Luke Stewart has emerged as one of the most exciting young bassists on the improvised music scene on the east coast. Based in Washington, DC, he plays regularly in New York, Baltimore, and Philadelphia, and has toured in Europe. He has gained considerable exposure playing with the James Brandon Lewis Trio and he also leads or co-leads his own projects including Ancestral Duo with Jamal Moore and Heart of the Ghost with Ian McColm and Jarrett Gilgore. As a solo artist, he has composed a series of improvisational structures forupright bass and amplifier, utilizing the resonant qualities of the instrument to explore new sounds. He has also been integral to the literary jazz group Heroes Are Gang Leaders.
- Heroes Are Gang Leaders – Kennedy Center (Washington DC), Friday, July 28, 6 pm
- Heroes Are Gang Leaders – Uptown Arts House (Washington DC), Saturday, July 29, 6 pm
- Heroes Are Gang Leaders – Bowery Poetry Club (NYC), Sunday, July 30, 6 pm
Cisco Bradley: Where did you grow up and how did you get on this path to becoming a professional musician?
Luke Stewart: I’m from Ocean Springs, Mississippi, right on the Gulf Coast. I would describe it as a small bed and breakfast type community, a sleepy fishing village, with a small yet deep artistic legacy in the Anderson family – brothers Walter, Peter, and James Anderson, visual artists and ceramists. It’s a suburb of Biloxi/Gulfport area as well as a suburb of the Pascagoula area right there on the Gulf Coast, south of I-10. I grew up five minutes from the beach and the expanse of the water.
So I think a lot of people from that area of the world have a very deep respect for nature and the environment. Those things are important to me, just seeing the beauty in nature and things like that.
Cisco Bradley: What specific places stood out in that environment?
Luke Stewart: In Ocean Springs there are a number of different beaches. It’s a very swampy, marshy kind of area but there some small beaches that are not as populated as a lot of other beaches in the area.
In Biloxi/Gulfport, there are casinos and resort beaches, one of the longest man-made beach in North America, called Long Beach and it stretches from Biloxi and it goes all the way to Bay St. Louis along the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. In Ocean Springs specifically, one spot that me and my friends would always go to was a spot called the Broken Bridge, which is right next to Highway 90 that connects Ocean Springs to Biloxi. It is a fishing bridge which was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. They rebuilt it now and it’s all nice, lit up, and well-maintained, but my memory of it in high school, before Katrina, was it was a relic from the past. It was sort of like the bridge that got destroyed in a hurricane before they built the bridge right next it, I think. So there was a point where you would walk down and you would pass the barrier, the concrete barrier. And that part of the bridge was real dicey we could like bounce on the plates of the bridge and they would sway and stuff like that. It was pretty dangerous but still kind of fun because we were in high school. It was a fishing bridge that went out into the water and the wind is really and you can see the lights of the casinos and everything in Biloxi.
And one of my closest friends in high school lived in an apartment— a condo with her family right on Front Beach. And that was the main beach in Ocean Springs. So she lived there and then another close friend of mine lived in this sort of old house that was a 5-minute walk to the beach where me and my friends would hang out and stuff. Yeah, just really beautiful, serene, super chill scenery. Very inviting and inspiring, I’ll say.
There were not very many opportunities to play for real but I remember feeling inspired a lot when I was younger, growing up, just because of the environment.
Cisco Bradley: Did that environment have a long term impact on your aesthetics as an artist?
Luke Stewart: It added to certain aspects of my personality and thus the way I approach music. The biggest impact that I can think of right now is just the fact that maybe growing up in a place like that, that’s so under the radar and overlooked and insignificant culturally, has made me have an appreciation for making things happen where you are rather than making a decision to move to a supposed cultural center or go to a place that is perceived as or is marketed as a place where you have to go and make it. It instilled in me a sense of doing what you can where you are. But obviously I haven’t lived there since I became an adult but, thinking back on it, I wish that I had had access to the things that I have now when I was in high school when I was really looking for something.
Cisco Bradley: What things?
Luke Stewart: Things like a cultural legacy, access to really potent and meaningful mentorship in some of the things that interested me in music specifically. When I moved to DC, I immediately started meeting all of these elders and interacting with this community that is full of historical and cultural depth and were really open and are on a mission really to pass on the knowledge to those who are interested in the next generation. A real sense of nation-building, in a way. This is the responsibility, this is the powerful, unique knowledge and perspective that is really passed down orally. It’s not something that you’re going to read or experience in a book it’s something you’re going to get from talking to people and hanging out and getting the vibe and the energy from these individuals.
So I guess the impact of the environment is a sense of broadening the cultural surface area outside of these geographies outside of these bubbles because this message and this music deserves to be heard and experienced by a lot more people. And I feel, especially, the duty for us in this music is to try to reach as many people as possible that are not lucky enough to happen to reside in this geographically privileged areas.
Cisco Bradley: You mentioned “nation-building”. What do you mean?
