Slam Stewart was one of the most important bassists of the swing era and one of the most unique bassists of any time. He was among the most recognizable of soloists, almost always using the bow. This allowed him to be heard above the band acoustically, yet play fluid, quick ideas. His bass was set up to a lot of produce sound with no amplifier: gut strings high off the fingerboard.
Leroy Elliot “Slam” Stewart was born on September 21,
1914, in Englewood, New Jersey. He first played the violin but later switched to
contrabass while attending Dwight Morrow high school. He went on to study at
the Boston Conservatory where he heard Pay Pearson singing in unison with his
violin. Slam adapted this technique to the acoustic bass by singing the
melodies he bowed an octave higher.
In 1937 Slam moved to New York City where he met the
Gaillard. ‘Slim and Slam’ played and sang for radio shows on WNEW. In
1938 they had a hit song when Benny Goodman played an arrangement of
their tune Flat foot floogie on his radio show. Unfortunately they had
sold the song for $250. The duo appeared in the 1941 film, “Hellzapoppin”,
but broke up when Slam entered the army in 1942. Upon release in 1943,
Slam returned to New York and started playing and recording with some of the
major figures of his time: Lester
Young, Art Tatum, Red Norvo, Don Byas, Coleman
Parker, and Lionel
appeared with Fats Waller in the 1945 film “Stormy Weather”.
Slam Stewart began leading groups in 1944 when Art Tatum became ill, leaving Slam to take up their regular gig at the Three Deuces on 52nd street in NYC. In 1945 he recorded his own groups, including a particularly interesting and harmonically advanced quintet made up of piano, vibes, guitar, bass and drums. Down Beat recognized Slam as the best bass player of 1945.
Slam Stewart remained active, playing as well as teaching at New York State University
and Yale up until his death on December 9th 1987, in Binghampton, New York.