Ronnie Stewart: A Mainstay on the San Diego Jazz Scene
Drummer can be heard regularly at Mr. Peabody’s in Encinitas and Cafe La Maze in National City
Hearing saxophonist Anthony Ortega and his cohorts on Sunday nights at Mr. Peabody’s in Encinitas is always a treat. Listeners receive a bonus every other Sunday when Ronnie Stewart takes a seat behind his drum kit.
The quintessential old pro, the longtime San Diego musician displays a deft touch and swinging panache no matter the tune—whether it’s a sizzling straight-ahead groove, a jaunty bossa nova or samba, or a plush ballad requiring shimmering brush strokes. Especially impressive is Stewart’s sensitivity in accompanying and driving the soloists. Synchronizing with one of Ortega’s swooping lines, whether he’s on alto, tenor, or soprano sax, typically elicits a grin from the percussionist.
“For me, it’s all about being able to share a stage with Tony Ortega. He’s still an amazing musician,” Stewart said of his relationship with the internationally renowned 93-year-old reed man, who has played and recorded with everyone from Frank Sinatra to Frank Zappa. Like Stewart, guitarist Bud Shryock is a fixture on Mr. Peabody’s bandstand every other week with Ortega. He remembers hearing Stewart on the San Diego scene as far back as the 1970s. “I noticed there was this one guy who kept showing up on drums in every major jazz group in town,” Shryock said. “He seemed able to nail every style of jazz drumming with ease… from straight-ahead to Latin to funk.
“I also noticed that he always had a big smile on his face when he was playing. It was clear that this guy, Ronnie Stewart, loved music. He still does, and that’s why I enjoy playing with him at Mr. Peabody’s with the Anthony Ortega Quartet.”
The Ortega stint is one of countless gigs that Stewart has performed since he began applying the sticks to the skins at San Diego’s St. Augustine High School, from which he graduated in 1967.
He has worked with numerous renowned musicians, such as Joe Farrell, George Cables, Jerome Richardson, Johnny Guitar Watson, Blue Mitchell, and Luis Gasca. The list also includes such San Diego notables as Charles McPherson, Peter Sprague, and Stewart’s old pal Nathan East, Eric Clapton’s bass player and the backbone of the smooth jazz supergroup Fourplay.
Unlike East, possibly the most recorded bassist in the world, Stewart chose to remain in San Diego and maintain his career as a social studies teacher while playing music on the side. Stewart recalled he and East were acquainted with keyboardist Patrice Rushen and drummer Harvey Mason, who were playing with guitarist Lee Ritenour at the Baked Potato in Los Angeles about three decades ago.
When the two San Diegans asked if they could sit in that night, they were rebuffed by Ritenour. However, the guitarist gave them his card and invited them to play at his house at a future date. “So, me and Nathan are driving back after the set and I said, ‘What do you think about that?’ He goes, ‘I guess that’s just the way it is up here.’ I said, ‘Well, I’m not going back,’” Stewart said. “I had started teaching anyway. I said, ‘Well, I’m just going to back (home)…. We drove all that way and he wouldn’t let us play one song.’
“Nathan goes back to Ritenour’s house and Ritenour was so impressed…. That’s how (Fourplay) got started. And I wasn’t going to replace Harvey Mason.”
Yet, Stewart maintained a nearly ubiquitous presence in Southern California because of his prowess.
Though his parents were not musicians, he grew up hearing a lot of Caribbean music—particularly his mom’s calypso records. His father, who grew up in the Harlem borough of New York City, met his future wife while he was stationed at a Navy base in Trinidad and Tobago. Stewart believes he was influenced by that musical background, reinforced by visits there as an adult. That led him to play with steel drum bands in San Diego.
As a youngster, Stewart said, he tried out trumpet without much success. He switched to drums at St. Augustine in a music class mainly to get an elective credit. According to Stewart, the community in southeastern San Diego where he grew up was a musical hotbed
“There must have been about five or six bands in the neighborhood,” he said. “Valencia Park was a musical neighborhood…. We’d do battles of the bands at different places, and you would end up knowing all the guys.”