Luke Stewart: I mean just building a new society based on so-called radical thought-processes and world outlooks that aren’t in the mainstream. It’s a process of being endowed with this knowledge and perspective on how things should be and knowing the importance of passing on that information. That process is building a community and ultimately a nation, working towards the next stage of evolution and towards justice.
Cisco Bradley: Were there specific elders that you feel have played a big role in your development?
Luke Stewart: Absolutely. Probably my first really powerful mentor in this music, outside of school and outside of my professors, was Jamal Muhammad who was a radio host, DJ on WPFW 89.3 FM, but was also an encyclopedia of knowledge about the music, about jazz, about bebop. At the time he was in his 70s and he would tell me stories about growing up in Washington D.C. and going to the Howard Theatre and other places and seeing Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and, of course, Duke Ellington and all these people.
He told a story one time about how he actually hung out with Charlie Parker for a week when he was a teenager and saw Charlie Parker at the Howard Theatre. And of course during those times they would do these week long or month long runs at a particular venue all across America. And during one of those runs he hung out with Charlie Parker, at that time bebop was very much an underground phenomenon. In the ‘40s, the mainstream was still swing music and show tunes and the music that Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and many other people were playing was like the punk music or the underground music of the day. So Jamal would tell all these kinds of stories, these stories with insider information that you’re not going to read in a book. He was the first person who pushed my knowledge of the music to a whole other level, just exposed me to so many different figures.
Cisco Bradley: What kind of knowledge did this include?
Luke Stewart: Well, I’ll give you an example. He showed me that you don’t necessarily have to even play an instrument to be a master in jazz because it’s about so much more than that.
On top of hipping me to a lot of different obscure and not so obscure artists telling me all these back stories about the way they lived, the things they did… the kind of people they were – all that kind of stuff – as a developing musician and person who’s interested in this music, in a way, he’s giving me an insider’s look of what I’m getting into. Jamal Muhammad came up in the era where there were a lot of drugs in the music and in society at large and in the black community and he talked about the ways that that affected the music. He was in New York in the ‘70s during the loft scene. He visited Studio We. He was an acquaintance of Sam Rivers and would frequent Studio Rivbea. Ultimately he showed me that you have to have an intimate knowledge of the history and different figures just as well as the tunes or the traditions and the importance of not having that come from a book or from school. Having it being told to me or told to you by an elder who actually was there is different. And it’s also outside of the institution, outside of the system. Obviously there are people in academic situations that do have that knowledge and have been recognized and celebrated but they’re locked into the institution which is problematic in some ways.
Cisco Bradley: How is that problematic in your opinion?
Luke Stewart: Well, one way it is problematic is that it creates this caste system based on access. The only way to access these institutions is, one, you have to be accepted by the institution through an application process and then you have to be able to pay for it. So that automatically cuts out a whole lot of people who might be interested or might be able to benefit from the knowledge of an elder in this music. So that right there is problematic. I consider myself very lucky to have met Jamal Muhammad and to have been accepted by him and for him to take me under his wing and become almost like a father figure, in a way. To me, that’s very special.
And it’s the way that it’s been done that’s the traditional way that the knowledge and the information and the music have ultimately been passed down through those means, not through academic channels.
Cisco Bradley: You were talking about nation-building and you talked about justice. What would justice look like to you?
Luke Stewart: Justice is 40 acres and a mule plus so much more. Free education. Free healthcare. A free pair of Jordan’s. It’s all that.
Some really crazy shit happened and continues to happen, and we’re still reeling from that and we’re still trying to figure out who we are within that. We’re still trying to settle that historical debt.
And the worst thing is that that history and that sort of spark that started this whole system is still playing itself out. So firstly we need an overthrow and then we can talk about justice. However unrealistic or unlikely that might sound. But that’s what I think is needed. I don’t have to go into details or anything because everybody knows that something fucked up happened.
And we’re still living in the results of all those things, especially in the age of Obama/Hillary/Trump/Bernie. Because it’s also Sandra Bland/Tamir Rice/Trayvon Martin/Mumia Abu-Jamal/H. Rap Brown and thousands of others. And then also the conditions and the social dynamics that we’re left with in a populous that has been drained.
People talk about we need another strong, powerful black leader like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. That person is either dead or in jail at this point. We’ll never know.
Mumia Abu-Jamal, in my mind, is like the closest that we can get right now to a Malcolm X or a Martin Luther King. And that fool’s in jail on death row or on life row as he says now.
And there are thousands of others just like him that don’t even have his platform and, ultimately, don’t have the opportunity to fulfill their destiny. They don’t have the opportunity to realize and actualize their talents and their skills and their intellect in an impactful way just due to this system of racism.
Cisco Bradley: Is there a specific role that this specific music has to play in the process of liberation?
Luke Stewart: I would say that this music offers an alternative. It offers a new perspective on ways of being.
This is what I say a lot – it’s improvised music, which includes jazz and blues and really every kind of music from an improvisatory standpoint, it offers a new perspective on the way life can be. Or, rather, because it’s the only approach to music that truly offers something that the world has never experienced before because everything is happening in the moment. Everything is now.
