Buddy Stewart

Photo of Buddy Stewart

Pioneering vocalist Buddy Stewart began his career as a standard band singer. That all changed, however, in the mid-1940s when he became interested in using voice as an instrument, and he spent the next few years developing the bop style scat technique that would become the hallmark of progressive jazz vocals. Sadly, an accident took his life at an early age, cutting short what otherwise could have been a brilliant career.

The son of a well-known vaudeville dance team, Stewart made an early start in show business, joining his parents on the stage at age eight. As a teen he decided to focus on singing, drifting between various vocal groups until becoming part of Jerry Livingstone’s orchestra. By May 1941, he had joined Bobby Day’s band, where he sang as a team with Martha Wayne, whom he secretly married in spring of that year.[1][2]

By November, Stewart and Wayne had joined Claude Thornhill’s band, where they sang as a duo performing novelty tunes and backing male singer Dick Harding and female vocalist Lillian Lane. Thornhill would also use all four vocalists together as a quartet, with Terry Allen eventually replacing Harding. Originally called A Pair of Pairs, by July 1942 the aggregation had become known as the Snowflakes, named after Thornhill’s theme song “Snowfall.” Stewart remained with the band until sometime after late August 1942, when he fell victim to the draft. In early 1943, he was stationed as part of a medical unit at Camp Joseph Robinson, Arkansas.

Discharged from the service in late 1944, Stewart joined Gene Krupa’s band that November, where he once again worked with Lane. Both he and Lane sang solo and as part of the G-Noters, Krupa’s vocal quartet. Stewart and Wayne had divorced by early 1945 when he eloped with Geraldine Cole, whom he had known only one week.[3]

While with Krupa, Stewart formed a strong friendship with G-Noter Dave Lambert, bonding over the idea of using the human voice as an instrument. In early 1945, Krupa, who had begun to dabble in progressive jazz and liked to encourage his musicians to play the music they enjoyed, recorded a song that Lambert had written, the appropriately named “What’s This?,” with Lambert and Stewart on vocals. Highly unique for the time, the recording created, as Down Beat magazine gently put it, a lot of “comment” and prompted both Lambert and Stewart to continue experimenting.

Stewart became highly popular while with Krupa’s band, especially after jazz singer Anita O’Day replaced Lane in early 1945. Together, O’Day and Stewart made a potent combination, with both finishing at the top of band vocalist polls. O’Day left to go solo in early 1946, and Stewart, tired of being on the road and wanting to experiment further, intended to follow the same path but ultimately reconsidered. Expecting a child in June, the lure of a steady paycheck versus the uncertainty of a career as a single kept him in the Krupa fold for almost another year. He announced his departure again in May but it wasn’t until November when he finally made the leap.

Late 1940s and Tragic Death

Stewart dedicated the rest of the decade to exploring the concept of using the human voice as an instrument. Soon after his departure from Krupa, he and Lambert teamed up for more recordings, backed by fellow ex-Krupa trumpet player Red Rodney’s Be-Boppers. The recordings were also released on Mercury under Rodney’s name. In early 1947, Stewart recorded on the brand new publishing house label Nero Music. Those sessions generated a Victor release, backed by violinist Eric Siday’s combo, who had also been part of the Nero sessions.[4]

In June 1947, Stewart joined Charlie Ventura’s bebop combo, variously labeled a Quintet, Sextet, Septet, depending on its drifting membership, and later an Orchestra. The combo recorded on the National label. Ventura, also an ex-Krupa bandmate, announced the intent to use Stewart as a “human trombone,” which he initially did, though later Stewart sang in the standard way. In an interview that November, Stewart spoke about working as a jazz artist:

I guess I take things too seriously, get too disturbed when something is wrong. Some things though I just can’t take: like hecklers throwing snide remarks at a guy whose playing or singing his heart out, or the anti-minority bullies and their more subtle brothers, and the guys who believe all their own publicity, and the cats who think that music is hep words, over-padded shoulders and hangovers.

In early 1948, Stewart formed a combo with trombonist Kai Winding. The combo never recorded and broke up late that year. Stewart then briefly worked with Ventura’s band again before just as briefly rejoining Claude Thornhill, who had recently formed a new orchestra. Reluctant to leave his family in New York when Thornhill went west in December, he initially took a leave of absence to remain behind and form a vocal group for the band. Stewart made that leave permanent at the beginning of the new year. Stewart and his family later moved to the West Coast.

1949 saw Stewart working with a variety of artists, teaming with Lambert early in the year and also singing with Don Lundahl’s sextet and recording with George Wallington’s Boppers.[5] Mid-year, he recorded with his own quartet on Castle, making a minor splash with the song “Laughing Boy.”[6] In late 1949, he joined Charlie Barnet’s new progressive jazz orchestra, where he worked with Lambert. When the band broke up that October, he went out on his own again. Unfortunately, Stewart’s career was tragically cut short in February 1950 when he lost his life in a traffic accident near Deming, New Mexico, while traveling across country to be with his family.

Stewart’s death sparked an outpouring of charity and a call for action when it was revealed that his wife and son were penniless, unable to pay for his burial let alone survive the next month. As with the majority of jazz musicians and singers of that period, and realistically any period of time, Stewart struggled to pay bills with the meager earnings from his professional work and couldn’t afford life insurance. Barnet quickly passed the hat around to raise money for Stewart’s burial and the family’s immediate needs, and Down Beat magazine issued an appeal for help among its readers. A benefit for Stewart’s widow and child at Birdland in New York attracted almost every jazz musician and singer in the city. Ventura, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Lester Young, Gene Williams, Stan Getz, Fran Warren, Ella Fitzgerald, Harry Belafonte, Dick Hyman, and Oscar Pettiford were among those who performed six hours of music in twenty minute sets. It was an amazing tribute of generosity for a young man who had helped redefine the definition of jazz vocalist.


