Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Stewart, Slam (Leroy Elliot)

The most recorded jazz bassist of the 1940s, Slam Stewart had perfect pitch and intonation, impeccable time, and a swing feel that was virtually unmatched. But for all his skill and taste as an accompanist, he is most remembered as a star soloist, who bowed his bass while humming along to the notes he played. This technique, considered by some to be a mark of musical genius and a novelty shtick by others, became the calling card of this bass virtuoso.

Leroy Elliot "Slam" Stewart was born on September 21st, 1914 in Englewood, New Jersey. Stewart started his musical journey at age six playing the violin. Claiming he didn’t care for the timbre of the violin, Stewart switched to the string bass while attending Dwight Morrow High School. Following high school Stewart picked up with a number of groups, including Sonny Marshall’s Royal Stompers, before departing the New Jersey area in 1934 to study bass at the Boston Conservatory of Music. In Boston Stewart encountered Ray Perry, a violinist known for humming in unison with the lines he played on his instrument. Intrigued by this technique, Stewart developed a similar approach to the bass, humming along an octave higher with the bowed melodies and solo lines he played.

After just one year of study Stewart left Boston for his first major gig, a job accompanying Peanuts Holland in Buffalo, NY. By 1937 Stewart had established himself in New York City. In Harlem, Stewart made the acquaintance of guitarist and vocalist Slim Gaillard at a club called Jock’s Place. The two took to each other and formed the duo that would come to national attention via regular appearances on Martin Block’s “The Make Believe Ballroom” radio program. Fearing that the name “Slim and Leroy” didn’t quite have the right ring to it, Stewart adopted the nickname “Slam,” for the way he slammed the strings of his bass, giving the duo the now-famous moniker “Slim and Slam.”

The duo first recorded on January 19th, 1938 for Columbia Records, cutting four sides. The session included the monumental hit record, "Flat Foot Floogie." The tune, which went on to sell more than a million copies, featured a catchy refrain and unique brand of jive lyrics that Slim and Slam called “voot.” While incredibly popular, "Flat Foot Floogie," and perhaps Slim and Slam in general, was considered by critics and some other musicians to be little more than musical fluff. Regardless, the "Flat Foot Floogie" was so emblematic of the swing era and American music that it was one of only two records to be buried in the 1939 New York World’s Fair time capsule; the other was John Phillip Sousa’s "Stars and Stripes Forever." Slim and Slam, under the management of Martin Block, toured the country on the theater circuit and played feature cameos in the 1941 film Hellzapoppin'.

The combination of Slim and Slam remained one of the most popular swing attractions until 1942 when Slim Gaillard joined the Army. His reputation well established by this point, Stewart had little trouble finding work. In 1943 Stewart again travelled to Hollywood to appear in the film Stormy Weather with pianist Thomas "Fats" Waller.

On the west coast Stewart, along with guitarist Tiny Grimes, joined up with Art Tatum to form one of the most celebrated combos of the era. The Art Tatum Trio recorded extensively and became a fixture at the Three Deuces club on 52nd Street in Manhattan. By mid-1944 Tatum had fallen ill and was forced to return to California. Stewart stayed on at the Three Deuces, reforming the trio under his own name. To round out the group in Tatum’s absence, Stewart brought in a 23-year-old, then virtually unknown pianist, Erroll Garner.

In addition to these steady groups Stewart performed and recorded with a virtual who’s-who of swing and bebop musicians during the 1940s. Stewart worked frequently with Benny Goodman, and made appearances with Teddy Wilson, Red Norvo, Dizzy Gillespie, Lester Young, Dexter Gordon, Billie Holiday, the Johnny Guarnieri Trio, Coleman Hawkins, Cozy Cole, Buck Clayton, Oran "Hot Lips" Page, and Lionel Hampton.

Notable recordings by Stewart during this period include his version of "Just You, Just Me," which he recorded in 1943 with Lester Young, "Groovin’ High" with Dizzy Gillespie in 1945, and a now infamous duet version of "I Got Rhythm" he recorded with saxophonist Don Byas live at Town Hall in New York on June 9th, 1945. The performance with Byas, included on the Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz, features an incredible, unaccompanied bass solo that serves a classic example of “bowin’, singin’ Slam.”

During the 1950s Stewart reunited with both Slim Gaillard and Art Tatum and worked frequently with Roy Eldridge. Throughout the 1960s Stewart teamed up with vocalist Rose Murphy and became a staple of the Newport Jazz Festival.

Stewart further demonstrated his diverse talents by the end of the decade, twice appearing with classical formations; once with the Lincoln String Quartet in 1968 and later with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra in 1969 with which he performed “Reve Symphonique pour Slam," a piece written specifically for his unique playing style.

Slam continued to be active in jazz circles well into his sixties and seventies. Stewart toured Europe with Milt Buckner and Jo Jones in 1971, reunited with Benny Goodman in the mid-1970s and was a frequent guest on the Today show along with guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli. In 1977 and again in 1981 Stewart recorded with the only other humming and bowing bassist of any note, Major Holley.

Stewart was recognized for his contributions to the swing era with a Prez Award in 1979 and twice received letters of recognition from the White House, first in 1976 by Gerald Ford and again by Ronald Reagan in 1982. President Reagan referred to Stewart as “an ambassador of goodwill around the world.” Slam Stewart passed away at his home in Binghamton, New York on December 10th, 1987 from congestive heart failure.

Few musicians have been both so heralded and as reviled as Slam Stewart. Incredibly skilled and popular he was dismissed by many as a one-trick-pony who’s “novelty” act wore thin quickly. Regardless of one’s opinion of Stewart’s approach there is no denying that he possessed a talent virtually unmatched in his time.

Select Discography

Art Tatum: The complete trio sessions with Tiny Grimes & Slam Stewart, vol. 2 Official (1988)

Benny Goodman: The Different Version, volume 5 Phontastic (2000)

Lester Young: The Essential Keynote Collection 1: The Complete Lester Young Mercury

Slam Stewart: Slam Stewart Black and Blue (1972)

Slam Stewart: Slamboree Black and Blue (2002)

Slam Stewart :Bowin' Singin' Slam Savoy (2001)

Slam Stewart: Slam Stewart 1945-46 Classics

Slim and Slam: 1938-1939 Giants of Jazz (2000)

Contributor: Sean Lorre