So just by standpoint alone, the musicians are manifesting something about themselves in that momentary creation that they’ve never seen or heard or felt before and the audience is experiencing the same thing as well, in real time. And I think that’s a very powerful form.
And it just has so many different implications. If you’re an audience member going to see this music then it already implies that you’re an open-minded thinker and that you’re searching and looking and exploring other possibilities. And then, obviously, for the musicians it offers that too but it also carries with it this responsibility of really giving a thorough look at humanity and what that really means and your place within humanity and how to best express your ideas and your being to the world. And it’s always new. It’s always different.
If you want to talk in industry terms, in jazz terms or even classical terms, we know the status of the music, in America at least, in an industry way of thinking we’re at record lows in terms of listenership. Everybody is pretty much at the same level everywhere whether you’re playing avant-garde jazz or straight ahead jazz or if you’re even playing classical music or new music or whatever. Everybody’s pretty much at the same level in terms of monetary returns on their work.
My point is basically everybody’s in the same place so you might as well be yourself and you might as well push yourself to do something different, to explore something that hasn’t been done before, to explore improvisation and to recognize improvisation as a potent and powerful means of new creation just by its very nature.
Cisco Bradley: Earlier, you mentioned the necessity of overthrowing the current system. What do you think would take to bring that into reality?
Luke Stewart: “It would take bloodshed,” as Malcolm said. It would take a lot of death. It would take a lot of extreme lifestyle changes and a lot of extreme differences in thinking.
I’m a Bob Marley fan and he has that song where he’s talking about … there’s no use … nobody can stop them. You have to basically start all over.
Everything is so far ahead and the resistance is so futile because we’re still living in the system and we have to abide by the rules of the system unless— or we die, literally.
But that’s ultimately what it takes. Hopefully though, slowly but surely we can chip away with these funny sounds that we make on our instruments.
Cisco Bradley: Do you feel optimistic?
Luke Stewart: I feel optimistic, absolutely, because I’m inspired everyday by the work that I see being made now. And if I’m inspired then other people are inspired, hopefully, I would think. So I think it’s just about awareness.
Obviously, that’s an uphill battle based on, again, the system that’s in place that curtails information and has different priorities ultimately. But I think that exposure and doing the work of putting the music in people’s faces outside of geographically privileged areas, we have to do this like a presidential campaign.
My philosophy has been we have to be better than MTV, BET, and the corporate music business in terms of getting this music out there because the game isn’t about money, it’s about minds. Everybody’s in church here. That’s the way I think about it. And you’re in the church of MTV where you’re listening to whatever… to Rihanna and Taylor Swift and shit like that or you’re into Young Thug, Gucci Mane church.
What I’m most optimistic about now is just how diverse everybody is becoming in their listening habits. I feel like now more than any time in my life people are listening to more and different types of music, thanks to technology. But we in this music have to do a better job of letting our greatness shine and evangelizing to those people because otherwise, why are you playing this music?
The reasons that I explained before about the power of this music, I think everybody deserves to at least hear it and have a thought or an opinion about it. To where now most people have no clue what’s going on, ironically in this information age where people are listening to more different types of music than ever. They’re still ignorant to what I think is some of the more innovative works that are going on in contemporary sound art or music.
Cisco Bradley: Were there other elders who were influential?
Luke Stewart: There are quite a few. I don’t want to get into naming because I’m going to start missing people. But just know that there are many older people that have really looked out and I am eternally grateful for that because this is not the life that I ever imagined for myself. I’m so far beyond and so far into the unknown in my life that it’s overwhelming sometimes.
I never could have thought that last night that I would be playing with Hamiet Bluiett and the AACM after studying them and being inspired by their example for all these years and recognizing their importance and really connecting with what they were about. And, ultimately, to be up in it—that is completely overwhelming and completely so far from where I thought I’d be growing up.
Cisco Bradley: Do you remember when or how you first became aware of AACM?
Luke Stewart: My first instrument is saxophone. So I would say my first exposure to the AACM was listening to Anthony Braxton. And hearing him completely freaked me out. I remember my reaction first hearing Circle or Conference of the Birds, thinking that this is some of the craziest stuff I’ve ever heard anybody do on a saxophone and it’s so far beyond anywhere I will ever be on the saxophone. It’s the kind of stuff that makes you want to give up or made me want to give up. I thought it was insane. I wasn’t really aware necessarily of AACM outside of just reading that name and Braxton’s biography and then getting into the Art Ensemble of Chicago.
But I guess I didn’t really gain true awareness of what the AACM was until I started interacting with Bobby Hill at WPFW. He was the first person to really explained to me and showed me how deep that was and the whole community aspect and their mission to uplift and raise the community through innovative music. Not mainstream popular music but by showing people that there’s another possibility, there are other ways of being. And that showed in their lives too. So that’s when that inspiration happened.
Cisco Bradley: When did you start saxophone?
Luke Stewart: At 6th grade.
Cisco Bradley: When did you move to bass?