Coincidentally, Stewart grew up on the same street as the late Hollis Gentry III, who would become one of San Diego’s most powerful reed players and eventually a frequent collaborator with his older neighbor. Both participated as sidemen on New York pianist Lamont Johnson’s recording New York Exile, which also includes McPherson and East. “I knew his dad before I knew Hollis because his dad used to be connected with the San Diego Chargers,” Stewart said. “I would go up there sometimes ‘cause the Chargers were there, like [defensive lineman] Ernie Ladd. I played ping-pong with him, and I could hear Hollis playing back in his room, but he never came out.”
Stewart also formed a childhood friendship with Gary Nieves, who would go on to become a formidable drummer who played with Gentry and many other musicians around town. Stewart’s musicianship led to his first significant assignment on the drum chair for a young-adult big band, The Fortes, which included Gentry, bassist James Hunt, and trombonist Aubrey Fay. A photo in Stewart’s collection shows the Fortes set up in big band formation wearing their uniform—Nehru jackets.
It wasn’t long before a cadre of high school musicians who came from Stewart’s neighborhood but had chosen to go to Crawford High School (probably because of its music program) began making a name for themselves. Many musicians from Crawford, such as bassist Gunnar Biggs and pianist Mel Goot, would go on to impactful careers in the music world in various genres. Gentry; East; keyboard player Carl Evans Jr., later of Fattburger fame; and drummer Skipper Ragsdale were the nucleus of a band named Power, which soon attracted the attention of some major figures in the jazz and rhythm ’n’ blues world, including saxophonist Cannonball Adderley.
They were picked up by soul crooner Barry White and incorporated into his Love Unlimited Orchestra, appearing at the legendary Apollo Theater and other international venues. When Ragsdale left the band to work in his family’s mortuary business, Stewart took his place. “So, I played a few of those gigs, and some of those gigs were at San Diego State,” Stewart said. “We were like the warm-up band for a lot of the major acts coming through there, and then we started doing the clubs.
“I was just one of the drummers that were playing a lot of the clubs and there were lots of clubs. Most of those clubs were predominantly black clubs.”
Gigging Around Town
Of particular note was a club at Fourth and Market in downtown San Diego known as the Crossroads. As signified by its name, the Crossroads was a melting pot for musicians before shutting down in the mid-1980s. Younger musicians were welcomed to the bandstand by older pros, such as clarinetist Jimmy Noone Jr. and saxophonist Ted Picou.
“We didn’t really know how to play jazz,” Stewart said. “But they found us interesting and they would take us under their wing.” Stewart said he was in a group playing the Crossroads that included East, Gentry, and pianist Butch Lacy. Vocalist Ella Ruth Piggee was part of the circle as well. Meanwhile, as Gentry and East began to pursue musical education at UCSD, they came to the attention of professor Cecil Lytle, who also served as provost at the university’s Thurgood Marshall College. While he was an award-winning classical pianist and recording artist, Lytle also played jazz. He took an interest in nurturing the careers of young San Diego-area artists, including Stewart and his friend, bassist James Hunt, though they were attending SDSU. Lytle said East introduced himself during the educator’s first week at UCSD and invited him to a noon outdoor concert by his band that included Gentry and Evans Jr. Later, Lytle said he was invited by Gentry to play with a group that included Stewart and Hunt.
“Our repertoire consisted of flirtations with Top 40 songs: funk and some originals that pushed the boundaries a bit,” Lytle said. “Ronnie could play it all with ease and joy. “His facial countenance while playing was always a broad, ecstatic smile. Whenever I looked at him, I always felt better about what we were doing. He always lifted the band.” Lytle recalls a recording session he witnessed a few years later that featured Stewart backing up a group that included trombonist Jimmy Cheatham, Gentry, and East. Lytle said he “was amazed by Ronnie’s energy and enormous ears to glide between genres so easily and truthfully. He and Nate worked together hand and glove keeping and inspiring time and taste.”
Stewart’s facility with his left hand also impressed Lytle, who explained that was unusual for West Coast drummers. “Ronnie reminded me of all of the New York drummers of all eras whose left-hand activity plays an important role in commentary and drive,” Lytle said. “Ronnie was the first California drummer I ever heard who could push and inspire a band.” That’s a powerful endorsement coming from Lytle, now a professor emeritus at UCSD. A secret to Stewart’s proclivity is that he is, in fact, left-handed. He learned to play the traps array set up for a right-hander. Unlike many left-handed drummers, he did not move the high-hat and snare drum from the left side to the right side of the kit.
