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A sword for battle.

Hunched over, cushioned by a nine-to-five chair, Earl Stewart brings to mind an African warrior in the eve of his last battle. He speaks on the phone as if relaying orders to his followers--short, direct, calm and confident. His glasses resemble those of a mad scientist, so enormous and sturdy, made only for men of colossal size. I do not startle him by my sudden knock at the door, although my visit is unexpected. After attending many of his lectures, I am as eager to explore this mystery of a man, as he is to flatter me, apparently, assuring that, "He still got it."

"Mr. Stewart?" I suggest.

"Give me a minute, and I'm all yours darling, so long as I can keep working."

I panic, for I am unprepared for his availability and afraid of appearing disorganized, but then I feel calm after noticing the unorganized "organization" of his jazz and ragtime records stack piled on the shelves. Timid, I sit down to discuss. Nervous, I sit down to discover. Intrigued, I sit down to unite.

He speaks with articulation and eloquence, often slipping into slang--a jambalaya of the Deep South '60s, Baton Rouge and a doctorate degree from the University of Texas. Although skilled in the trumpet, among other things, one can see by his tired hands that he no longer plays: "I lost the passion, the driving force." Then like a movie fading into a black-and-white sequence, he takes me to a day when passion was oxygen and he was a breath of fresh air: his day of King Floyd, pick-up jazz bands, gigs and loving so hard it hurts; a day when "being black was a reason," not an excuse; and interracial dating wore a stigma, like Negroes wore an afro. He describes how his devotion to music composition evolved as a byproduct of the black experience, encouraging me to "never lose sight of your blackness." He tells how he utilized this devotion and passion to transform himself into the innovative composer and inspirational teacher he is today. He begins by explaining his triumphs, although to the naked ear, he is singing the struggle blues.

Born Earl L. Stewart into a family of eight--five sons, three daughters--he was raised by his aunt and uncle in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He attended secondary school in the same way that most African-American children did at the time, with each other and few others. He recalls, "When you grow up in the turbulent 1960s, you had no choice but to go to a black school. It was different." Determined to beat the odds, he pushed himself, earning his undergraduate degree in music education from Southern University. Unsatisfied with his surroundings and achievements, he moved to the great state of Texas (with its 1 percent black population) to attend the University of Texas. "I left (Louisiana) because, unlike me, people were very comfortable living in a prison of their own fear." He not only helped found the first black graduate student association at UT, but he participated in a popular black theater group. Its presentations were written by and for black students, frequently offensively nationalistic and, more often, drawing crowds away from the Longhorn football games. Although playing at the theater with pick-up bands and at local nightclubs took a toll, it did put him through school. It also gave Stewart the opportunity to play with "some of da' best," Seal Johnson and Percy Sledge to name two.

I ask how he went from participating to teaching. He chuckles, like a carburetor one octave higher, saying his aunt was a teacher and that is why he eventually entered the field, like a "process of osmosis from her." Stewart now teaches African-American music and composition at the University of California, Santa Barbara, an intragenerational leap in status, to say the least. Yet, he somehow maintains the morale and nobility of teaching, characteristic of "ol' school teachers." He interacts with his students as if they were peers. This is uncommon in a large university such as UCSB, where more than 200 students hear each of his lectures. He hopes to maintain and foster the presence of the ragtime, bop and jazz genres in the black youth of today. Although he wishes not to "judge the evolution of the black experience," the root of his art, Stewart exudes pride and confidence in the black community of UCSB and the world. Though hesitant in granting youth the ability to maintain the meaning of being black, he understands there are social forces beyond anyone's control. He can only hope for passion, love, commitment and reason. Being a black musician, he says, is "like a sword for battle."

