Born on February 22, 1907, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to a musical family, Rex Stewart became a revered, innovative cornet player with Fletcher Henderson and Duke Ellington, later touring Europe with the Ellington Orchestra and his own group. Stewart was also a songwriter who ventured into radio work and journalism, handling jazz criticism for major publications. He died in Los Angeles, California, on September 7, 1967.
Rex William Stewart Jr. was born on February 22, 1907, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He came from a family where several members were musicians, including his mother, an esteemed theatrical pianist. Stewart started playing cornet professionally in Washington, D.C. during his early teens, his first band being Ollie Blackwell's Ragtime Clowns, with musical direction by Perry Smith.
Plays With Fletcher Henderson
Stewart made his way to New York in the 1920s and eventually came to play with Fletcher Henderson mid-decade, staying with the pianist's band for a limited time as he felt his skills weren't up to par with a previous band member and major influence, Louis Armstrong. Nonetheless, Stewart improved his craft, playing with his brother's college band and returning to Henderson's group in 1928, staying on for several years.
Joins Sir Duke
By 1934, after leading his own band, Stewart joined Duke Ellington's orchestra, remaining with the group for more than 10 years. Stewart became a stand-out member with his groundbreaking playing and sonic palette, and thus was responsible for individual recordings with billing shared by the Ellingtonians. Stewart was a composer as well and wrote songs that were part of the orchestra's canon like "Flim-Flam," "Loopin' Lobo" and "Madeleine."
During a 1939 tour of Europe with the Ellington Orchestra, Stewart met and played with guitarist Django Reinhardt, utilizing a couple of other Ellingtonians to form Rex Stewart and His Feetwarmers. The outing featured Stewart-penned recordings like "Solid Old Man" and "Finesse."
Post working with Ellington, Stewart formed the group The Rextet, also returning to Europe for tour dates, speaking at the Paris Conservatory and working with other musicians domestically. He was at the forefront of the Fletcher Henderson reunion band towards the end of the 1950s.
Stewart pursued other areas of interest outside of music, running a farm and, putting his culinary skills to use, becoming a Vermont restaurateur. A skilled, florid writer, Stewart also ventured into journalism, writing jazz criticism articles for publications like Down Beat, Melody Maker and Playboy, doing radio DJ work as well.
Rex Stewart died on September 7, 1967, in Los Angeles, California, where he had relocated. Some of his writing is available in book form, including an essay collection put forth in 1972 and reissued in 1982, Jazz Masters of the Thirties, and the autobiography Boy Meets Horn.
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