The singular creative spirit of Douglas R. Ewart got a boost of recognition when the McKnight Foundation named the multi-instrumentalist, composer, visual artist and educator as its 2022 Distinguished Artist. The $100,000 annual award honors significant contributions to the cultural life of Minnesota.
For Ewart, receiving the award is “propelling and compelling,” but doesn’t change his mode of experimentation and curiosity. “When you grew up the way I have, and come up in the way that we did in music, it was about doing the work, and not really even thinking of it as work,” he says.
Born in Kingston, Jamaica, Ewart made his own toys growing up. He’d make kites, slingshots, catapult guns, skater scooters, bats, balls and tops. That impulse of creation has carried on throughout his life as a musician who often makes his own instruments and incorporates a spirit of play in his practice. He’s even created music out of toys he still makes today, like his whimsical “Sonic Tops,” where spinning tops made of found objects become the percussive starting point for improvisation.
Ewart’s entry point into music was through the Rastafari drummer and band leader Count Ossie, who had a group at the time called The Mystic Revelation of Rastafari. “I used to go and listen to them when I should have been in church,” Ewart recalls. He was 10 or 11 years old at the time. He also consumed records, helped along by an enormous collection of music his cousin had collected. “I read every little scrap of information I could get from the liner notes,” Ewart recalls.
In 1963, Ewart’s family moved to Chicago, in a time when the city was not only at the center of the Civil Rights movement, but a vibrant experimental music scene. His time in the city was marked by concerts, speeches and political rallies. Ewart lived just a few blocks away from where the Rev. Jesse Jackson was running Operation Breadbasket, a national organization focused on improving the economic conditions for Black communities. He lived near a number of clubs, including the Regal Theater, an eclectic focal point for Black music, and also McKees, a famous lounge around the corner from his house. “I couldn’t go in there, but I’d stand outside,” Ewart says. He’d also stand outside blues clubs like the Palace and the Howlin’ Wolf.
“I came to a mecca of culture,” Ewart recalls.
Unlike Kingston, Chicago had music programs in the schools. Ewart wanted to learn to play the trumpet, but there were never any trumpets left when he inquired.
After dropping out of school, he bought a trumpet himself at a pawn shop. After one lesson, he didn’t feel he had an aptitude for the instrument, but it wasn’t the end of his music career.
He’d go on to buy a used saxophone at a discount price that belonged to Joseph Jarman, a jazz musician who was part of the Art Ensemble of Chicago.
Starting in 1967, Ewart began taking lessons with Jarmon through the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, an organization that was founded by Black composers and musicians in Chicago in 1965.
Jarmon gave Ewart his first set of files to make flutes, which meant he didn’t have to smoke up his mother’s kitchen anymore to make the instruments. “I didn’t have a drill, so I was using heat to burn burn through the bamboo, and it would smoke the place,” he says.
He became involved in the Baha’i faith, worked in coffee houses, and was enmeshed in the music scene. He started his own group, and began working as a tailor.
Ewart moved to Minnesota in 1990 with his wife, Janis Lane-Ewart. Not long after they made the move, he got a job teaching at the School of Art Institute of Chicago, and commuted between the two cities until about 2016, teaching music history of the Caribbean, Latin America and Asia Pacific, and a contemporary music seminar.
In the Twin Cities, Ewart began assembling people to play concerts, while also doing educational programming through Compass in Minnesota schools.
Throughout his career, Ewart has resisted competing with people. “For me, that’s something we learned very early,” he said. He’d rather talk a bookstore or community center into allowing him and his fellow musicians to perform, rather than waiting for some venue to book him. “It creates a great autonomy and also creates a spirit in you where you’re not willing to compromise your work,” he says.
Ewart’s uncompromising dedication to his craft has paid off, with support from the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Rockefeller, Bush, and Jerome Foundations. He’s won the Jamaica Musgrave Silver Medal for Outstanding Merit in the Arts, Education, and Culture 2019, the Chicago’s Outstanding Artist Award, and has performed worldwide— including in the Caribbean, Europe, and around the United States.
His generosity as a person lives and breathes through his artwork and music. Whether he’s creating large-scale community events like ‘Crepuscule,” a celebration of the sunset that has been performed in Philadelphia, Minneapolis, and at the Banlieues Bleues Festival in Paris, sharing joy and innovation with young people through education and mentorship, or performing in his eclectic improvisational style, as a musician, he gives.
Visual Artist Ta-coumba Aiken calls Ewart “the greatest man ever,” and says he bought a number of his visual artworks after Aiken himself won a Guggenheim Award earlier this year.
Vocalist and longtime collaborator Mankwe Ndosi sees her time playing with Ewart in Chicago in the early 2000s at places like the Velvet Lounge and the Fred Anderson Development Lounge, both associated with the AACM, as a kind of independent graduate school.
“It’s not even just about the work, but it’s about the people and the relationships,” Ndosi says. “When we have relationships with each other, when we share, we have enough.”
As a mentor, Ewart has taught Ndosi to both write history and make history, and “to take ourselves seriously but not too seriously,” she says. Working with Ewart has inspired Ndosi to not be afraid to challenge ways of thinking, even when it’s uncomfortable. She calls Ewart “indefatigable.”
“We need that light and that reminder that we don’t have to accept the way it is,” she says. “Particularly if it doesn’t serve your spirit and your future.”
Ewart learned of the award at home surrounded by his friends and family. He was reading a book when he heard the bell ringing. “I looked out and there were maybe 14 people in the yard, including our daughter, and I was like, ‘This is weird,’” Ewart recalls. He thought they may have gathered for his wife Janis Lane-Ewart’s birthday, and went inside to gather his didgeridoo and another instrument he made. “I took my didgeridoo and we played and then I thought, OK, maybe I’ll go back in,” he says. When he finally learned the news, he felt elated, he says. “I was thoroughly surprised and humbled by it.”