Jesse Stewart is an award-winning composer, improviser, percussionist, visual artist, instrument builder, researcher, writer, educator, and community activist dedicated to reimagining the spaces between artistic disciplines.
As a musician, he works primarily in the areas of jazz, new music, free improvisation, and electronic music. He has performed and/or recorded with musical luminaries from around the world including George Lewis, Roswell Rudd, Hamid Drake, Evan Parker, Bill Dixon, William Parker, Pauline Oliveros, David Mott, Malcolm Goldstein, Jandek, Pandit Anindo Chatterjee and many others, in addition to leading several groups and performing regularly as a soloist. In 2012, he was honored with the “Instrumental Album of the Year” Juno award (the Canadian equivalent of a Grammy) for his work with Stretch Orchestra, a trio consisting of Kevin Breit on guitars, Matt Brubeck on cello, and Jesse on drums. He has been widely commissioned as a composer. His music has been featured at festivals throughout Canada, the United States, and Europe and is documented on over 20 recordings. He endorses Headhunters brand drumsticks and brushes.
A dynamic and inventive performer, Stewart has a remarkable ability to coax unexpected—even magical—sounds out of virtually any resonating object or material. In addition to drum set, he performs on a wide variety of percussion instruments including many of his own design built out of such unconventional materials as stone, glass, ice, and cardboard. In addition, he is one of the few virtuoso performers of the waterphone, an experimental percussion instrument that consists of bronze rods, steel, and water. Quoting Richard Waters, the inventor of the instrument, “Jesse Stewart is rapidly becoming a music wizard on the MegaBass Waterphone by coaxing new sounds from the instrument. His extended range of techniques and skill in utilizing these techniques is evident in his improvised musical compositions. I consider Jesse to be a very creative and inventive forerunner of others who will follow. He is, in short, a Master Waterphone Player.” In addition, he is the only person in Canada to perform regularly on the “reactable,”a new electronic instrument that is a virtual modular synthesizer and digital sampler with a tangible user interface on an illuminated tabletop.
In 1993, Stewart was named “Outstanding Young Canadian Jazz Musician” by the International Association of Jazz Educators and “Young Musician of the Year” by Jazz Report magazine. His music has been described as “truly exciting” (Musicworks 76), “exceptional” (Cadence Oct. 2002), “phenomenal” (Cadence Nov. 1999), “ingenious” (Exclaim! June 2006), and “brilliant” (Truths for Serious Drummers, 2012). Texas-based music journalist Frank Rubolino described him as "...one of the finest young drummers and percussionists on the scene today" (One Final Note Summer/Fall 2002).
After majoring in both visual art and in music as an undergraduate student at the University of Guelph, he went on to complete two Master of Arts degrees concurrently at York University in Toronto: one in ethnomusicology and another in music composition. His composition teachers included James Tenney and David Mott. In 2008, Jesse completed his PhD at the University of Guelph where he was the first recipient of the Brock Doctoral Scholarship, the University's most prestigious graduate scholarship.
Much of his work crosses disciplinary boundaries. For example, in the year 2000, he was commissioned by the Guelph Jazz Festival to create a ‘multi-media improvised jazz opera’ titled Passages with celebrated poet Paul Haines. In 2010, he received a joint commission from the City of Toronto and the National Capital Commission to write an extended piece for instruments that he designed and built out of ice. In 2010, he was invited to perform for His Holiness the Dalai Lama at the opening of the Tibetan Canadian Cultural Centre in Toronto.
As a visual artist, Stewart has exhibited work in over a dozen solo and group exhibitions at public art galleries including the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art, the Robert McLaughlin Gallery, Thames Art Gallery, the Glenhyrst Gallery, the Peterborough Art Gallery, the Macdonald Stewart Art Centre, and the Karsh Masson Gallery in Ottawa. He has also curated several exhibitions of visual art including exhibitions by Governor-General’s award-winning artists Gordon Monahan and David Rokeby.
A past recipient of the Terry Fox Humanitarian Award, he is dedicated to building and strengthening communities through arts education and outreach. In 2012, he founded an organization called “We Are All Musicians” (WAAM) that is rooted in his firm belief that music is a fundamental human right and that everyone deserves to have opportunities to make music, regardless of musical training, socio-economic circumstance, and/or level of physical or intellectual ability. As a means to that end, he has facilitated dozens of music workshops and performances with musicians and non-musicians alike, including extensive work with children and individuals with special needs. Using a wide range of percussion instruments (including many of his own design) and several cutting-edge adaptive use instruments, the “We Are All Musicians” initiative creates inclusive spaces for sonic exploration.
As a scholar, he has published widely on the subjects of music and art in academic journals including American Music, Intermedialities, Black Music Research Journal, and Contemporary Music Review. He has authored seven book chapters and is currently working on two book projects: a co-authored book (with Ajay Heble) on the pedagogy of improvisation and a single-authored book titled Jazz Plus on jazz as intercultural practice. He has given over 50 public talks at conferences, colloquia, and festivals around the world including numerous keynote presentations.
Jesse lives in Ottawa, where he is an Associate Professor of music in Carleton University’s School for Studies in Art and Culture and an adjunct professor in the Visual Arts program at the University of Ottawa. In 2013, he received Carleton University’s Marston LaFrance Research Fellowship, the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences’ “senior award, intended for applicants with a very significant track record of outstanding research.” In 2014, he received a Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences “Teaching Achievement Award” in recognition of outstanding teaching.