Luke Stewart: Saxophone was a school thing. I was reticent about it. I had just moved to a new city in Mississippi when I went to 6th grade and I wanted to take P.E. but all P.E. classes were full so I took band. And I remember that I always wanted to play the saxophone so I could play the Pink Panther. I watched a lot of cartoons as a kid and Pink Panther was one of my favorite cartoons and I wanted to play the Pink Panther song on the saxophone. But then, unbeknownst to me, I was playing alto saxophone instead of tenor saxophone so I couldn’t even play the Pink Panther song right. I wasn’t super serious about playing. I was fucking around, being a middle schooler.
But when I was in 8th grade, a friend of mine who had already been playing guitar for a few years and he was also in band, he played clarinet, he said, “Yeah, we should start a band.” That’s also when I was starting to get into different forms of rock music because that’s something I did not grow up with. I didn’t get rock n’ roll from my Mom who I grew up with. Later on, when I started hanging out with my Dad, he introduced me to Led Zeppelin and Van Halen because he’s that kind of guy.
So, my friend wanted to start a band and wanted me to play bass. I had already started playing guitar. My Mom bought me a $100 acoustic guitar. My friend who had already been playing guitar for a while said, “Oh, man…” and he said, “Yeah, you should play bass.” and I said, “Okay. Yeah, I’ll play bass.” My Mom bought me a bass. I think the electric bass guitar and the amp together were 500 bucks.
In the beginning it was a very personal thing. I would just be in my room playing the fucking bass. Not in school, just be up in my room. When I was in 9th grade I went through a long period of self isolation where I was just listening to music. I was the kid that had his headphones in constantly and wasn’t paying attention in class and wasn’t talking to anybody. I was that kid through a lot of 9th grade. And then when I started coming out of it, I started hanging out with older kids, upperclassmen and getting into music that way.
Cisco Bradley: How did you start training more seriously with the bass?
Luke Stewart: I was late in getting to the upright. I started upright when I was 19 or 20, when I moved to D.C., because there was no opportunity for me to play upright bass at all in Mississippi. There were no basses around and at that time there were no orchestras in schools in Mississippi, except for maybe two or three school districts in the entire state. There was one in Biloxi and there were maybe two in Jackson.
But, yeah, that was it in terms of string opportunities. It is funny because my Mom growing up and all through high school and college was apparently a pretty good violin player but she quit when she went to medical school.
And around the same time I started playing bass guitar, she was inspired as well and bought a new violin, so she could get back into it or something but she never had the time so I started playing it and actually took a couple of violin lessons. And, I was practicing it but there was no real outlet for it where I’m from. And I wanted to do the classical thing and actually be in the orchestra and all that kind of stuff but there was no real opportunity for that to happen so I didn’t really pursue that.
But, anyway, I started playing upright, when I was a student at American University, where I was in the jazz band and my professor, the head of the jazz band, Dr. Will Smith, was a really great tenor saxophone player and also the nephew of Warren Smith, the drummer. And he would talk about his Uncle Warren. He didn’t really talk about the scene or the music that he was making currently but he would always be, “I stayed at my Uncle’s house in New York. He has this loft space and all these instruments and played with Aretha Franklin on Broadway…”
Anyway, Dr. Will Smith used to organize jam sessions at the school during the evening time and I was playing alto in the jazz band. And during one of these sessions I brought my bass guitar, and I guess he didn’t know that I played, and I started playing and he said, “Oh, man, I didn’t know you play bass. You need to play upright.” The school had an upright bass that nobody was really playing and so he arranged it to where I could have access to it and I just started playing. And I was practicing and learning the instrument.
Then the following summer, I linked up with a great bass player in D.C., Herman Burney, a real true master of the instrument. I went over to his house a few times over the summer and we’d have this 5-hour long just chilling and hanging sessions with him playing different things. He showed me a bunch of different exercises to do.
And then everything else was just me in the practice room. I mean, that’s kind of how it works with bass in particular I think. For me, having a perspective of playing a horn and then a rhythm section instrument like bass, I think that in terms of lessons, music lessons and things like that, I think is a much different thing for bass. So you learn a couple exercises and really the rest is up to you to sort of figure out.
And then I was starting to interact with the jazz community in D.C. Going to jam sessions and doing that whole thing. Hanging out talking to people, getting called for gigs here and there. That’s the way to do it.
Cisco Bradley: So had you been listening to jazz growing up? How did that start?
Luke Stewart: Absolutely. It started in a serious way when I started playing saxophone and trying to investigate different things on that instrument. I have memories of my ear being drawn to that type of music, through watching cartoons like the Pink Panther. But I wouldn’t say that I was necessarily musically aware in terms of active investigation really until I started playing bass guitar in 8th grade because it was just kind of a school activity up until then.
During that time, my Mom had a big CD collection and I remember sifting through it in 6th and 7th grade and finding a few jazz CDs. There was this one collection from one of those Now music series. They used to have these CD collections such as Now Volume 2 split into genres like pop, rock, slow jams, R&B, jazz, and whatever. And my Mom was also a big Kenny G fan so I definitely remember hearing a lot of Kenny G as a kid and like a lot of Grover Washington Jr. and that kind of stuff. David Sanborn and Najee.
