Musician-Educator Jesse Stewart Is Literally Of “Sound Mind”

 By Dan Lalande                                               

“Like most kids,” confesses Jesse Stewart, the award-winning composer, percussionist, visual artist, researcher and educator, “I spent a lot of time banging on pots and pans. Unlike most kids, I never stopped.”

Jesse Stewart has been awarded The Order of Ottawa for his contributions to the community. Photo: Fangliang Xu

Jesse is definitely still at it, conducting sonic investigations of exotic instruments, raw materials and anything else that might emit a sound and a spark within his seeker’s soul.

It’s a passion he comes to naturally—his grandfather was a multi-instrumentalist and his father a drummer. Jesse’s music education vacillated between the University of Guelph and York, where he obtained a pair of master’s degrees: one in music composition, the other in ethnomusicology. When he wasn’t gratefully learning from his academic mentors—including Ajay Heble, who’s become a dependable collaborator—you could find him practicing jazz, a music genre he fell he love with after seeing drum deity Elvin Jones.

Photo: Hasi Eldib

When Jesse’s plan to be the next Jones got derailed by the happy introduction of a family, he pursued a PhD with an eye on teaching. He had had an early taste of it at Guelph, where a lecture course he gave attracted over 2,000 students a year.

A mere two weeks after completing his doctorate, Jesse was offered a faculty position at Carleton University. Carleton’s music program, which Jesse now heads, proudly maintains that all musical traditions are of academic interest. Says the devotedly inclusive Jesse, “That was one of the things that attracted me to it.”

There, Jesse shares his investigative approach to music, predicated on “the desire to feel the sense of wonder and discovery that goes along with hearing something new.”

If you’re looking for proof of his enthusiasm on an epic scale, venture to Ottawa’s St. Luke’s Park. You’ll find The Listening Tree, a 15-foot structure made of stainless-steel pipes that produce tones according to shifts in weather. The “tree” was conceived and constructed by Mixed Metaphors, an art partnership involving Jesse and architectural designer Matt Edwards, both of whom are committed to democratizing the arts.

In 2012, Stewart founded We Are All Musicians (WAAM), a community music organization dedicated to making the arts as accessible as possible. The organization’s genesis was another piece of public art: the Junk Funk Sound Cube, an eight-foot hexahedron made of scaffolding supporting recycled materials from plastic tubs to electrical conduits. Commissioned by the NCC for Canada Day 2010, thousands of Canadians gave it a try. “No one ever told anyone else what to play or what not to play,” explains Jesse. “The music always felt cohesive and inclusive—until I realized it wasn’t.”  When he noted that a group of people in wheelchairs couldn’t access his invention, it renewed his political resolve. “By designing the cube to be played while standing, I had excluded a whole segment of society,” he still laments. “That made me realize that I needed to do better, and that we all need to do better when it comes to accessibility.”

Jesse not only revamped the cube, but he began jamming with Propeller Dance, Ottawa’s mixed-ability dance ensemble, and giving workshops at Being Studio, a visual arts space for people with developmental disabilities.

Jess is founder of We Are All Musicians, a music organization dedicated to making the arts as accessible as possible. Photo: Hasi Eldib

He makes music, he teaches, he advocates. That would be more than enough for most, but not the unstoppable Jesse. Long a contributor to music publications, he recently penned a book: Jamming the Classroom: Musical Improvisation and Pedagogical Practice, co-authored with Ajay Heble. “The book makes the argument that the teaching and learning of improvisation can provide opportunities to learn not only about music but also about ourselves,” says Jesse. “Musical relationships are social relationships. Musical improvisation can provide a space in which we can model and enact different patterns of social interaction, including egalitarian ones that emphasize listening, mutual respect, empathy, and co-creative dialogue.” The book is available at, where there’s also a link to a free Open Access PDF.

Jesse’s musical intelligence and humanity have made him a much-appreciated figure in the city; in 2014, he was awarded The Order of Ottawa for his contributions to the community.

Currently, he’s working on another book, a follow-up one-person show (his first, Chance Encounters, wowed), a series of collaborative recordings and a motion-controlled interactive gong installation. There’s also the WAAM Lab at Carleton, a new space where Jesse will work with community partners to develop adaptive instruments.

If Jesse Stewart ever hears a sound he doesn’t like, it’ll probably be “Stop!”