Wayne Stewart is a familiar face at Vancouver’s highest profile cultural events as a musician, actor, and emcee. He’s also a singer, composer, keyboardist, guitarist, and teacher. His music is rooted in jazz and rhythm and blues, and the belief that music should always be, first and foremost, fun! – for both the players and the listeners.
Wayne is a coordinator of the Jazz Vespers series at St. Andrews-Wesley United Church and performs regularly around Vancouver, both solo and with a variety of groups including his own band Curio and The Sanctuary All-Stars Big Band. He also composes music for and accompanies silent films. Recently he scored and produced the 150th retrospective of Georges Méliès’ films at the Vancouver Film Centre, and scored several collections of films from the City of Vancouver Archives. He also appears in Tim Burton’s latest film “Big Eyes” and plays piano on the soundtrack — including a piece he co-wrote for the film.
Born in London, England and raised in Vancouver and New York, he started playing guitar as a teenager and was greatly inspired by rock, funk, and jazz. In his 20’s, he took up piano at college and began playing in salsa, reggae and world music bands. Recognizing that music is how people express the human experience and share a good time, he brings that spirit to every performance!
1) How did you get started with the Jazz Vespers at St. Andrew’s Wesley?
I was invited to emcee by the late director of the program. My name was suggested to him by a couple of great jazz singers we both knew (Karin Plato and Jennifer Scott) and he heard me onstage. I’ve emceed a lot of jazz shows, especially during jazz festivals. For some reason he thought it was a good idea to hand me a microphone in a church! I’ve since become a member of the Jazz Committee and a frequent player with my own bands and as a sideman with other performers. I love their commitment to jazz as a window to the spiritual, and that they’ve welcomed me into the Jazz Vespers Program despite me not being religious. They really are open to all comers. That impresses me.
2) As a musician, has your first love always been jazz? What other music do you like to listen to?
Jazz was always around the house when I was growing up but I’d have to say that my first love was R&B. As a 70’s kid we listened to Kool and the Gang, and Earth, Wind and Fire, Parliament/Funkadelic and, my hero, Stevie Wonder! I was playing guitar back then so I listened to a lot of rock, guitarists like Santana, Jeff Beck, and John McLaughlin. Through my teens I started listening to the bands that my idols listened to and they all listened to jazz, so that brought me full circle and deeper into the music I’d heard at home. As for other music I love good R&B and hip-hop, salsa and Afro-Cuban music, Brazilian music, Afro-Pop, and folk music from around the world.
3) You’ve been playing your Roland RD-300GX digital piano for a long time.
My digital piano is a RD-300GX and, yes, I have! I got it when it first came out and I’ve never regretted it for a moment. It still sounds great to me and the layout is really fast for when you need to call up sounds and layers on the spot. It’s my rock. I was tempted by the 300NX and now I’m really tempted by the RD-800!
4) Which musicians influenced your music or style of playing?
Man! There are too many for anything like a complete list but here are some of the big ones. Stevie Wonder & Weather Report set the bar for sheer musical excellence; Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers because of Art’s exquisite taste in piano players. He brought us Bobby Timmons, Cedar Walton, Benny Green, and James Williams, among others – all players who showed that you can be both soulful and skillful. I love that 5-piece hard bop band sound! Nat King Cole because he was one of the greatest and most fluid jazz pianists ever, yet he made it look effortless. And Thelonious Monk because of his singularity of voice and his commitment to that.
5) What’s your favourite thing about being a live performer?
My favourite thing about being a live performer is making a connection with a band and an audience and being a channel for that energy. It’s a feedback loop that’s not always easy to create but when you do it’s magic!
6) What’s your practise routine like?
I start with some Hanon to loosen my hands and then it varies. If it’s practice for a gig I’ll dive into the tunes I’ll be performing and work on the hard spots. I’ll break the challenges down into separate items that I can work on, string together, and then work them up to tempo and a little beyond so I’m not struggling to keep up. If it’s a study practice I’ll spend some time with The Jazz Piano Book by Mark Levine because no matter how many times I open that book I always notice another aspect that I need to work on even if it’s something I’ve worked on before. I’ll also open fake books to random tunes and start playing them for sight-reading practice pretending someone has just tossed the tune on the stand and is starting the countdown. I keep a list of tunes/charts that I want to learn or work on and will work through those. I really enjoy transcribing tunes and do it a lot for fun and for gig material.
7) Do you think talent or training is more important?
Let’s just say neither is less important. If you know what you’re shooting for I think you can get there with varying amounts of one or the other. The trick is knowing what you’re shooting for.
8) What inspires you?
The thrill of creating music that makes a connection with other players and an audience. Being able to conjure and sustain that space through making sounds is one of the most amazing things in the world. The hope that I may one day write something half as beautiful as the tunes that made me want to make music in the first place.
9) What advice would you give to musicians that are just starting out?
Don’t be afraid to suck. We all do. We all have some gifts or we wouldn’t want to do this but we all start out sucking. If you can recognize what you suck at you’ll know what to work on to get better. Find a good teacher who can show you how to do what you want to do. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. You’ll get more answers that way.
10) Who do you think is the most underrated jazz artist that we should be listening to?
Nat King Cole. It amazes me that many people don’t even know he was a pianist!
Learn more about Wayne Stewart!
Check out Wayne Stewart’s website
Learn more about the Jazz Vespers