A New Generation
Early in his career, Stewart said that he and his young peers, who had grown up listening to and trying to play rhythm ‘n’ blues, funk, and rock grooves, struggled with the crackling pace of bebop and hard bop styles mastered by the previous generation. The younger generation, he said, learned how to adapt by playing straight-ahead jazz tunes with an emphasis on the second and fourth beats to a measure, a pattern often called the back beat. That was the approach of Stewart and his cronies when they were recruited by saxophonist and jazz promoter Joe Marillo to open for many of the big-name bands he brought to the Catamaran in Pacific Beach in the 1970s and early ’80s. Stewart recalled Les McCann, George Benson, Stanley Turrentine, Supersax, and Blue Mitchell as among the bandleaders for whom his group opened.
“We played in front of Les McCann, and some of his band members were taking out cassettes and taping us because we were doing something a little different than what they were doing,” he said. “But we were thinking, ‘You guys are the headliners. You guys are the stars. We’re excited just to be here and listen to you guys.’ [They said] ‘Yeah well, you guys are doing something a little bit different.’ So that was kind of like an opening for us.”
He recalls doing a KSDS-FM Jazz Live show at the Catamaran in which trumpeter Blue Mitchell
sat in with the locals. “Blue Mitchell was getting all excited about playing with us,” Stewart said. “And we’re thinking, ‘We hope we don’t screw up. This is Blue Mitchell.’ And on the cassette you could hear Blue Mitchell going, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.’ He’s liking us.” Though tied down to his family and a full-time teaching job, word of the San Diego drummer spread among musicians, including friends such as East and fellow drummers Mason, Lenny White, and Dennis Davis.
Like many musicians from other parts of the country, Davis came to San Diego via the Navy. Stewart said he was so taken with Davis’ grooves that he would share gigs with the New Yorker to study his technique. Davis would later supply wicked beats to Stevie Wonder, George Benson, Roy Ayers, and David Bowie, to name a few.
Stewart’s reputation enabled him to be picked up on Pearl Drums’ list of endorsements. In exchange for playing Pearl’s equipment around town, he received discounts on its instruments.
While sticking mainly to Southern California gigs, Stewart did have some opportunities to travel. He toured for a while with soul singer Solomon Burke at jazz and blues festivals on the West Coast.
“He had command of the stage,” Stewart said. “He was a great entertainer.” He also went on a trip to Spain with San Diego musicians guitarist Peter Sprague, keyboardist Rob Schneiderman, and bassist John Leftwich, plus a Spanish trumpeter who had been gigging in San Diego. At one show, they backed Spain’s most renowned saxophonist, Pedro Iturralde, who was so impressed he hired the band to back him on a tour of Europe, Stewart said. “I said, ‘I’m not going nowhere. I’m going back to San Diego. I got things to do.”
Over the decades, Stewart never lost his enthusiasm for the music and his admiration for great drummers who had inspired him. He noted how much he enjoyed seeing live performances by such legends as Max Roach at the Catamaran and Jo Jones at a New York City jazz festival.
When Jack DeJohnette brought his band to SDSU’s Backdoor stage, Stewart and a friend, San Diego drummer Paul Bleifuss, introduced themselves to the venerated percussionist. Bleifuss had the nerve to ask if he could have a pair of DeJohnette’s sticks.
“And DeJohnette goes, ‘Excuse me? You want my sticks?’” Stewart remembered. “And DeJohnette goes a little closer: ‘YOU WANT MY STICKS?’”
Just as Bleifuss assumed, he had angered the star drummer. DeJohnette said, “Here,” Stewart said. “He gave both of us a pair. I played the hell out of those sticks for the next six months or so.”
Stewart plays regularly at Mr. Peabody’s in Encinitas with the Anthony Ortega Quartet starting at 6 p.m. October 10 and every other Sunday after that.
Dates: October 3, 17, 31
Stewart also plays every Wednesday starting at 7:30 p.m. at Cafe LaMaze in National City with Burnett Anderson, Lynn Willard, and Robert Sebastian.
This article is excerpted from an upcoming history of jazz in San Diego.