In the court of King Louis

An Irishman’s Diary about Louis Stewart at 70

‘When the birthday boy (Louis Stewart, above) arrived, I noticed, he was mobbed, jazz-style. That’s to say, the door man welcomed him with a casual “Hi, Louis – good crowd in”.’ Photograph: Brian Gavin/Press 22

‘When the birthday boy (Louis Stewart, above) arrived, I noticed, he was mobbed, jazz-style. That’s to say, the door man welcomed him with a casual “Hi, Louis – good crowd in”.’ Photograph: Brian Gavin/Press 22

Fri, Jan 17, 2014, 01:00

The great jazz guitarist Louis Stewart turned 70 earlier this month, without any public fanfare that I noticed. But a fleeting mention of the event somewhere reminded me of a shameful fact: I had somehow never seen the man play. And noting that on Sunday last, he was due to perform one of his periodic shows at JJ Smyth’s Bar in Dublin, I resolved to make a late entry on my New Year’s resolution list, and then tick it off.

JJ Smyth’s is a smallish venue, I knew. So, in my innocence, I assumed you might have to book early to see a performer who has been described by frequent collaborator Jim Doherty as “the one true genius” playing regularly here.

But, eh, no. It turned out that a tenner at the door would be sufficient to gain admittance. And by the drastic expedient of getting there 10 minutes before the show started, I even secured a seat near the stage (not that, in JJ Smyth’s, anywhere is far the stage). Then I braced myself to be disappointed, as one often is by supposed legends.

When the birthday boy arrived, I noticed, he was mobbed, jazz-style. That’s to say, the door man welcomed him with a casual “Hi, Louis – good crowd in” (I counted 35 by then, although it later swelled to the mid-40s, which was indeed close to capacity). Then a female fan approached politely, wishing him happy birthday, and handing him a card. And that was it.

After a bit of tuning, and without further ceremony, he started playing. On this occasion, he was part of a quartet, including Myles Drennan on piano – a quietly brilliant musician himself – and the effect was mesmerising. It so happened that I also had somewhere else to be on Sunday evening, and my initial plan was to sneak out of the jazz at the interval. But suffice to say, I was still there at the end, two-and-a-half hours later, stuck to my seat.

In praising Stewart’s genius, Doherty was simultaneously lamenting how little-known his friend remains in Ireland, except among aficionados, and how “woefully under-recorded” he is too, as a direct result of not living in some place like New York, where a performer of his status would be a celebrity.

The guitarist himself has joked of how, back when he was starting in the 1960s, telling an Irish music promoter that you played jazz was like showing “a crucifix to a vampire”.

And it must indeed be a terrible affliction to be gifted with greatness, but first to have it channelled into a minority interest like jazz, and then suffer the added handicap of living in city like Dublin, where there aren’t even enough jazz enthusiasts to form a proper victims support group.

But I suppose it could be worse. Sunday’s show reminded me of the Dire Straits classic Sultans of Swing, which celebrates a similar group of jazz martyrs, cheerfully “blowin’ that sound” in a small club somewhere, despite public indifference.

Apparently, Mark Knopfler wrote the song based on a real-life gig he attended once, on a wet night in Ipswich. And compared with Ipswich, even on a dry night, Dublin is not without glamour. In any case, it’s where the home-loving Stewart opted to stay, despite winning many accolades overseas, including the Best Soloist prize at the Montreux Jazz Festival way back in 1968.

He remains more famous abroad than at home. Still, I’m happy to say he isn’t entirely unsung here, having an honorary doctorate from Trinity to show for his seven decades, and earning belated membership of Aosdána for his work as a composer.

JJ Smyth’s, incidentally, is a place steeped in musical history. It’s steeped in beer too, having been the site of a public house of one kind our other since the 1730s. But among those previous incarnations, it was also the birthplace of the immortal Thomas Moore, who wrote his celebrated melodies there.

In more recent times, although still pre-jazz, the pub’s regulars included Brendan Behan and his mother Kathleen, also well known for their musical talents, among other things.

These days, the downstairs bar is a fine example of what the venue’s website calls, pithily, “the formica era”. The style will probably be fashionable again one of these days. In the meantime, the upstairs room functions as safe house for jazz practitioners, and for members of a related minority case, the Blues. You can see Stewart again there this coming Sunday, this time in a duet with Doherty. He also returns with the aforementioned quartet, on February 2nd.

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