Obituary: Louis Stewart
An internationally acclaimed jazz genius, he chose to remain at home in Ireland
Published 28/08/2016 | 02:30
Louis Stewart, who has died aged 72, was one of Ireland's best-loved musicians. Despite his international renown as a world-class jazz guitarist, he lived most of his life in this country.
Born in Waterford, he grew up in Dublin and began teaching himself to play guitar at the age of 15. Barney Kessel was his first inspiration; other influences included Jim Hall and Johnny Smith.
In the early 1960s, Louis joined a showband led by pianist Jim Doherty, but before long he was concentrating on jazz.
Playing with the Noel Kelehan Trio, he accompanied such illustrious visitors as Lee Konitz and Gerry Mulligan. Again with Jim Doherty, he appeared in 1968 at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. The quartet was voted second in the band category and Louis won the Press Award for the Outstanding European Soloist.
The following year, he was offered a scholarship to Berklee College of Music, Boston, but did not take it up. Instead, he joined the Tubby Hayes Quartet in London and did three European tours with the Benny Goodman big band.
After a spell back in Dublin, he returned to London in 1975, playing for four years with the Ronnie Scott quintet, before joining George Shearing for three years. He made several recordings with Shearing, then and later.
But Louis Stewart was really a home bird and increasingly he remained living in Ireland with his wife Betty and their three children.
He became a source of inspiration for younger Irish guitarists, like David O'Rourke and Hugh Buckley, as well as encouraging other instrumentalists. For many years, he was Honor Heffernan's regular accompanist.
He was featured in the very first Cork Jazz Festival in 1978 and went on to play in many more over the years, leading his own groups or backing international stars.
Fellow guitarists, like Mundell Lowe, Martin Taylor and Heiner Franz, loved playing with him.
He often visited Norway, as he had a great affinity with Norwegian musicians, such as Knut Mikalsen, Karin Krog and Per Husby.
Jazz fans from abroad marvelled at the fact that such a superb player, who was admired by famous musicians all over the world, could be heard for a modest fee in places like JJ Smyth's and the Conrad Hotel. A solo by Louis was an endless flow of ideas, played straight from the heart.
Deceptively simple standards like Just Friends, Old Folks or Polka Dots And Moonbeams took on a new lease of life as he explored their depths and recreated them, differently every time.
One night when he was playing solo in Bewley's Theatre, a man in the audience requested Autumn Leaves.
Louis went on playing other numbers, but the man persisted: "Autumn Leaves, Louis, play Autumn Leaves."
At last, Louis gave in, but juggled wildly with the tune, playing it upside down, inside out and sideways, only stating the theme somewhere in the middle. The audience laughed with delight.
Verbally, as well as musically, he had a keen sense of humour, deadpan and understated. Leading his quartet in JJ's at the time of the Garth Brooks controversy, he indicated the mild-mannered pianist Myles Drennan and said: "Myles wasn't going to play today - he said it was five gigs or nothing!"
Honor Heffernan told a story from when they were touring together as a duo.
As they drove into a tiny village somewhere in Kerry, Louis looked out the window and said: "I remember when this was all jazz clubs."
For someone described by Scott Hamilton as "the greatest guitar player in the world", Louis Stewart was remarkably modest and unassuming. When Trinity College Dublin awarded him an Honorary Doctorate in Music in 1998, he commented: "I feel deeply honoured and very fortunate. I think it's good for the music as well."
He was quiet and reserved in an amiable kind of way and generous in his praise of rising young musicians.
In 2010, the Stewarts suffered a sad loss when their daughter Kate died at the age of 41. This tragedy affected Louis deeply and for a time he played less frequently in public.
But two years later, he was back in JJ Smyth's, leading the quartet on the first Sunday afternoon of every month.
In between quartet gigs, he played in a duo with his old friend Jim Doherty.
Years before, Louis had appeared on Jim's album Spondance, but they had always intended to record as a duo.
Now at last, they did so with Tunes (Beechpark Records, 2013), Louis's last CD.
Often described as a "national treasure", Louis Stewart was in danger of being taken for granted because of his lifelong residence in Ireland.
But his audience of faithful fans knew they were listening to a guitarist of extraordinary creativity and feeling.
As long as music lives, he will never be forgotten.
He is survived by his wife Betty, son Tony, daughter Grainne, daughter-in-law Katrina and grandsons James and Conor.