Stewart, Louis (1944–2016), jazz guitarist, was born on 5 January 1944 in Waterford to Tony Stewart, a store keeper, and his wife Mary (née Ryan), who were both from Dublin and returned to live in the city shortly after his birth. An only child, Stewart grew up at 7 Harty Place off Clanbrassil Street near the city centre and attended Synge Street school. Around the age of eight he was encouraged to take piano lessons by an aunt and practised in her nearby house, though he was not a diligent student. Later, listening to a friend’s Les Paul (1915–2009) records and the Saturday night BBC radio programme Guitar club (first broadcast in July 1957), he developed a fascination with guitar music, especially jazz guitar.
When he was around fourteen years old, Stewart bought his first guitar and began to teach himself how to play skiffle and pop songs, then he began trying to emulate some of the phrases he heard on his much-prized jazz records. His earliest influences included bebop pioneer Charlie Christian (1916–42), Barney Kessel (1923–2004), Jimmy Raney (1927–95), Tal Farlow (1921–98) and Jim Hall (1930–2013). After a short time playing in a rock ‘n’ roll band, at sixteen he was encouraged by Earl Gill’s (qv) guitarist, Jimmy Dumpleton, to audition for the Chris Lamb Showband. Twenty-year-old pianist Jim Doherty was overseeing the audition, and the two hit it off through their shared love of jazz; they became life-long friends. Stewart travelled with Lamb’s band to New York in 1961 to perform in Irish ballrooms. While there, he had the opportunity to hear saxophonist Stan Getz (1927–91) play live at the Birdland jazz club – a life-changing event. He came back to Ireland armed with American jazz records and books, determined to hone his skills.
BREAKING INTO JAZZ
After three years in showbands, but longing to break into jazz, Doherty invited Stewart to join a jazz trio with pianist Noel Kelehan (qv) and bassist Jimmy McKay to play a new five-night-a-week residency he was organising at the Martello Room, on the top floor of the newly opened Intercontinental Hotel in Ballsbridge. At the time Kelehan was the dominant force of Dublin’s ‘lively, if limited, jazz scene’ (Louis the first, 1975), and playing with him gave Stewart a valuable musical education. He then played regular gigs in the mid to late sixties around the city centre, and at venues like the Fox Inn – a jazz hotspot run by Jim and Sheila Riley in the unlikely location of Ballymadun, Ashbourne, Co. Meath. In 1966 he married Elizabeth (Betty) McGee, a seamstress with Norton’s on South George’s Street, Dublin – they had been together since 1962.
In 1968, Stewart was invited to join Jim Doherty’s quartet representing Ireland at the second annual Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. There, he was awarded the outstanding European soloist gong, while the quartet came second in the overall band category. Later in 1968 he was voted third in the guitar section of the Jazz Forum reader's poll. The following year he was awarded the best soloist prize at Montreux, which included a scholarship to Berklee College of Music, Boston. His first daughter Catherine (Kate) was an infant at the time, however, and so he was unable to take up the scholarship.
Stewart moved to London in 1968 where he was invited to join the quartet of English multi-instrumentalist Tubby Hayes (1935–73), whose talent Stewart greatly admired, and whose high-speed tempo he had to quickly learn to keep up with. As well as gigging with the quartet, he performed on a number of Hayes’s live and studio albums. This was an incredible career opportunity and learning experience for the young guitarist, who had already gained recognition for his melodic fluency and range and was now developing a talent for faster tempos and bebop. When Hayes became seriously ill in 1971 (he died in 1973 aged just thirty-eight), Stewart took up an offer to tour Europe with a big band being put together by Benny Goodman, the legendary American clarinettist and band leader. He completed three tours with Goodman’s band and featured on the ensuing tour album, Benny Goodman in concert (1971).
After the birth of his second daughter, Gráinne, Stewart and his wife decided to return to Dublin and bought a house in Greenhills, a south Dublin suburb. In addition to gigging around town and doing session work (including on country music records), Stewart composed music for television programmes, including the award-winning urban drama A week in the life of Martin Cluxton (1972), and performed live on various television shows. In an interview given in late 1974, Stewart spoke about the restrictive nature of the Irish jazz scene at the time: ‘you end up playing with the same half-a-dozen people all the time, which isn't good. I mean, it's nice to have an understanding with the various players you play with, but it's stifling too. That was what I liked about living in London, the opportunity to play with different musicians all the time’ (Guitar, Jan. 1975).
By the summer of 1975, he was in London again for a guitar festival hosted at Ronnie Scott’s jazz club in Soho. Already acquainted with Scott through Tubby Hayes, Stewart was invited to join his new quartet. It was an opportunity he could not turn down and Scott was an understanding employer, ensuring Stewart had time and airfare to return to Dublin regularly to be with his young family. He went back and forth between the cities for four years, playing regularly at Scott’s club and touring with the band (including a performance at the Sydney Opera House). He also performed with other local and visiting musicians at various London jazz venues, as well as on the recordings of some of the scene’s best musicians. During this time he got to meet some of the biggest names in jazz – and sometimes play with them. These included Stan Getz, singer Blossom Dearie (1924–2009), pianists Count Basie (1904–84), Oscar Peterson (1925–2007) and Bill Evans (1929–80), and drummer Art Blakey (1919–90). He also played with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie (1917–93) in France. When in Dublin, he performed to full houses at the Baggot Inn, usually alongside Dick Buckley on tenor saxophone, Jimmy McKay on bass and John Wadham (qv) on drums. Stewart and Wadham had a particularly strong playing chemistry, instinctively supporting each other’s improvisations even at the fastest tempos.
