. As I got comfortable, I started calling him Pops on occasion. It felt good and natural. Like belonging to some special club.
JW: Did you see Armstrong after the tour ended?
AS: Yes, several times. Later in 1953, in October, I was playing at New York's Paramount Theater with Les Baxter's band. Louis was the headliner. After the show, Louis and I sat around talking. His suit was sweated through by the end of a performance. We had our trumpets in our laps. I had an old pre-war Besson trumpet at the time. A lot of guys played that model. It was made in France in the mid-1930s.
JW: How did you come to own it?
AS: I saw it on a club date. I was playing a gold-plated Selmer at the time. It was a beautiful horn. A guy I was working with in the trumpet section on the date was playing a Besson. I asked if I could try it. He said, "Sure." I picked up the horn, popped in my mouthpiece and played it. I loved it and couldn't get its sound out of my head. That night I traded him my gold-plated Selmer for the Besson, which actually looked pretty cruddy. But I loved the sound.
AS: The lacquer had worn off where your left hand grabs the instrument. I didn’t want to fix it up because I was afraid it would change the instrument’s sound. In an effort to prevent the acid on my hands from continuing to eat through the brass, I began painting the worn spots with red nail polish. This way when the polish wore through, I would see the spot and apply more nail polish to prevent my hand from further wearing away the horn.
JW: What did Armstrong think of your Besson when you sat with him at the Paramount?
AS: Louis looked at my horn and made a face. He said to me, “Look at your horn, man.” I looked down and noticed all the red nail polish and the shabby appearance. He said, “You shouldn’t treat your horn like that. Look what good it do for you.” So the next day I ran up to an instrument repair guy in New York and had him fix the dents and silver-plate the horn. When they were finished restoring it, the trumpet looked beautiful.
JW: How did it sound?
AS: A few days later I began to practice on the horn and realized I had ruined a great instrument. I went back to the repair guy and had him strip down the horn. But it remained ruined. So I started playing a Benge horn.
JW: Did you ever tell Armstrong that story?
AS: No. I never would want to make Louis feel sad. Eventually I wound up with a Bach trumpet. Bernie Glow, Marky Markowitz and Mel Davis all played Bach horns. Hey, for all I know Louis may have been trying to tell me to get a new horn rather than restoring the old one [laughs].
JW: Did you ever go out to Louis Armstrong's house in the Corona section of Queens, N.Y.?
AS: Yes. In the late 1950s, when Louis played New York's Basin Street East. I was working at the Paramount Theater with a band. After the show, I went over to hear Louis play and hang out at the club. While there I ran into [cornetist] Bobby Hackett and [pianist] Lou Stein. We stayed until the club closed. Then Louis invited all of us out to his house. [Photo above of Al Stewart and Quincy Jones courtesy of the Stewart family]
JW: What did you do when you arrived?
AS: We went upstairs to Louis’ den. One wall was completely covered with trophies and awards. On a second wall was all of Louis' recordings and stereo equipment, which played constantly. On another wall, framed letters were hanging from famous fans all over the world, including kings and queens. On the fourth wall were different newspaper and magazine articles and photos of jazz musicians. But these weren't just clippings. Louis had added mischievous comments to them. It was purely playful.
JW: Like what?
AS: Let's say there was one of Ella [Fitzgerald]. The clip's headline might say that Ella was appearing nightly at some club in New York. Louis would add words to the clip in pen, like, “I knew her when she could sing.” Stuff like that [laughs]. There was no malice there. Louis didn't have a mean bone in his body. This was just fun, one musician needling another.
JW: What was on the ceiling?
AS: A photo of Louis and [cornetist] Muggsy Spanier. In the picture they're both completely stoned, looking down on the whole scene in the den [laughs].
JW: When did you leave Louis' house?
AS: Just as dawn was just breaking. When we all went downstairs to leave, the door leading to the outside was at the end of this 30-foot living room. But before we reached the door, Louis said, “Hold on you cats, I want you to dig this.” The room was dark, but when Louis flipped the switch, a light illuminated a mural that covered an entire wall on the far end. An artist had painted it for him.
JW: What did the mural depict?
AS: Duffy Square [located at the northern triangle of Times Square at 47th St.]. The perspective was as if your back were against the old Latin Quarter nightclub looking south. The scene was a rainy night, so there were lights reflecting in the gutters. You saw the Astor Hotel on the Broadway side and the Lowe's State theater marquee on the 7th Ave. side. And people were walking across the street.
JW: What did you guys say?
AS: Nothing. There was dead silence. We were astonished and were taking it all in. After a little silence, Louis said, “Sometimes I get so high I see somebody I know walk by” [roaring laughter].
