Stew Barnett

Born in Winnipeg in 1926…. or maybe 1932 depending on who's asking.

Not many men had his impact on the music as it was played in Studios, Dance Halls, Night Clubs, Music Festivals… in all musical venues…. Upon hearing Stew's phrasing, the common response from all musicians, whether spoken aloud or simply put to mind was: "Oh Yeah! That's how it goes!" there was no discussion necessary. Stew would never say: "Hey! Do it this way!" it just sounded right!

I guess I was 13 or 14 when I first met Stew. He had come over from another part of town to join our 6-piece kid's band. We were proud. Imagine…an import trumpet player! Wow! Stew was quite short for his age and looked very young, but after he played a few songs for us we were all impressed. Later on we took a kind of intermission and the piano player's mother brought us some milk and cookies… That'll give you some idea of just how long ago that was! We tried a few more songs and then Stew had to leave. After he was gone the boy's mom said: "My what a charming fellow that trumpeter was!" Well that was the first time I had heard Stew described in that manner, but it certainly wouldn't be the last. Yes! He did grow taller and through his lifetime people spoke of him as: My! What a charming fellow!" and rightly so!

The war had just begun and there was plenty of opportunities to play, and hopefully to get better at it. In his final year of high school Stew was playing 6 nights a week in one of the better clubs in town, and was catching up on his sleep on the lawn of the parliament building grounds. This info got back to our principal and Stew was going to be kicked out of school…however that "charming little fellow" worked out the problem somehow and managed to graduate just about the time to get drafted into the Army. After a couple of months of close order drill and bad haircuts, word got around that Stew played the trumpet and was pretty good at it too! The Army transferred him to an entertainment unit for the rest of the war. There he had the chance to meet players of similar musical tastes. The experience gained and the friendships made provided a base for the profession he was to follow for the rest of his years.

As a result of a failed Canada/England tour, in the spring of 1948 we found ourselves stranded in Vancouver. It was a blessing in disguise! There was work for all and the town looked beautiful in early June, especially to a couple of itinerant Winnipeggers who had just been doing prairie towns from February to May…definitely not the best months to be touring. We didn't know it at the time, but life was laid out before us.

It was a couple of years later that Stew met Ruth Curtis on her way to the tennis courts in Stanley Park. It was the start of something that blossomed into a life long love affair. Ruth and Stew were married…children Gary and Nancy came along, eventually both to marry and have children of their own. Although Stew was never one to brag, the subject of his family was an exception. They were a great source of pride over the years.

Supporting a home and family on a musician's income can have its ups and downs, but Stew was playing well, working in every possible musical situation and soon became first call trumpet in the Vancouver Local. It wasn't only his playing but also, (once again) his charming manner that added to his success. Everyone was always happy to see Stew on the job.

His popularity was clearly demonstrated when he was elected President of our Musicians Association and he handled the job for ten years until he retired in 1995. During his term, the Local became a welcoming place in line with Stew's feelings on how the office should be run…things got done, and tough decisions were made with thoughtfulness and understanding for the wishes and opinions of others…and never a complaining word (at least I never heard any).

If there was any problems with Stew's presidency it came from his weakness for garage sales. Strange pieces of furniture would turn up in the hallway at the office and Stew would proudly state that the three chairs plus the chaise were a steal at $12.50. Poor Doreen was left to put them to good use somehow.

Since his retirement neither Stew's or Ruth's health had been a 100% and they both had some hospital time. When things returned to normal they both managed to keep up-beat and enjoyed living it up with some trips to foreign lands. Although retired Stew would even tell of daily hours of usefull practice on the trumpet. I'm not sure we should believe that "daily hours" stuff, but whatever he was doing it as sounding better all the time. Stew had always played well, but he was never satisfied with his super high register. Just in recent months he said to me: "All these years, and now, Imagine, at my age its started to happen. I think I've finally got it!…he surely had!…On the very last night he played a Tuesday at the Hot Jazz Club he ended the final tune of the group with a high A like he'd never hit before! It was such a sound that this hardened crew of Blaze' musicians all stood up and cheered!

Well Stew's gone now and none of his special phrases will likely remain in the lexicon…Here's just a couple I remember:

"Well I'm heading home…It's the only place still open."

To any player packing up at the end of the job, and usually accompanied by a handshake: "Boy! You really played great.. You sounded sensational tonight!"

And my particular favorite..It would happen when Stew and Ruth were out for a restaurant meal. After having ordered and the waitress would bring the food and put it down in front of him, he would say: "Do I like this Ruth?"

Stewart A. Barnett Yes! He certainly was "a charming fellow"…and his was a life to be proud of!

Some thoughts about my old pal of 63 years…..


Stewart Allan "Stew" Barnett was a bright light on the Vancouver jazz and big band scene for almost five decades. He passed away suddenly on January 8, 2003.

This eulogy was delivered at Stu's funeral service by his good friend, another long-time member of Vancouver's jazz scene, trombonist, composer, and arranger, Jack Fulton.

Photo of Stu was taken during a performance of the WOW Jazz Orchestra, at the Hot Jazz Club in 2000, by Brian Nation.