Cisco Bradley: Were there specific artists who really drew you in?
Luke Stewart: So the one experience was probably going to the record store with my mom at the mall. And I was diving headfirst into jazz. I’m looking in the jazz section and see Miles Davis: Kind Of Blue and Bitches Brew. I think that was the first time I said a swear word in front of my mom. I said, “Hey Mom, can we get Kind Of Blue or Bitches Brew?” and she said, “Well, we can get both.” So we got both.
And I remember listening to Bitches Brew first, in the car on the way home from the mall, Pharaoh’s Dance comes on and my first reaction was, “Whoa, what the fuck is this?” I think I remember thinking it sounded like ‘70s porno music. That went through my head. And then I got home and listened to Kind Of Blue and I remember immediately thinking, “Oh, wow, this is amazing.” And hearing John Coltrane in a real way for the first time I thought, “Oh, shit!” And then I remember going back and listening to Bitches Brew and then having a similar experience of like, “Whoa, this is actually insane and crazy.”
Like I mentioned before, I was like one of those kids that during the latter part of 8th grade, the summer before high school, and the first parts of high school, I would definitely go through periods of just putting in my headphones and not talking to anybody and not really interacting, just being in my own head. And those were specifically two records that I remember listening to a lot during that period. I feel like I know every single part of the whole album of Bitches Brew.
Everything stemmed from that. Because from there you get John Coltrane and you get Keith Jarrett, Bill Evans, Jack DeJohnette, and Herbie Hancock, and the web keeps going from there.
And then also, I should probably mention that I spent my summers and winters in Detroit where my mom is from and specifically hanging out with my Uncle Milo, he and I were the same age. He was my uncle/cousin/brother-type of person because my grandfather had a child later in life. And my grandfather was really the major father figure in my life growing up and so his son was kind of like my brother.
And we were really close all the way up until he passed away a few years ago.
Cisco Bradley: Oh, sorry.
Luke Stewart: So around that time I started listening to a lot of hip hop and underground hip hop specifically and getting into that whole culture, the backpacking culture and all that kind of stuff and listening to instrumentals and trying to freestyle and all that stuff. Beginning a thorough investigation of hip hop, also leads to of course some very interesting and inspiring places, just with the samples, and learning music like that.
Cisco Bradley: What hip hop artists had a big impression on you?
Luke Stewart: Premier, Pete Rock, the old school shit. And we were also into Just Blaze (This is Dipset Time), Jay Z, not as a producer, obviously, but as a rapper.
That was in 8th grade. Still to this day my favorite is Madlib, to me, the best. But that was later. Oh, and we were also into Company Flow.
The whole Rawkus Records thing basically. The whole Lyricist Lounge Rawkus records thing was what we were into and basically New York-based or that sound. The boom bap thing.
It went on and on. I was trying to do the turntable thing. In 10th grade I got turntables and I’ve been into records since then and inherited some records from family members. And oddly enough there are a lot of really decent record stores in Mississippi, in the area where I grew up. And obviously nobody’s going there for records. So I accrued a good collection of records while I was in high school. I went through a period when I wanted to be a hip hop producer/DJ person.
But I remember spending hours practicing scratching and stuff like that and I was really into watching DJ videos and being able to identify samples and all that stuff. I used to be really good at it. I’m not so good anymore because I haven’t listened to it.
Cisco Bradley: So would you say jazz and hip hop are the main aesthetic influences on you?
Luke Stewart: 9th to 10th grade was when I started playing in punk bands. I started hanging out with some older kids. We were musicians and played crazy punk music. Specifically, my friend Danny, who is older than me — he was the real fucking deal. He was the real deal punk guy in high school. He was the kid that ran away from home when he was 14 and lived in a squat with some punks and stuff and learned how to play guitar and was skateboarding. He was the coolest kid ever.
And then there were some other friends that I made that had moved to Mississippi. There’s a lot of military there so people moved in and out a lot. I remember this one family in particular, the Santos, they were from a liberal, progressive, Amy Goodman-type background. And so the kids were all punked out.
Cisco Bradley: Were you listening to a lot of punk music as well as playing it?
Luke Stewart: Well, I was playing it and then just from being around it, I was listening to it. I would say that I was just listening to what my friends were listening to and was into what they were into. We were into various other things. There was still a punk scene. I don’t even know what you would call it really. But we definitely played shows with other bands. A lot of the other bands were real shitty we thought. We would be playing with a bunch of screamo bullshit. Down there that was the hardcore Christian rock scene. That shit is real. And we played a couple of sets with them. Those were some of the most violent ones.
Cisco Bradley: Was it a reaction to the prevailing culture?
Luke Stewart: No. it was heavy, hardcore music except talking about praising the Lord and getting in a mosh pit and literally swinging hard closed fists around and you might get knocked in the fucking head type shit. No drugs, no cigarettes, no drinking. Straight edge the whole way. But they would just lose it.
Cisco Bradley: As you were coming up through the scene in D.C., were there important people or key moments that really pushed you forward?
