Moira Stuart: a passion for jazz

The newsreader talks about the strong, sassy female vocalists who inspired her new series

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Moira Stuart was eight-years-old when she saw Jazz on a Summer’s Day, the 1960 documentary about the Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island.

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While all kinds of music had always been important in the Stuart house – “We had a little record player,” she enthuses giddily. “No, I tell a lie! It was a wonderful radiogram” – seeing the likes of Dinah Washington, Louis Armstrong and Chuck Berry convinced her that “jazz is my home”.

But one performer stood out. “Anita O’Day made such an impression – I feel as if I remember every note she sang. And as for her appearance… She was astounding.”

O’Day is one of five jazz legends profiled by Stuart in Strong and Sassy (Monday, 10:00pm, Radio 2). Some are well-known – the series kicks off with Lena Horne – while some are less so, at least to those who can’t call themselves jazz aficionados. So along with O’Day, there are hours devoted to Adelaide Hall and Carmen McRae.

“There are magnificent icons of jazz who most people know about and then there are others, no lesser artists, who for a variety of reasons and sometimes for no reason at all aren’t as well-known or remembered,” Stuart says.

“Seeing Carmen McRae when I was young was an extraordinary experience that I’ll never forget and, as pretentious as it sounds, this series really was a labour of love. I hope it brings attention to these wonderful artists.”

Stuart’s passion for jazz is infectious. She describes a jazz singer as “almost an instrument” and the interplay with their band or orchestra as “intimate and intricate”.

Of Lena Horne, she says, “Some people feel that she wasn’t a jazz singer as such – it means different things to different people – but she embodied a spirit and had an approach to lyrics that were second to none. When she sings, there’s meaning in every syllable”.

As well as examining their music, Stuart also looks at her subjects’ lives.

“Lena Horne was something of a trailblazer,” says Stuart, a trailblazer herself as the first female Afro-Caribbean newsreader on British television. Horne was a civil rights activist and sufficiently left-wing to get blacklisted in Hollywood in the frenzy of McCarthyism.

With other jazz greats enduring other, more personal kinds of difficulties such as drug addiction, does Stuart think that hardship makes artists better?

“I don’t have the right to judge what makes an artist. An artist’s life is tough anyway if one is true to one’s art and as far as some of these women are concerned, those times were difficult. If you’re not allowed into some venues because of your skin colour, that must inform your art.”

On a more personal level, she admires the courage of the likes of Marvin Gaye and Billie Holiday for “making music so closely entwined with their lives that you hear every raw emotion. And to make that resonate with listeners is just… astonishing.”

As well as jazz – she once deputised for Humphrey Lyttelton on Best of Jazz and compered the British Jazz Awards – Stuart enthuses about rhythm and blues, folk music, world music and has recently got into opera.

“Maria Callas is still the opera singer with the most extraordinary passion and integrity. I’ve been impressed with other singers, but being moved is a different story. When your insides are turned over, now that’s when you know you’re listening to an astounding artist.”

Believing Duke Ellington’s adage that there are only two kinds of music – good and bad – Stuart says “Forget whether it’s highbrow or whatever. If music is done with integrity, you hear that in it. And that’s good music.”

Stuart says that the British have “excellent” taste in music and a spirit of adventure when it comes to listening to new sounds.

“We have come a long way in a relatively short time and that makes me proud.”

She talks of saxophonist Sonny Rollins playing with Irish musicians, of bhangra fused with Caribbean music, and of Irish folk bands playing with musicians from East Africa.

“I know that neither knew each other’s languages but who needs language when you have music?”

But does Stuart play any instrument herself?

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“Good gracious no! I’m just a low-down idiot who listens. Though I have always wanted to play drums…”