JW: In 1956 you played in the band Dizzy Gillespie formed for the U.S. State Department tours.
AS: Yes. I never recorded or traveled with them, though. I just played Storyville in Boston and Birdland in New York with the band. E.V. Perry, the lead player, left the band, and Diz asked me to take his spot at Birdland.
JW: How were your interactions with Gillespie?
AS: Great. The trumpet section was Lee Morgan, me, Carl Warwick and Burt Collins. The saxes were Phil Woods, Jimmy Powell, Benny Golson, Billy Mitchell and Marty Flax. The trombones were Melba Liston, Bill Elton and Rod Levitt. The rhythm section had Wynton Kelly on piano, Paul Chambers on bass and Charlie Persip on drums. Every night we opened with Ernie Wilkins' arrangement of Walkin'. A great way to start the evening.
JW: So you were at Birdland for a couple of weeks?
AS: Yes. One time, trumpeter Pauly Cohen came down to the club to hear the band. I went over to Dizzy and said, “Hey Diz, Pauly’s down here. Can he sit in for a set?” Dizzy said, "Sure." So I sat out and let Pauly play.
JW: How did Cohen do?
AS: Beautifully, and those charts weren't easy. After the set I went over to Dizzy and said, “Man, Pauly sure can sight-read." Dizzy laughed and said, “That mother can see around the corner” [laughs].
JW: In September 1956, you recorded with Maynard Ferguson's Birdland Dreamband, which became the model on which many late 1950s powerhouse bands were built.
AS: Yes, but I didn't go out on the road with them. We just recorded in the studio. I remember it was early in the morning when we did it. At 9 a.m., there's Maynard hitting all those high notes. I said, “Maynard, where the hell do these notes come from so early in the morning?”
Here's Al Stewart in the trumpet section of Maynard Ferguson's Birdland Dreamband playing Bill Holman's arrangement of "Sleep Softly"...
JW: What did Ferguson say?
AS: He said, “I’ll tell you Al, they feel like they’re coming from the bottom of my feet.” That means his whole being was playing that instrument. Everyone has their own thing. Maynard had something that was congenital. You don’t practice to get what he had. You feel it all the time. When I was studying with Benny Baker in late 1946, he told me he went up to Canada once a month to teach. One time he told me there was a kid who brought his entire lesson up an octave. That kid was Maynard Ferguson.
JW: In 1958, you were playing with Johnny Richards' Experiments in Sound band.
AS: Johnny Richards was a great orchestrator. He could take a bass sax and a fife and make it sound like a 100-piece orchestra. And nearly everything for that band was orchestral. There were only 17 guys in there, but it sounded like a symphony orchestra.
JW: How were the charts?
AS: They were many pages long. I don't think there was a single two-page arrangement in that book. The charts were all four pages long, and many were six and seven pages. They went on and on. What's more, it was a hard-blowing book. That kind of work could take its toll, especially when you worked with the band at Birdland for six hours a night.
JW: Were the arrangements tough to record?
AS: Not really. By the time you walked into a studio with that band, the arrangements have been played many times. When we recorded Experiments in Sound, we were working at Birdland playing until 2 a.m. every night. We got up early in the morning to do those dates. It was a hard blow.
JW: What do you mean?
AS: Your chops were swollen from the night before. Johnny's tunes were elaborate compositions, not basic arrangements. Johnny composed a few original tunes, like Young at Heart, which had that great trumpet solo by Doug Mettome. But Johnny's arrangements were like originals considering how involved the charts were. Your fingers moved all the time in Johnny's book. The trumpet section was Ray Copeland, Burt Collins, me and Johnny Bello.
Here's Al with Chubby Jackson on Nat Pierce's arrangement of "Hail, Hail the Herd's All Here"...
JW: How was it to play Richards' arrangements live?
AS: Hard work. The ceiling at Birdland where the trumpet players stood up was padded. So you had to blow pretty hard to project. One night I had a big scene with John at Birdland.
JW: What happened?
AS: At about 2 a.m., after spending the night blowing our heads off, Johnny called the last tune—one of the heaviest ones in his book. And he wanted the trumpets to stand through the tune.
JW: What did you say?
AS: I think I grunted or grumbled or something. So Johnny and I had words after we came off the stand, and we nearly came to blows. The guys had to come between us. I didn't play with the band for a while after that.
JW: Did you ever run into Richards again?
AS: Yes. One night in the early 1960s, the band was playing at New York's Village Gate. Trumpeter Jerry Kail was back with the band. The rest of the horns were Burt Collins, Doug Mettome and Ray Copeland. Jerry couldn’t make it one night for some reason. He was playing lead. So Burt spoke to John about calling me.