Luke Stewart: Absolutely. The first substantial avant-garde jazz gig that I ever did was at Twins Jazz. I think before then I played with Lost Civilizations one time and the DC Improvisers Collective. Those were two other local groups in D.C. The first one that was big and memorable was at Twins Jazz. It was with Marshall Allen and Danny Ray Thompson from the Sun Ra Arkestra and with Elliott Levin from Philly, it was my first time playing with him, and my friend Ed Ricart on guitar. He’s the one that actually called me for the gig. And Sam Lohman on drums who we later formed the band Trio OOO. And John Sinclair was there doing spoken word poetry.
It was insane. I was definitely thinking about Sun Ra the whole time. By that time I’d listen to a great deal of Sun Ra. I was super into Sun Ra at that point and so I felt I knew exactly what to play. I remember it felt really good and it was obviously a momentous, crazy experience. And I remember thinking, wow, this is my first one. That’s insane. What does that mean?
Cisco Bradley: That kind of sparked it for you?
Luke Stewart: That was the major spark in terms of me thinking I can do this. I was just so enamored at the fact like that I was in the presence of these people. “Pinch me. Is this real?” type thing. And actually talking and hanging out with these people. I smoked a joint with John Sinclair and he was talking about all of this radical revolutionary shit that was going on in Detroit, and sitting at the bar and having a conversation with Marshall Allen and Danny Ray Thompson, it was just ridiculous.
And, also, again, that was my first major avant-garde jazz gig because by that time I was definitely working the jam session straight ahead scene of D.C. I was starting to get called for more gigs and stuff in that.
Cisco Bradley: So you’ve always had one foot in each of those scenes?
Luke Stewart: I’ve tried to. Though, at this point I haven’t been called for a straight ahead jazz gig in a while. But, yeah, for a long time I’ve tried to keep a multiplicity going on between saxophone and bass, between hip hop and jazz, and then later between hip hop, jazz, and experimental music, production and performance. I try to develop different skillsets at the same time. For better or worse.
Cisco Bradley: Were there bands in D.C. that were a key part of your development?
Luke Stewart: Trio OOO for sure. Trio OOO is Sam Lohman on drums and Aaron Martin Jr. on saxophone. Aaron’s the elder. He’s an alto player who also played with the Sun Ra Arkestra back in the ‘80s. He was asked personally by Sun Ra to join the Arkestra but he said no because he lived in D.C. and because he had a daughter that he was raising by himself so he had to forego that. But he also played with Anthony Braxton in one of his orchestras. He played with Matana Roberts in one of her orchestras. He studied with Jimmy Lyons.
Cisco Bradley: When did that come together?
Luke Stewart: 2010.
Cisco Bradley: And guys were pretty active for a few years?
Luke Stewart: Yeah, we were pretty active. We recorded and released an album on New Atlantis. That’s our friend Ed’s label.
Cisco Bradley: What music did Trio OOO make together?
Luke Stewart: I call it straight ahead free jazz because that’s what it was. It was a classic sax, drums, bass trio and we were playing in the style of jazz, in the style of bebop and improvised jazz. And we had some song structures and a few heads but we just played. Days To Be Told is the name of our album, recorded at Seizure’s Palace here in Brooklyn and released on New Atlantis.
Cisco Bradley: Were you mainly playing in D.C.?
Luke Stewart: At that time, yeah, mainly in D.C. I think I played a couple times in Philly, too. It just occurred to me to mention some other formative gigs and experiences in D. C….
There was special concert that was put together with Warren G. “Trae” Crudup III, Lewis “Flip” Barnes, Joseph Bowie, Adam Rudolph, and Ernest Dawkins. It happened at Goldleaf which is one of the spots that my band, Laughing Man, was in and a lot of musical activity went on there. That’s kind of where I first started doing a lot of shows, in one particular place. But one of those shows was this one. And it was organized by Bobby Hill of Transparent Productions. And so that whole sort of old scene in D.C., like the avant-garde, high art minded community of D.C. was really involved in that show.
There were connections to the AACM there. Ernest Dawkins and Joseph Bowie they felt endowed to deliver the blessing. So we did two sets. First set we played and then the second set they did this thing where we were playing and it was kind of upbeat, almost New Orleans style swing tune and they are all playing and then they all marched out, they all left, and it was just me and Trae up there onstage. So we just did duo for 30 minutes, almost the whole second set, and then they came back. They later explained that is a ritual for AACM—that the elders will play with the younger musicians and then at some point they leave and you have to fill it in on your own.
Cisco Bradley: Was that one of your first times playing with Trae?
Luke Stewart: I had met Trae on the D.C. jazz scene, playing straight ahead jazz in restaurants and shit like that, but, yeah, definitely one of the first like that.
So every year in D.C. a group of people do these tributes to John Coltrane for his birthday, every year in September. And one particular year Transparent Productions decided to do something as well. So they set up a gig at Bohemian Caverns. The owner’s father is Dr. Leonard Brown from Northeastern University, who is known for playing Peace On Earth at his annual Coltrane commemoration in Boston. It was also the same year that Dr. Brown released his book, John Coltrane and Black America’s Quest for Freedom: Spirituality and the Music. It’s basically a book about John Coltrane’s importance to the black community. And so it was a beautiful thing. He came down and did a book lecture and did a performance.
