Polymath Douglas Ewart excels as a jazz composer and multi-instrumentalist. He's a prolific painter, sculptor and conceptual artist. He designs and fabricates instruments. He writes poetry, teaches and informally mentors a raft of artists. But don't call this modern day da Vinci a Renaissance man.
"I'm an African man or a Jamaican man — I have all the jobs," he said, laughing.
Ewart has been named the 25th McKnight Distinguished Artist, Minnesota's most esteemed and richest arts prize. The honor goes to someone who has "made significant contributions to the state's cultural life" and comes with a $100,000 stipend. Past winners include poet Robert Bly, theater founder Lou Bellamy and composer Libby Larsen.
"I'm elated and humbled," said the 76-year-old Ewart. "My mind flips to be recognized by my peers like this."
A self-described universalist who thinks of "the earth as one country and everyone as a citizen in it," Ewart founded the record label, Arawak Records. He has led such ensembles as the Nyahbingi Drum Choir, Quasar, Clarinet Choir, and Douglas R. Ewart & Inventions. His conceptual concert, "Crepuscule," features musicians, dancers, poets, visual artists and others in an artistic exultation.
One of the things that make him so unique is that he blurs lines and genres, said DeAnna Cummings, program director for arts and culture at the McKnight Foundation.
"To say Douglas is an interdisciplinary artist doesn't do justice to him," said Cummings. "His artistic practice is intersectional, diverse, complex and surprising, which makes this selection really special at a moment when the impulse is to categorize someone or articulate a purity."
Ewart is best perhaps known for his decades-long association with the Chicago-based AACM (Association for the Advancement of the Creative Musician), the legendary jazz and new music collective founded in 1965 by pianist Muhal Richard Abrams and a raft of jazz supremos. Ewart started as a student there before joining the ensemble and periodically taking the leadership reins.
He also has worked with the Art Ensemble of Chicago and for 25 years taught music history and instrument-making at the Art Institute of Chicago. In the Twin Cities, where he collaborates with musicians, dance troupes and actors, he brings a global sensibility to work and global artists to Minnesota.
"Douglas has a wise and deep spirit — he is open, collaborative and joyously creative," said Walker Art Center senior performing arts curator Philip Bither, who has worked with Ewart to curate five jazz festivals in Minneapolis. Bither added that over Ewart's five-decade career, his work has impacted countless artists and practitioners.
Ewart makes instruments out of unique objects and weapons of war. One instrument in his south Minneapolis home is made from 90 mm gun shells.
"These things are huge, almost 3 feet long and five or six inches in diameter," said Ewart. "They're also made of superb steel, so they're extremely resonant. You can play it with mallets and the sound is incredible."
He attributes his inventiveness to his childhood. Born in the Jamaican capital of Kingston, he and his playmates fashioned all their toys as youngsters, creating kites, spinning tops and scooters from repurposed objects.
He took that creativity with him to Chicago, where his mother migrated and where he attended Dunbar High School, intending to become a tailor. In his last year at Dunbar, he bought an alto saxophone from jazz great Joseph Jarman, and never looked back.
"I started teaching myself the sax and taking lessons from Joseph," said Ewart. "We studied theory, composition and the instrument. The world just opened up and I could hear colors and see sound."
He moved to the Twin Cities more than three decades ago to follow his wife, Janis Lane-Ewart, an award-winning arts administrator who had taken a post at Arts Midwest.
"All creative thinking requires improvisation and if you're improvising, you're going to discover things," said Ewart. "I seek out new works and ideas because I'm trying to be interesting to myself."