JW: What happeend?
AS: Burt talked John into letting me come down for the night to cover Jerry. I already knew the book and I knew John's style, how to conceive his arrangements.
JW: How did Johnny great you?
AS: We had a courteous hello. I got on the bandstand, and even though many of the charts were new, I sat up there and blew with a vengeance. I think I played better with the band that night than I had ever played before. After the gig, John hugged and kissed me, and took me for a drink. I just came in and did what I had to do.
JW: Given all of your hard blowing night after night, what did you do to keep your lips in shape?
AS: Nothing in particular. If you play correctly and focus on putting air through your horn and not being overly concerned about the mouthpiece end, you tend to avoid problems. But trumpet players' lips certainly get beat up. There's no way to avoid that. When I'd finish a hard-blowing job, my chops would be slightly swollen the next morning. I'd be careful the next day to warm up easily. Over time, your lips get accustomed to all kinds of blowing. Louis liked to put salve on his lips from time to time after he played to keep them soft. I still have the can of salve Louis gave me in my trumpet case. [Photo of Al Stewart playing piccolo trumpet in the early 1970s]
JW: So playing the trumpet is harder than it looks?
AS: [Laughs] A little. But not only the chops. When you play hard, you're playing with your whole physical self. Everything is supporting the air passing through the horn. Your whole body is going through the instrument. When you play, you’re inhaling and exhaling deeply. You aren’t thinking about your chest or diaphragm. It's all coming together naturally.
JW: In 1958 you played with Charlie Barnet.
AS: Yes, we did a short tour playing for Jack Benny. Then the band played a weekend date at the State Theater in Hartford, Conn. Our next stop was New York. Charlie asked if I would ride with him in his convertible Cadillac. I said, "OK." When Charlie climbed in, he put a bottle of scotch between us. Charlie was a drinker. We were driving on the Merritt Parkway in Connecticut, with all those curves. The Connecticut Turnpike [I-95] hadn't been completed yet. We got in the car, and in a flash we were in New York. Charlie was one fast driver. And the bottle was empty.
JW: Was Barnet a nice guy?
AS: Yes, but he could be volatile. When Charlie got angry, he'd get a red "V" on his forehead between his eyebrows. One night when we were playing an officers' club in Chapel Hill, N.C., Charlie asked the trumpet section to play with mutes during the dinner hour because it was a long room and there wasn't carpeting or anything like that to absorb the sound. It was a very live room. If we had played without the mutes, the audience's ears would have suffered. So we picked up the mutes and put them in. [Photo of Al Stewart and trumpeter Doc Severinsen in 2008 by Tandy Stewart; courtesy of Al Stewart]
JW: Did you use mutes through the entire gig?
AS: No, just for the dinner hour. On that job, I was playing the lead part. Also in the trumpet section was Dale Pierce, Dick Sherman, Conte Candoli and Johnny Vohs. But when Charlie called up a swinger that Manny Albam had arranged, Dale had the lead part on that tune. But he didn't want to use the mute. Dale was a terrific all-around player, but he was also kind of strung out that night and out of it. Dale said. "The hell with the mutes." He took it out of his horn and went up to a high e-flat, which came screaming out.
JW: What was Barnet's reaction?
AS: Charlie turned around and glared at Dale. While we were still playing, Charlie said to Dale, "Get off the bandstand." The red V was already showing on his forehead. Dale was out of it and said to Charlie, “Oh yeah? Make me.”
JW: What did Barnet do?
AS: The trumpet riser was about four to five feet above the floor. The trombones were on a step lower and the sax seats were on the stage floor. When Charlie heard what Dale had said, he tore through the saxes, went right through the middle of the trombones and up to the trumpet riser, grabbing Dale under his neck by his shirt and tie and threw him off the bandstand.
JW: What happened to Dale?
AS: His head hit a radiator, and they took him to the hospital. He took 16 stitches in his head. The doctor gave him some painkillers to take. But Dale being Dale, he took them back to the hotel, chopped them up, cooked them and shot them up. He never played with the band again.
JW: When you recorded with Barnet on Cherokee for Everest Records in 1958, you were sitting between Clark Terry and Charlie Shavers.
AS: I was in good company [laughs]. Clark is a magnificent player. He has a very individual sound and style that's all his own. His facility is extraordinary, both in his oral and digital dexterity. To top it off, he could be deeply serious and humorous in a playful way. He had so much covered.
JW: How did Terry differ from Shavers?