  1. Bobby Day’s group was billed as “Bobby Day, His Steel Guitar and His Orchestra.” ↩︎

  2. Stewart’s sister, Beverly Byrne, was also a vocalist. She sang with both Randy Brooks and Claude Thornhill in 1946. ↩︎

  3. Cole was the ex-wife of colorful band manager and Tommy Dorsey associate Bullets Durgom. ↩︎

  4. Eric Siday had been with Fred Waring’s orchestra. Not the typical place you’d expect to find a progressive jazz musician. ↩︎

  5. Wallington had been a member of Stewart and Winding’s combo. ↩︎

  6. Castle Records is also called Regent, for its owner, or “Sittin’ in With” because of the wording on the actual label itself. ↩︎


  1. “Bobby Day's Band to Play For Dances.” The Mercer Cluster [Macon, Georgia] 28 Feb. 1941: 1.
  2. Advertisement. “Bobby Day.” Billboard 17 May 1941: 13.
  3. Kilgallen, Dorothy. “Speaking for Myself.” The Lowell Sun [Lowell, Massachusetts] 5 Jun. 1941: 7.
  4. “Thorny Gets Vocal Team.” Down Beat 15 Dec. 1941: 4.
  5. “Philly Earle Neat 19G.” Billboard 24 Jan. 1942: 24.
  6. “Thornhill's 'Pair of Pairs.'” Down Beat 15 Mar. 1942: 12.
  7. “Vaudeville Review: Stanley, Pittsburgh.” Billboard 25 Apr. 1942: 16.
  8. Advertisement. “Mr. Thornhill.” Down Beat 15 Jul. 1942: 21.
  9. “Vaudeville Reviews: Chicago, Chicago.” Billboard 5 Sep. 1942: 16.
  10. “We Found.” Down Beat 15 Feb. 1943: 18.
  11. “Strictly Ad Lib.” Down Beat 15 Feb. 1945: 5.
  12. Manners, Dian. “Men, Maids & Manners.” Down Beat 15 Feb. 1945: 14.
  13. “Vaudeville Reviews: Capitol, New York.” Billboard 6 Oct. 1945: 33.
  14. “Anita, Buddy to Skip Krupa.” Down Beat 1 Jan. 1946: 2.
  15. “Buddy Stewart May Decide to Cut Krupa.” Down Beat 6 May 1946: 1.
  16. “New Numbers.” Down Beat 12 Aug. 1946: 10.
  17. “Night Club Reviews: College Inn, Hotel Sherman, Chicago.” Billboard 19 Oct. 1946: 40.
  18. “Stewart Will Leave Krupa.” Down Beat 4 Nov. 1946: 9.
  19. “Musicians Hold Session.” Down Beat 29 Jan. 1947: 12.
  20. “Nero Pub Firm Has New Idea.” Down Beat 29 Jan. 1947: 12.
  21. “Record Reviews: Buddy Stewart.” Down Beat 12 Feb. 1947: 21.
  22. “Ventura Biz Up At Deuces.” Down Beat 7 May 1947: 3.
  23. “Buddy Stewart And Siday Wax.” Down Beat 7 May 1947: 7.
  24. “Ventura, McPartland, Jackie Cain Give Chicago Some Really Great Jazz.” Down Beat 18 Jun. 1947: 7.
  25. “Ventura Six Cuts 4 More.” Down Beat 24 Sep. 1947: 14.
  26. Stein, Ruth. “Buddy Stewart—From Ballads To Scat Singing.” Down Beat 5 Nov. 1947: 4-5.
  27. “Ventura To Loop.” Down Beat 17 Dec. 1947: 3.
  28. “Trade Tattle.” Down Beat 24 Mar. 1948: 18.
  29. “Trade Tattle.” Down Beat 19 May 1948: 7.
  30. “Kai Joins Dameron After Stewart Split.” Down Beat 17 Nov. 1948: 1.
  31. “Stewart To Claude.” Down Beat 1 Dec. 1948: 1.
  32. “Diggin' the Discs.” Down Beat 15 Dec. 1948: 13.
  33. “Strictly Ad Lib.” Down Beat 14 Jan. 1949: 5.
  34. “Stewart Cuts Clean.” Down Beat 28 Jan. 1949: 13.
  35. “Music As Written.” Billboard 5 Mar. 1949: 40.
  36. “Windy City Boppers Get First Top Job.” Down Beat 22 Apr. 1949: 3.
  37. “Pubbery Formed.” Down Beat 20 May 1949: 11.
  38. “Things To Come.” Down Beat 17 Jun. 1949: 11.
  39. “Split Reported Between King & DeLuxe Firms.” Billboard 13 Aug. 1949: 18.
  40. Gleason, Ralph J. “Barnet Ork 'Tremendous' At Date On West Coast.” Down Beat 7 Oct. 1949: 13.
  41. “Music As Written.” Billboard 11 Feb. 1950: 42.
  42. “Buddy Stewart Killed in Wreck.” Down Beat 10 Mar. 1950: 1.
  43. “Biz Should Set Up Emergencies Fund.” Down Beat 10 Mar. 1950: 10.
  44. “Final Bar.” Down Beat 10 Mar. 1950: 10.
  45. Buddy Stewart Benefit (Title missing) Down Beat 24 Mar. 1950: 3.