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Jazz Philadelphia's Hometown Heroes: Spotlight on Trombonist Ernest Stuart

Courtesy of the artist
Ernest Stuart

How does trombonist-composer Ernest Stuart best show his Philadelphia-ness? Of course, there is his music. Stuart has a post-bop-jazz-based but often genre-fluid sound that merges influences from Philadelphia soul past and present. Think Gamble & Huff and John Legend melded with alternative electronic pop á la Radiohead. In his mind, it’s a very Philadelphia thing to do.

“Playing in Philly means playing every type of music. Scenes and sounds intersect. I’ve played salsa gigs, Brazilian music brass band. I love it. I am a musical sponge.”

That’s Stuart’s signature, his tell: His ability to be true to himself, to sturdily soak up every tone and every genre, and to reflect it uniquely and with fluidity, is who he is to the bone. 

“Express your influences, connect them all, and watch what happens,” he says. “If you present the music in a way honest to you, that reflects society, you can’t go wrong. My signature then is my welcoming energy—to be open to the truth. With that I can fill up a room and waft down the street if the windows are open.”

Equal to his music, though, is his sense of civic pride and duty, one that led him to create the still-going Center City Jazz festival in 2012, and currently finds him executing a course of study in nonprofit management and its ethics at Columbia University. “Through the festival, I’ve been given a rare opportunity to work within the non-profit sector, interact, and want to learn how to become a better advocate, not just for jazz but the broader scope of all the arts. I want to be a resource.” Stuart is also a founding Leadership Team member of the advocacy organization Jazz Philadelphia.

Stuart has been a resource and an advocate for jazz ever since his beginning music classes and elementary school “jazz band” days in Pennsauken, NJ. 

“Looking forward as a beginner, ‘jazz band’ was the school’s ‘elite’ musicians,” said Stuart. “For me, that was the goal, the drive—proof that I was a better musician.” Playing trombone came with the call of the school jazz band. “I wanted to play saxophone, at first, but I sat in my early classes without an instrument for so long—because I couldn’t afford one at the time—that I had to find an instrument from the closet.” 

The closet held a sousaphone, a tuba, and a trombone. Stuart chose the ’bone, and fell in love with his axe as well as jazz itself. “By ninth grade, I knew I wanted to play for the rest of my life.” Once connected to Sicklerville trombone wizard-teacher Jose Vidal, Stuart became more connected to the music he loved. Vidal became so crucial to Stuart’s life as a player that he even returned to his teacher during his professional life before touring with John legend. “My chops were terrible, so I reached out to Jose again,” he says.

So in love with jazz was Stuart—in particular, the big band sounds of Stan Kenton, J.J. Johnson, and Dizzy Gillespie—that he and a fellow band member would drive around Camden with that loud music blasting from their car windows. “Big band music blaring from our car: That’s goofy. We’d listen to WRTI, hear something we’d love, and blow our paychecks at Tower Records.” When you consider that Stuart’s 2014 Love/Loss and 2016’s Same Walking Animals EPs are grooving, genre-less journeys, Stuart integrated his love of Radiohead and Portishead into his jazz diet. “I grew up in a household where we were relegated to listening to Christian music, so branching out into jazz, initially, then other outer-bound sounds, was a revelation.”

Moving to summer programs through Temple University and at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts was Stuart’s entrée, not only to further developments in jazz, but the city he would come to love. “Two minutes away from Pennsauken the whole time.”

Two minutes away in Philadelphia, Stuart made the close association of jazz elders. “I would go to Ortlieb’s every day to hear Bootsie Barnes and Mickey Roker or play with Sid Simmons and John Swana; their prowess and contributions to the scene were quickly realized,” said Stuart. “Ortlieb’s was a micro-scene unto itself, the jazz clubhouse where everyone was respected.”

Among Stuart’s contemporaries who remained friends and collaborators beyond 6 a.m. hangs at Kelliann’s Bar were jam session boss Luke O’Reilly, pianist George Burton, and bassist Leon Boykins. Among these players, Ortlieb’s “micro-scene,” and his proximity to pianist Orrin Evans and drummer Justin Faulkner came Stuart’s debut album, 2011’s Solitary Walker, a “snapshot of relationships and of the moment” that still manages to haunt any listener.

This same cast of characters inspired Stuart to create the Center City Jazz Festival after the hallowed jazz halls of Ortlieb’s and Zanzibar Blue crumbled to show appreciation and promote the downtown clubs left for Philly’s jazz cats to inhabit; “to give back to a scene that meant so much to me,” he said. “To my surprise, it worked. And will work again.”

Ernest Stuart in performance at WRTI in 2019:

For this moment, Stuart is feeling out what to do with the 2021 Center City Jazz Festival. “The virtual event is not a format I happen to enjoy, so I’m waiting to see what happens with live stages this year,” he says. He’s also considering how and when to release his 2019 recordings with Philadelphia bassist Jason Fratacelli and Lionel Forrester Jr, “which just happen to be this crazy drummer, this wild ass bass player, and a trombonist,” he said laughing before mentioning that he is also a regular part of Philadelphia drag performance artist Martha Graham Cracker’s ensemble. 

“I look forward to developing all of my many, many musical ideas,” said Stuart. While I get my wonderful education in the non-profit sector, I’m trying to figure out how to be useful, both civically and musically for Philadelphia.”