Renowned Irish jazz musician Louis Stewart dies aged 72

Tributes paid to Waterford-born jazz guitarists who was ‘one of the world’s greatest’

Late Irish jazz guitarist Louis Stewart in action.

Late Irish jazz guitarist Louis Stewart in action.

 

Renowned Irish jazz guitarist Louis Stewart has passed away in Dublin.

The first Irish jazz musician of international stature, he was idolised by successive generations of guitarists and may be held responsible for the preponderance of that instrument in Irish jazz today.

He had the distinction - accorded only to the very greatest jazz musicians - of being referred to by his first name only: to his fellow musicians, and to his many devoted fans, he was known simply as “Louis”.

In a career that spanned six decades, Stewart played with many of the greats of jazz, including legendary US band-leader Benny Goodman and the great English pianist, George Shearing.

During the 1970s, Stewart was a regular in the Ronnie Scott quintet, playing almost nightly in the saxophonist’s eponymous Soho club, where his playing attracted the attention of some of the leading jazz musicians of the day. Among the guitarists who admired Stewart’s playing were giants of US jazz like Jim Hall, Joe Pass and Mundell Lowe.

A native of Waterford, Stewart’s professional career began at the age of 16 when he joined the Chris Lamb Showband in Cork, but by the age of 20 he had committed himself exclusively to jazz, and his fluency in the complex language of be-bop became quickly apparent. In the late 1960s, he rose to international prominence, winning successive awards at the prestigious Montreux Jazz Festival, including the offer a full scholarship to Berklee College of Music in Boston - an offer which he never took up.

Instead, he returned to Dublin in the 1970s to raise his family, and became the lynchpin of a burgeoning domestic scene. His peers, by whom he was hugely respected, included pianists Jim Doherty and Noel Kelehan, saxophonist Dick Buckley and drummer John Wadham.

It was in this company that Louis was most comfortable, and his residencies in basements and upstairs rooms around Dublin - at Conways on Parnell Street, Slatterys of Capel street, and latterly in JJ Smyths on Aungier street - provided the proving ground for a new generation of jazz musicians.

Stewart was awarded an honorary doctorate by Trinity College in 1998, and in 2009 he became only the second jazz musician to be elected to Aosdana.

Tribute

President Michael D Higgins paid tribute to Stewart on Saturday night, describing him as an “outstanding musician and iconic figure in the world of jazz in Ireland”.

“His many admirers, of all ages, will miss him deeply, and in particular he

will be missed by all those he encouraged and who, in a life devoted to music, he invited to join him in making music.”

His oldest friend and musical partner, pianist Jim Doherty, who has the distinction of playing on Stewart’s first and last public performances - separated by some 56 years - told The Irish Times how a fan once asked him if it was true that Louis Stewart was one of the three best guitarists in the world. “Well”, replied Doherty, “the other two certainly think so”.

Bassist and composer Ronan Guilfoyle, who began his career with Stewart in the late 1970s, said: “For young aspirant jazz musicians of my generation, Louis was a god. He showed by example the heights to which an Irish jazz musician could aspire and for that alone we should be grateful.

“To listen to him at the height of his powers was to witness the playing of one of the world’s greatest jazz guitarists.”

Prominent New York-based guitarist Dave O’Rourke, who was mentored by Stewart, said: “Louis Stewart set the bar so high in Dublin that those of us who moved abroad to play, especially me in New York, had already been exposed to jazz played at its highest level.”

Acknowledging his own personal debt to Stewart and his playing, O’Rourke added: “His legacy can be heard, and will live on in those of us who came after him.”

In late 2015, Stewart was diagnosed with cancer, and he passed away on Saturday morning at Our Lady’s Hospice, Harold’s Cross. He was 72.