Bobby Hill asked me to do some sort of piece for Peace On Earth specifically and encouraged me to get a big band. He told me with a good amount of time in advance so I… firstly, I did a transcription for bass of Peace On Earth and then I did an arrangement of Peace On Earth for a big band and did a performance at Bohemian Caverns. We opened for Joe McPhee and Michael Bisio in duo, which was funny because it was a big band opening for a small unit.
Cisco Bradley: Who was in your big band?
Luke Stewart: The whole band was made up of people who were important to me as mentors or as colleagues. That was the first time Jamal Moore and I played together. He had literally just moved back to the East Coast after being in California and he didn’t even have his horn with him so he played Aaron’s horn on the gig. The band also included my former teacher, Dr. Will Smith, Charles Rahmat Woods, Lorenz “Abeeku” Wheatley who’s the son of Lawrence Wheatley Sr. who’s also a very key figure in D.C. jazz. He ran the orchestra at the One Step Down, one of the famed D.C. jazz clubs. But, anyway, Lorenz Wheatley was on baritone, Nasar Abadey on drums, also a major figure in D.C., Reginald Cyntje on trombone, another key figure in D.C. J.S. Williams on trumpet, Fred Foss on sax. There were a lot of sax and flute players. There was a lot of room for improvisation and I would do hand gestures to sort of lead it from the bass chair through solos and all that kind of stuff.
Cisco Bradley: Was that your first time arranging for that size of ensemble?
Luke Stewart: Yeah, that was in September 2011.
Cisco Bradley: So what first appealed to you about Jamal Moore’s playing?
Luke Stewart: We just really connected as people. We were definitely two individuals on similar paths with similar sensibilities and similar outlooks and beliefs. We immediately felt like brothers in this. We’re comrades. It was one of those kind of things.
And then once I heard him, he’s the real deal. He plays every reed instrument and every percussion instrument and he’s amazing at them all. He can really play them all.
Cisco Bradley: And so did you immediately start playing duo or were you working in other formations?
Luke Stewart: We’d always been doing all kinds of different stuff. We’ve always talked about the expanse of— the artistic expanse of the AACM and Horace Tapscott, the community orchestras around the music. And I think the common thread within all of those is that those musicians did so many different things. They didn’t have just one band or two or three bands that they would focus on. They were expressing themselves in all different kinds of ways. So I think that’s kind of where we are coming from in that sense.
Our main group is Ancestral Duo, but we’ve played trio, we have a larger ensemble, Akebulan Arkestra. Jamal has Organix Trio. We’ve done collaborations with Mike Reed, Tomeka Reid, J.D. Parran, and others. We just make the music and invite ourselves. We find each other in our own projects all the time.
Cisco Bradley: What is the artistic vision for Ancestral Duo and what’s in the name?
Luke Stewart: Ancestral Duo is Jamal on multi-reeds, multi-percussion, and electronics and me on bass, percussion, and electronics. It’s just the culmination of all the discussions and things that we’ve had, Jamal and I, just about cultural legacies of the music and us as a people.
We’re very much inspired and come out of a black spiritual sensibility and we were trying to explore that within the context of 2016-2017 where that voice, I think, is being forgotten within the discussions about Black Lives Matter and all this kind of stuff. Nobody’s talking about spirituality or nation-building or anything like that. A lot of those more radical, ideological voices are absent.
So that’s what we’re trying to explore in the music, just really getting to the root of spiritual improvisation from our own particular collective understanding of African ancestry, of legacy. Our pride and our greatness within all of that and trying to express that legacy in a time where that is being marginalized, I would say.
Cisco Bradley: So is it about trying to connect with audiences, waking people up, or is it trying to connect to a history?
Luke Stewart: It is all of that. And we’re trying to work our options as best as possible. We went on tour in August and we played at the same venues that every other avant-garde leading group plays from the East Coast out to Chicago. We played at Fields Fest in Baltimore.
Our target audience is the black community. We talk all the time about the dynamics of this whole thing and really trying to make that happen. The dynamics of the scene makes it such that before we can get to our target audience, we have to work with what’s here right now and gain respect and all that stuff. And continuously putting out music also but also trying to connect with other people that share our sensibilities.
We’ve connected really hard with Black Spirituals from Oakland. They’re our brother group. We’ve done a lot of work with them. And just other individuals that are people of color, but specifically black people, that are into this music and working together to try and build this coalition.
Cisco Bradley: What have been your best experiences performing in front of a primarily Black audience with Ancestral Duo? What’s the reaction?
Luke Stewart: One of the times we did something like that in front of the black community was for the John Coltrane commemorations that were put on by an organization called the United Black Community in Washington D.C. And it was a Black space, Black event. I’m not even sure if that’s a good litmus test for the black communities’ reaction to our music in general. But we were very much at home with that community, with all those individuals. They’re all very deep in their own ways and have a lot of knowledge about history. We were welcomed and it was beautiful.
