Another Good Year For Jazz Drummer Bill Stewart

Dec 22, 2016

For 30 years, native Iowan Bill Stewart has been a professional jazz drummer living on the East Coast.  He has appeared on dozens of albums, including his sixth solo record Space Squid that came out earlier this year.

Most of Stewart's recorded work is as a sideman, but when he has enough material and isn't in demand with other bands, he makes his own music.  He recorded his first album "Think Before You Think" in 1988 after graduating from William Patterson University in New Jersey.

For this debut album he included one of his William Patterson teachers, saxophonist Joe Lovano.  

"He hired me for a few of his gigs in New York City and so I'd already been playing with Joe," says Stewart. "To be in the studio with Joe, I mean it wasn't intimidating because I knew him and he knew my playing and so we'd already done that."

From there the gigs came quickly.  Through his connection with modern jazz saxophonist Maceo Parker, he found himself playing the funky beats for James Brown in 1991 for a concert televised on HBO.

He continued to land high profiles gigs like in 1999 when he began a job that would last two years as a member of Pat Metheny's trio.  They toured the world playing in big halls, exposing Stewart to Metheny's large fan base.

But of all the people Stewart has worked with, his most frequent collaborators are guitarist Peter Bernstein and organist Larry Goldings.  They've been together in a co-led trio since Stewart's days in college. 

"It's great to play with those guys and it's a band that just automatically works in a certain way," says Stewart.

While attending William Patterson University in the 1980s, drummer Bill Stewart (center) began working with guitarist Peter Bernstein and organist Larry Goldings in a co-led trio. They are the headliners of the inaugural Des Moines Jazz Festival.
Credit John Pemble / IPR

Last Labor Day weekend, this trio performed during the inaugural Des Moines Jazz Festival.

"It's one of those festival situations where we don't really have a sound check," he says.  "We have a quick line check and play.  This is a great band to do that with cause we don't have to rehearse, we don't have to talk about much before we go on stage."

For Stewart, this Iowa performance is rare.  Since working as a jazz musician, he's played in his home state only a handful of times.  But in the 1980s while a senior in high school, he was very active as part of the pop music cover band Hip Pocket. 

"It was often a five or six night a week gig," he says. "So I was making some money and taking naps when I got home from school, but it worked out and it was great."

Stewart says this experience at a young age gave him the confidence he could make a living as a musician.  He also credits his parents the late Steve Stewart, a band director for middle and high school, as well as a trombonist in the Des Moines Big Band and his mother Carol, a choir director. 

Initially they encouraged him to get a teaching degree from the University of Northern Iowa.

"You know there's always the, well if you have the teaching degree you know you have something to fall back on that kind of thing when your performing career isn't paying the bills and such," says Stewart.

Bill Stewart starting playing the drums at a young age with much encouragement from his musician parents. He left Des Moines to pursue music at William Patterson University in the mid 1980s and has been featured on dozens of jazz albums.
Credit John Pemble / IPR

Stewart attended UNI for one year, but after learning about William Patterson University, he made the move east. 

"What I noticed is that they had a lot of New York based musicians .. teaching there," says Stewart. "These were people that I knew from records that I had listened to in Iowa."

As the years went on, records with Stewart’s playing started airing on jazz radio station across the country, including Iowa. The most recent album with his drumming came out in September from guitarist John Scofield. It's called Country For Old Men.

"And it's all country tunes. Not necessarily played in a country style, authentically. Most of them aren't, but it's all those tunes," says Stewart.  A few weeks ago he returned from a European tour as part of Scofield's band.

2016 was a busy year for Bill Stewart, and he already has plans for his next release in January with good friends Larry Goldings and Peter Bernstein called Toy Tunes.  It's been three decades since Stewart left Iowa to make a career as a musician and it seems he will continue to be busy making music for many years to come.

Most of jazz drummer Bill Stewart's work is as a sideman, but he also makes time for his own music. In 2016 he released his 6th solo record "Space Squid." He grew up in Des Moines but left for the east coast in the mid 1980s to pursue music at William Patterson University.
Credit John Pemble / IPR