John Stuart’s House of Rock, Jazz and Blues
A Rowayton family shares what it’s like to be part of the local music scene.
Peter Stuart, Jay Newland, Katie Stuart-Funke, Randy Funke, Max Newland and John Stuart on congas
Photographs by kevin Robinson
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Randall funke did not hear angels’ voices the night he met Katie Stuart, but he was engulfed by music just the same. He remembers the occasion very well: A struggling musician, he had gone to the River Cat Grill in Rowayton in hopes of finding work when he saw a glowing blonde on the other side of the room. He struck up a conversation with her and very quickly it ran very deep. They had a dozen things in common — the same craziness for art, the same history of unsatisfying relationships, even the same birthday. By the time he hit the sidewalk, he was transfixed.
The next day Katie, an art teacher at Darien High, took him over to her parents’ house in Harbor View. If Randy had a chance left for freedom, it was good and gone. “I walk in and see guitars everywhere,” he recalls with his usual explosive exuberance. “I see marimbas, drums, mandolins, all over the place. I ask if I can pick up a guitar and her dad says, ‘Sure.’ The next thing you know, we’re playing together — we’re jamming! And without missing a beat, her brother comes home, picks up his bass and joins in — and we didn’t stop for an hour.”
Katie, sitting in the Rowayton house they now share, a house overflowing with her paintings and his guitars, smiles at the memory. “I had to go to work, so I waved goodbye. And they were off.”
So, Randy, what was your take on all this? “My take?” Randy repeats before exploding, “My take was, I’m marrying this girl! It was instant. This needs to happen.”
Thus did Randy Funke (not a stage name) find himself enmeshed in the infinitely wonderful. Besides finding a wife, he found a family. He would quickly discover that Katie’s father, John Stuart, the man who lured him into the jam, is the ringleader of the wide-ranging musical ensemble. He’s something of a musical Johnny Appleseed around these parts.
All around us, of course, are a million closet musicians. Anyone reading this page knows three high school kids with astounding musical ability, ten middle-aged guys who rock out on guitar every night in the basement next to the washing machine and three gals who belt out soul songs every day in the privacy of their cars. Stuart has a way of finding these people and urging them into bands. He’s forever making connections, promoting some musical cause or other. His goal is musical cross-pollination.
We met one day at the Chef’s Table in Fairfield, where Stuart had gone to hear old friend Renard Boissier. With red hair combed back from a square face, Stuart beams with a quiet confidence. He has sharp blue eyes that appraise the situation. A man who vaguely describes himself as being “in marketing,” he seems genial, but there’s an intensity going on, especially when the subject is music. In his immediate family alone, there are members of seven working bands.
As we sat in the sunny, low-key soup-and-sandwich joint, which is rapidly becoming one cool hangout, he had one eye and ear on Boissier, who, as it turns out, was once a former player with the Neville Brothers. Boissier has an affecting, bluesy folk-pop-Caribbean style, and it swiftly occurred to me that this lunchtime crowd was getting one hell of a terrific show for free.
“I see music as a way for generations of families to come together,” Stuart explained. He talked with some enthusiasm about holiday parties at his house where the family all piles in and jams on the blues, Grateful Dead tunes or songs one of them has written. In his tales I could hear the inescapably strong echoes of idealism that embraced people who came of age in the 1960s folk music scene. If you once were part of a world that viewed music and song as a humanitarian cause, the feeling never quite goes away.
I already had seen his family philosophy in action at the River Cat. On one night, John’s band, Barnstorm, had packed the place and had folks sweating on the limited dance floor with a stomping-but-easygoing rockabilly. The very next night, I dropped by to see his son Peter’s band, the Well, a more guitar-intense band that stretched out in loving Grateful Dead interpretations; Peter, age thirty-four, along with guitarist Trent Lewis, showed startling flashes of improvisational skill.
But that’s just two of the bands. If Stuart is not playing with Barnstorm, he may be banging congas with his Latin band, Asulado. On any given night, he may be dropping around to check out a concert by Randy’s hard-rock band, King for a Day, or maybe he’s got to see his brother-in-law, Jay Newland, in his rock band, Voodoo Carnival.
Now don’t forget Jay’s teenage son, Max, who’s got a couple of bands going himself, the folkie Levi E Band and then the more rocking band, Stained Glass. Oops, they just changed the name of that band to Satin Jack and the Midnite Blue. Gotta keep up! Stuart will likely be in the back of the hall, observing, supporting, introducing. He even books the music at Sono Caffeine.
Stuart, a longtime Darien resident and still a dutiful member of the choir at the First Congregational Church of Darien, teaches music to kids in the Norwalk housing projects. “There’s one child,” he notes with a faint grin, “I first let him strum a guitar when he was nine months old. He’s been strumming it every day since. He’s four now and I think he might like to be a player someday.” He smiles. “My goal is to inspire kids whose families are not nourishing about music.”
“My dad,” his son Peter would tell me later, “is obsessed with giving back to the less fortunate.”