AS: Charlie, of course, was a bit older, so his style was different. Charlie was an incredible player who had enormous freedom. It wasn't a matter of high notes with these guys. High notes don't make a player. They're impressive because of the music they play and the individuality of their style and playing. You hear their personality through the instrument. Charlie played a different style of jazz than Clark did but equally phenomenal.
JW: What was special about Bernie Glow?
AS: He was the best first-trumpet player of that generation. Conrad Gozzo was the one who came before him, with Woody Herman's [1945-1947] Blowin' Up a Storm band. Bernie was consistent, and he had a great sound and time. He never seemed to get tired. He could do three or four record dates in a day, and he'd be just as fresh at the end of the day as he was in the morning. He was a beautiful man, and a good friend. [Al Stewart with B.B. King in 1996; courtesy of Al Stewart]
JW: How did you manage to steer clear of drugs and alcohol with so many musicians around you consuming one or both?
AS: Neither ever had any appeal for me. I don't know why so many players got hooked. I think Charlie Parker was probably a big early influence on many guys, both as a musician and a user. Ultimately, talent always came before drugs. No one got great by taking that stuff. Eventually, many of the guys realized that and kicked their habits.
JW: You also worked with arranger-conductor Gordon Jenkins in 1959.
AS: Gordon took a liking to me. I did a short tour with him and Judy Garland that year. We played the Stanley Theater in Baltimore and the old Metropolitan Opera House in New York, before it moved to Lincoln Center. Then we moved on to the Civic Theater in Chicago. I liked Gordon very much. I was thrilled that Gordon, who had composed and recorded Manhattan Tower  and who I had such great respect for musically, had picked me to play first chair on this tour.
JW: How was Garland in 1959?
AS: I don’t think she was a well woman at that point. But she and Gordon had an emotional connection. Gordon and Judy were both very sensitive. I remember in Chicago, he was conducting the orchestra while she was singing, and he had these beautiful, wide arm movements. It was like watching someone paint a panorama. Judy's singing was so touching that tears were coming down Gordon's face. Man, I get emotional just thinking about it.
JW: Did anything unusual happen on that tour?
AS: Milt Yaner was a fine alto saxophonist, and he contracted the musicians for Gordon on that trip. One day as we were nearing the end of the tour, Milt says, “Hey Al, when we get back to New York, we're going to be doing The Revlon Show on TV, and Gordon wants you to play first trumpet.” I said, “Who else is going to be in the TV band?” Milt said, “Shorty Solomson, Charlie Margulis and you.” I said, “You must be mistaken. There’s no doubt that Charlie would be the lead player in that lineup.”
JW: For those who don't know, who was Charlie Margulis?
AS: Charlie was probably the best studio trumpet player in New York in the budding years of radio and then on television. He was an original Paul Whiteman player. Charlie didn't have nerves. Nothing rattled him.
JW: What did Yaner say when you pointed that out?
AS: He said, "No, Al, Gordon wants you to play the first chair.” As we got closer to New York, I asked Milt again, "Are you sure you aren't mistaken?" He said, “No Al, Gordon wants you to play first.” On the day of our first rehearsal, I asked Milt yet again. Milt said, “Al, don’t bust my chops. Gordon wants you to play first. And that’s the end of it.” So I said, "OK, fine."
JW: Was that the end of it?
AS: Not quite. Whenever I was on a date, I generally got there early to warm up a bit. So I got to the TV studio early, and when I finished warming up, I put my trumpet down on the first chair and hit the can to wash my hands. When I came back, I saw that my horn had been moved to the second chair. Charlie had done it. He said to me, "When I’m on the job, kid, I’m the first trumpet player.”
JW: What did you do?
AS: Charlie was a generation before me, but I realized immediately that I was in a make-or-break situation. A guy like Charlie could put you on such a spot that he’d break your confidence, and it would take you some time to get it back. At that moment I had had it. I got up close to Charlie and said, “Listen you mother, if you ever move or touch my horn again it will be over your head. Now, I was told to sit there. Go take the other chair.” Photo, from left to right, of Don Goldie, Nick Travis and Al Stewart at the Burnin' Beat recording session led by Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich in 1962]
Here's Al Stewart in the trumpet section on "Gene Krupa Plays Gerry Mulligan Arrangements," playing "Marie" with a superb alto sax solo by Phil Woods...
JW: Wow. Did Charlie move down?
AS: Yes. I sat down in the first chair and he sat where he was supposed to. But knowing Charlie's reputation and having such great respect for his playing, I passed him many of the first trumpet parts and he handed me the second parts.
AS: I knew he was the guy to play them. And I had great respect for him. And p.s., we wound up being great friends for years afterward.