Zan Stewart: one of the nation’s most prolific and respected jazz writers has exchanged the pen for a horn. Photo: Angela Jimenez

Seekers and dreamers have been finding their way to Berkeley for more than a century, but I doubt anyone’s arrived with a quest quite like Zan Stewart’s. After four decades as one of the nation’s most prolific and respected jazz writers, he’s exchanged his pen for a horn, devoting himself to honing his craft as an improviser and interpreter of jazz standards.

Since settling in Berkeley about a year ago, he’s found a home base at Nick’s Lounge on Adeline near the Ashby BART station, an unpretentious neighborhood joint where bebop blends perfectly with the posters of Herman Leonard’s classic black and white photos capturing Billie Holiday, Dexter Gordon, and Dizzy Gillespie in all their 52nd Street glory. Starting on June 16th, the tenor saxophonist performs at Nick’s every third Saturday this summer with a responsive quartet featuring bassist Adam Gay, veteran drummer Ron Marabuto, and New York HardBop Quintet pianist Keith Saunders, who recently settled in Albany.

A Los Angeles native, Stewart has harbored musical ambitious ever since a teenage epiphany in 1960 hearing Count Basie’s swaggering “New Testament” Orchestra. “I ended up standing up shouting and screaming,” Stewart says. “The roof opened up and the light shone on me and I was never the same.”

A respectable saxophonist, he shared the bandstand with some world-class players before he started writing, including one night with pianist Albert Dailey, who was working with Stan Getz at the time, and a four-month stint with drummer Gary Frommer, whose credits included Getz, Barney Kessel, Art Pepper, and Van Morrison. He started writing for the Santa Barbara News and Review in the mid-1970s, and by the early 1980s Stewart was contributing regularly to the Los Angeles Times during the paper’s heyday. In 2002, he moved to the East Coast to take a staff position at the Newark Star-Ledger, a gig he retired from in 2010 in order to pursue his musical dream.

Over the years, Stewart wrote more than a thousand profiles, including numerous cover stories for Downbeat magazine. He contributed liner notes to several hundred albums, and won a coveted ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for his biographical essay for the nine-CD box set “Eric Dolphy: The Complete Prestige Recordings.” As a budding jazz fan growing up in LA in the early 1980s, I remember reading Stewart’s reviews, which were always distinguished by his musical insight and sympathetic stance.

“I started writing really because I didn’t know how to practice,” says Stewart, 68. “I couldn’t get the horn together, and if you’re going to work as a musician you have to know how to develop. The writing thing gave me a chance to be expressive, to help out. But as it went along, the interviews with musicians were like lessons and I got information about what people did and how they played. I was around these guys working all the time. They were inspiring to me, and I kept working on the music.”

A fat, rounded tone

At a recent Nick’s performance Stewart’s diligence is evident. He 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.

“The sound is our signature,” Stewart says. “It’s how people can tell who you are. For some reason I was lucky. Over the years as much as I loved Sonny Rollins, I never tried to sound like that.”

Eager to communicate with the audience, he offers a little background on his material, talking about Bronislau Kaper’s film scores before launching into a beautiful arrangement of his moody ballad “Invitation” set to the insinuating groove perfected in Ahmad Jamal’s hit “Poinciana.” He even sings the Ellington anthem “It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” name checking the great vocalist who introduced the song in 1932, Ivie Anderson.

Raised in a highly artistic household, Stewart was surrounded by actors and musicians as a child. His mother, Elizabeth Wilbur Stewart, appeared in several films in the mid 1930s (including Laurel and Hardy’s “Bonnie Scotland”), and was herself the daughter of playwright Elene Wilbur. His father, a graphic artist and amateur musician, worked as an accountant for the Hollywood studios RKO and Universal. Despite their creative backgrounds, his parents were less than supportive of his musical ambitions. It wasn’t until he started writing that he felt they got in his corner. Over the years he never abandoned the sax, leading bands at clubs around LA and sitting in regularly with saxophonists Pat Britt and Wilbur Brown, longtime fixtures at the Cat and the Fiddle pub in Hollywood.

Return to California

When he finally decided to pursue music full time, Stewart knew he wanted to return to California and initially set his sights on San Francisco. He had lived in Haight Ashbury in 1966-67 in a house with other jazz musicians, and spent a year in Marin in the early 1970s. But on a scouting trip before he left Newark he found little of the San Francisco that he remembered.

“The city didn’t speak to me any more,” he says. “I was more into the openness of the East Bay. I’ve got a boxer and he needed a place, so Pt. Isabel was a draw. And all the musicians I knew were in the East Bay.”

Andrew Gilbert, whose Berkeleyside music column appears every Thursday, also covers music and dance for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and KQED’s California Report. He lives in west Berkeley. 

To find out about more events in Berkeley and nearby, visit Berkeleyside’s Events Calendar. We also encourage you to submit your own events.

Freelancer Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. Andy, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, covers a wide range of musical cultures, from Brazil and Mali to India and Ireland....