WABE host H. Johnson spotlights Leroy 'Slam' Stewart, a 20th century upright bass virtuoso

"Blues Classics" host H. Johnson. (Photo of WABE)

WABE’s H. Johnson has been a fixture on our station since 1978. As host of both “Blues Classics” and “Jazz Classics,” H. continually educates and entertains WABE listeners every Friday and Saturday night. Now, H. joins “City Lights” every other Friday to share a bit from his breadth of jazz knowledge.

The segment, “H. Johnson’s Jazz Moment,” explores selections from the best of H.’s music collection along with tidbits from history, personal reflections, and H.’s thoughts on the evergreen resonance of jazz. 

Today’s “Jazz Moment” spotlights Leroy “Slam” Stewart, one of the 20th century’s most unusual upright bass virtuosos.

“Leroy ‘Slam’ Stewart had a unique way of bowing and humming at the same time, and he created a style all his own. That’s what I like about a lot of these musicians – they have their own sound, which is beautiful. Like, Bach had his own sound. Mozart had his own. That’s classical, but they had their own sound. I appreciate musicians like that,” said Johnson.

The New-Jersey born bassist first made a name for himself in the 1938 hit “Flat Foot Floogie (With a Floy Floy)” with the Slim Gaillard band, and later joined the likes of such luminaries as clarinetist Benny Goodman, vocalists Rose Murphy and “Big Joe” Turner, and pianists Art Tatum, Billy Taylor and Erroll Garner. 

Featured track “Willow, Weep for Me” showcases Stewart in a performance with pianist Wild Bill Davis, drummer Joe Jones, and guitarist Al Casey. Casey’s laid-back Chicago blues style guitar work already gives off an impression of a lead vocalist, with lyrical expression and scat-like pizzicato, but “Slam” soon steals the show with his unmistakable, irresistible sound – a bowed solo accompanied by his own vocal accompaniment. The two sounds join in a reedy, peppery texture unlike anything else in the mix, adventuring through moods from comic to lamenting and back again. 

“There’s only one other person I know of that plays in that style,” said Johnson. “[Stewart] made a style of his own, and a fellow by the name of Major Holley does the same thing now, but no one sounds like ‘Slam’ Stewart.”

Catch H. Johnson’s Blue Classics every Friday from 10 p.m. to midnight, and Jazz Classics every Saturday from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m. on WABE 90.1 Atlanta.