In a flirtatious, innocent, teacher-to-student, homie-to-homie sort of way, he enlightens me as to why music composition is the "song of his emotions." From the period of exhuberant adolescence to the present--his experienced but youthful fifties--music has given him feelings paralleled only by sexual experiences. His compositions represent "more of who I am," which is evident in the lack of lyrics and abundance of arrangements. Sitting across from him, I can tell by his every gesture and toe tap that creativity and craft in musical structure are gifts he was granted upon birth and has exploited ever since. This thought confirmed, as he humbly tells me, "I just felt it, and composed six pieces over the weekend." Natural ability is simply an understatement. "Most inspiration finds me. I woke up, and the Santa Barbara sky was bluer than I have ever seen. I went to my office and began a rag, Blue Monday. It was not sad, though; it was mystical." He is a walking turntable, keyboard and synthesizer. He imagines the arrangement in short instances and transforms these into a remarkable work of art, his portrait of life, his autobiography of the experience. "I like a mixture of things; that is, to me, the black experience," Stewart explains. "Get it in draft; change it a bit; that's beautiful."

Specializing in the creolphony, a fusion of the classic symphony and historic African forms, Stewart is focused on maintaining intellectual rhythms and harmonies, only on a large scale. For example, "the Al-Inkishfi (Soul's Awakening) is intended to include an orchestra, solo vocalist, large chorus and two narrators, one English and the other Swahili." His pieces tend to be developmental, opening with anything from a swing set to a phrase paralleling the emotion of an epic lament. Upon first listen, many of his works resemble ballets of sorts, allowing each listener to formulate his or her own storyline and meaning. The pieces are sturdy, strong and simultaneously moving. Their creator is driven by passion and artistic feeling. "People ask me what I mean. But this is no political statement," Stewart says. "When you conceive it, you feel it. Some inspiration is technical; if I'm thinking lament, I might start in minor. It depends on how I wish to express it."

Performed by such artists as Metropolitan Opera diva Barbara Conrad, choreographer Chuck Davis, jazz artists Jullian "Cannonball" Adderly and Alvin Batiste and actor Moses Gunn, Stewart's compositions are created with a sensitivity that touches the base of the human soul. Scott Joplin is Stewart's hero, his inspiration and his model. Within his work, he attempts and succeeds at creating in the "concept of his vision." His pieces borrow stimulation from such works as the opera Treemonisha and the Maple Leaf Rag. He indulges in doo-wop, rhythm and blues, boogie-woogie and Euro-classical paradigms. "I'm not trying to express current America. I don't give a damn about main fashion; I conform to no one's taste but my own." Upon request, he lists venues blessed by his work, from West Africa and England, to Carnegie Hall and the University of New Orleans. The latter, in 1975, was one of "Cannonball" Adderly's last performances. Members of the Santa Barbara Symphony and the Los Angeles Philharmonic have been fortunate enough to sample his "recipes." If he were at all worried about "spreadin' the word," he must not be any longer.

Without skipping a beat, Stewart sings the admiration he has for all those of the past who created their soulful works, allowing him to stretch the limits of music, harmony and thought. He hums praise to the greats--Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Thelonius Monk--who assisted him in depicting hope and heart within his art form. Currently, he is at work on a manuscript focused on vernacular harmony and recently has been commissioned to do an arrangement of Dido's Lament. He has authored a book entitled African American Music--An Introduction. He hopes that "everyone has got the ragtime craze."

Earl L. Stewart is a man of many words, few of them unnecessary, all of them heavy, meaningful and zealous. He embodies the past while embracing the future, nurturing every pupil he possibly can. I am now simultaneously astonished, liberated and confused by this man and the thoughts he has shared. He has shown me that it is possible to live the present while staying true to the roots. "You are here because you are supposed to be; don't forget your blackness; being a brother (and sister) is a reason. Integrate that!" Stewart commands. And I realize he is not singing a new song, but has simply added a new beat to the step. He has helped me prevail in the battle.

Elisha Greenwell earned a degree in business economics with a minor in professional writing from the University of California, Santa Barbara in 2004. She is in the process of earning an M.F.A. degree in advertising at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco.
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Author:Greenwell, Elisha
Publication:American Music Teacher
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2005
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