In those settings, it becomes a community healing kind of thing rather than an exhibition or a show. It feels like we’re all in this together. So we did that in 2016. We did a version of Ancestral Duo featuring Aaron Martin Jr. and Jeron White, who’s the bass player in Organix Trio with Jamal, and Nasar Abadey sat in. We were all so honored and thankful that the event was happening and to be a part of it. We felt we were on a journey together. No explanation needed.
It had been about four years since I had done Peace on Earth and so I did a very short version of it. And Jamal did a beautiful solo piece on flute and then he and Aaron did a flute duo thing. Aaron, Jamal, and I did a triple sax thing because it was John Coltrane. It was a beautiful thing and it was well-received.
In the past we’ve done a thing where we go from acoustic to electric but throughout the whole tour we kind of did the opposite. We started off with almost like a pseudo noise set and then brought it into a pseudo free jazz duo set.
Cisco Bradley: Do you feel a disconnect when performing with Ancestral Duo in front of a primarily white audience?
Luke Stewart: We’re doing the same thing regardless. The vibe is different obviously but, yeah, we’re going to do the exact same thing. We’re going to be playing with the exact same spirit, I’ll say. It’s just normal social dynamics stuff.
In playing the circuit, so to speak, we’re doing that to interact with people, to, again, build a coalition of people – of all people really. That’s what I’m all about – we’re friends on the internet and let’s make this solid. Can I play a show in your town and let’s meet. Let’s hang out and let’s talk about stuff.
Cisco Bradley: Talk history, talk politics?
Luke Stewart: Yeah. Let’s talk life. Yeah. Let’s not talk about music. What’s up? Who are you? Or let’s talk about what music means. But we’re not talking about gear. No. We’re not talking about your favorite band.
I remember having a really nice conversation nerding out on records and stuff with these guys in St. Louis who ran a record store and really knew their shit. So that was fun. I like those conversations.
Cisco Bradley: How have you developed your solo work?
Luke Stewart: I basically started this exploration of working with solo material as a bass and amp, basically doing feedback stuff with my amp and bass. The concept is, in a nutshell, using the bass kind of like a noise source for a no input mixer. And I have an amp with EQs and stuff and once it gets going, the tones get so crazy and so variable. The pitches and the sounds and everything. So that’s been an exploration.
But the times that I performed it, I guess the biggest one was in Baltimore this year during Artscape. High Zero had a special stage during Artscape and I did a solo piece. It wasn’t overtly intended to be this but I think a bunch of people took it as a reaction to police brutality because I guess it’s always a hot topic. But I guess people thought that that’s what I was talking about. I usually like to present material with an explanation, but for that I decided to not do any talking at all. So it does come across as very angry and aggressive because it’s loud and I’m dealing with some harsh tones with the feedback and with the certain things that I’m doing on the bass.
Cisco Bradley: You feel like there’s a lot of anger in that music?
Luke Stewart: I think so. This is me getting out a lot of anger and frustration and reacting to the world.
Cisco Bradley: How have people responded to it?
Luke Stewart: They either love it or hate it, to be honest.
For instance, that High Zero show… afterwards, I went and talk to Martin, one of the High Zero people, and he said, “Wow. High Zero rarely gets this reaction. People hated it.” Some people walked out and were talking in front of the stage about how bad it was. I couldn’t tell if that was a compliment because that’s kind of how High Zero rolls as well. But there were other people that stayed, who said, “Wow. That was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen.”
Cisco Bradley: Is the goal for everyone to love it?
Luke Stewart: No. But I guess this is where I am just expressing myself and I’m expressing my anger at the world. But I always try to end it in a less harsh way. It starts off harsh and then it gets less harsh. As if to say if you can get through this, then it’s going to be really good.
Cisco Bradley: And do you have a plan to release?
Luke Stewart: I do. Either with a label or else I’m just going to do it.
Cisco Bradley: How did Heart of the Ghost come together with Ian McColm and Jarrett Gilgore?
Luke Stewart: Heart of the Ghost is a band made up of friends. Ian and I are really close. He’s a very, very good friend of mine. And Jarrett and I have known each other for a good while and we’re really close as well. And we’ve all followed each other’s music for a good while and love each other’s playing and decided to get together. It’s really just as simple as that.
The first time we played it was a gig in Baltimore after we did one rehearsal in D.C. This is a band that I’m writing for as well, which is cool because I like doing that, just improvisational structures type thing.
Cisco Bradley: Yeah. And sort of came together in 2015?
Luke Stewart: Yeah.
Cisco Bradley: I thought your performance at New Revolution Arts in Brooklyn in March 2016 was phenomenal. Do you have plans to record that band as well?
Luke Stewart: We’re talking about it. There’s some studio time at Peabody, where Jarrett went to school, that we’re trying to work out. We’re being very organic about it. Just kind of letting things happen. We’re just kind of doing our thing, coming together, and when the opportunity arises.
Cisco Bradley: Cool. I look forward to future musical developments. Thanks so much for discussing your work.