In 1975 Stewart cut his first album as leader, Louis the first, with the Irish label Hawk Records. It featured his interpretations of tunes by well-known songwriters including Johnny Mercer, Stephen Sondheim and Oscar Hammerstein II. He followed this with a string of records: Baubles, bangles and beads (1976, with Peter Ind); Out on his own (1977) – a highly regarded solo album of layered lead and rhythm guitars; Milesian source (1977); Drums and friends (1978, with John Wadham); Alone together (1979, with Brian Dunning); and I thought about you (1979, with John Taylor, Sam Jones and Billy Higgins).
In the latter half of the 1970s he began working with another of his heroes, the pianist George Shearing (1919–2011). According to Stewart, Shearing was initially impressed by his album Out on his own (1977) and sought the guitarist out. Over the next two decades Stewart regularly toured the US, Europe and Brazil with Shearing and made multiple recordings with him, including performing on the album, On target (1982) by the George Shearing Trio and Robert Farnon Orchestra. He worked with Farnon, a celebrated Canadian composer and arranger, on several other projects. Other strong international partnerships of Stewart’s included with bassists Peter Ind (England) and Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen (Denmark), and guitarists Martin Taylor (England), Knut Mikalsen (Norway) and Heiner Franze (Germany), all of whom he performed and recorded with.
Not long after the birth of his son Tony in 1978, Stewart left Ronnie Scott’s band to live full-time in Dublin, though he would often return to play in London and continued to tour internationally with Shearing and other notable acts. The Irish jazz scene he returned to was still limited. In a 1979 interview, Stewart quipped that ‘The best thing you can do for jazz in Ireland is to make it illegal’ (Irish Times, 4 Aug. 1979). In Dublin, he would perform in variations of trios, quartets and quintets, becoming a central figure of the city’s music scene for the next four decades. His services were also regularly required in recording studios. Stewart held long-running residencies throughout the city, most notably in J. J. Smyths, Aungier Street. He was also a regular at Conways on Parnell Street; Slatterys on Capel Street; Bewleys on Grafton Street; the former Dame Street venue, Le Cirk; and at ‘Jazz on the terrace’ at the National Concert Hall from the early 1980s. He performed annually at the Cork Jazz Festival from its inception in 1978, and regularly played in Norway and Germany.
Described by bassist Ronan Guilfoyle as a ‘reluctant composer’, Stewart’s 1977 album Milesian source featured original works, some inspired by stories from James Joyce’s (qv) Dubliners, including one of Stewart’s personal favourites, ‘Eveline’ (Guilfoyle, 2016). In 1982, he composed his Ulysses-inspired ‘JoyceNotes’ suite for the Cork Jazz Festival, where it was recorded and later broadcast on RTÉ television. It was also performed at Norway’s national theatre in Oslo and released as an album (in Norwegian) in 1993.
His later playing repertoire drew heavily on the Great American Songbook. Stewart had never been a proponent of ‘free’ jazz or following new trends, deferring instead to the ‘greats’ or finding inspiration in like-minded contemporaries. For many years he played with singer Honor Heffernan, touring Ireland with her, and performed monthly in a trio at J. J. Smyths. Notably in 1994, as a member of the George Shearing trio, he played for a week in the Blue Note jazz club in New York. A late career highlight came in April 2001, when Stewart played a week at the prestigious Village Vanguard in Manhattan, leading a quartet comprised of American pianist Tommy Flanagan’s rhythm section.
In 2010 his eldest daughter Kate died from cancer and, devastated by this loss, Stewart took a two-year break from live performances. He cut his last album, Tunes, with Jim Doherty in 2013 – a long promised recording of first-take standards that provided a fitting bookend to a musical career that had started alongside the pianist.
Stewart received an honorary doctorate from Trinity College Dublin in 1998, served as chair of the Global Music Foundation (established 2004) and was elected a member of Aosdána in 2009. Known simply as ‘Louis’ amongst Irish jazz musicians, and as a guitarist’s guitarist, Stewart carries the undisputed title of Ireland’s greatest jazz guitarist and is counted among the finest globally. His influence on Irish jazz was profound: as an Ireland-based performer who enjoyed international acclaim, he was an entry point for many into live jazz performance. He was also a generous band leader who took many younger musicians under his wing. Despite this, his musical scores are not in circulation, nor has much been done to critically evaluate his work or formally study his improvisational techniques in Irish music schools. Stewart appeared on over seventy albums – as leader, co-leader or part of a duo on a third of them. His more unusual appearances include the studio recording of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Jesus Christ superstar (1970) and American pop star Yvonne Elliman’s eponymous first album (1972). His 1977 solo album Out on his own, considered by many jazz aficionados to be his finest recorded work, was reissued by Livia Records in February 2023. The album demonstrates Stewart’s seemingly effortless abilities while at the height of his powers, and includes a delicate reimagining of the Irish folk song, ‘She moved through the fair’, alongside his interpretations of standards like ‘Stella by starlight’ and ‘I’m old fashioned’.
Louis Stewart was diagnosed with cancer in 2015 and died on 20 August 2016 at Our Lady’s Hospice, Harold’s Cross, Dublin. A requiem mass was held on 23 August at the Church of the Holy Spirit, Greenhills, followed by a funeral at the Victorian Chapel, Mount Jerome, Harold's Cross. His friends Jim Doherty, Brian Dunning, Dave Fleming and Myles Drennan played a selection of Stewart’s favourite music and Honor Heffernan sang two songs at the funeral, which was attended by a who’s who of Irish music and entertainment, as well as President Michael D. Higgins. Remembered by friends for his humility and self-deprecation, his laid-back personality and dry wit, his son Tony recalled at the funeral that when asked the serious question of whether he wished to be buried or cremated, Stewart replied ‘Surprise me’.