Career Alternatives, Fabulosity, Federal Judges, Music, State Judges

Behind the Music, Behind the Bench: Meet Judge Jay Stewart

Wielding power and oozing prestige, judges can be thought of as “rock stars of the law.” But some judges are, in a more literal sense, rock stars.

Several judges around the country possess impressive musical talents. For example, as we mentioned earlier this month, Judge Randall R. Rader recently rocked out at San Diego’s House of Blues with his band, DeNovo.

Judge Rader is not alone is making music as well as rulings. A Georgia jurist recently released a critically acclaimed album, in which his gavel-wielding fingers strum the guitar alongside some musical greats.

Keep reading for the Above the Law interview with this colorful and creative judge….

Meet the Honorable D. Jay Stewart, a Superior Court Judge in the Atlantic Judicial Circuit of Georgia (near Savannah). Earlier this month, Judge D.J. Stewart — not a DJ, but a lifelong guitar player — released an album entitled Enjoy the Ride. As described in the press release, the album exudes a “rock, blues and jazz infused energy.”

Thus far, Enjoy the Ride has garnered positive reviews. For example, Sounds of Timeless Jazz had this to say:

Enjoy The Ride is an infectious collection of 10 soul-simmering compositions infused with the genius of Jason Miles and Jay Stewart. Their excellence as composers/producer/arranger comes through the songs performed by such amazing musicians as bassist Neil Jason, drummer Brian Dunne, saxophonist David Mann, conguero Jimmy Bralower, trumpeters Cindy Bradley and Barry Danielian. Jason Miles’ accomplished playing on electric piano and Hammond B3 organ and Jay Stewart’s finesse on electric and acoustic guitars truly bring the songs alive.

Judge Jay Stewart

We recently caught up with Judge Stewart to discuss his judicial and musical careers. Here’s the (lightly edited and condensed) write-up of our interview.

Can you tell us a bit about your legal career and your path to the bench?

After graduating from Mercer Law in 1991, I returned to my hometown of Claxton, Georgia, a small community approximately forty-five minutes west of Savannah. I had accepted a position as an associate with an attorney who was a sole practitioner up until that time. He had established a substantial plaintiff’s personal injury practice and was in need of someone to handle the general practice areas, like family law, criminal defense, personal injury, and real estate transactions. I continued there until I opened my own office in Claxton in 1996, where I continued in these same areas. I spent a substantial part of my time in litigation immediately upon graduation and continued to do so.

In 2001, I became a partner in Brown, Rountree & Stewart PC, in Statesboro, Georgia. I remained there until I was elected to the Superior Court bench in November 2006, where I have served since January 2007.

And can you tell us more about your music career — have you always been musically inclined?

I suppose I have always been musically inclined. I started playing guitar at the age of six. My father plays so there was always a guitar in our home. I learned by watching him and playing the songs that I heard on the family turntable and radio. I was fortunate in that I was introduced to a legendary fingerstyle jazz guitarist named Buddy Owens when I was very young. Buddy Owens introduced me to advanced chord theory and the unique right-hand technique often associated with Chet Atkins. I also discovered many popular guitarists whose styles I began to emulate, including Eric Clapton, Carlos Santana, and Larry Carlton.

What kind of performing have you done in the past?

When I was nineteen years old, I left college after my freshman year and toured with the band Avalanche throughout the southeast. Avalanche was based in Raleigh, NC. I had the opportunity to play with some major acts.

Did you think during that time that you might want to pursue a career as a musician?

I eventually learned that I did not want to spend my life in hotel rooms and night clubs, so after a matter of months I made the decision to return to college and complete my schooling. I continued studying guitar but made the decision at that time to obtain an education. While I was in school, I relied on the guitar to supplement (or completely provide) income — through teaching lessons, playing in bands, and working on recording sessions.

I have never lost the desire to continue playing. In the past couple of years, I have focused more on original material, as I now own a home studio and have access to friends who also have studios.

Current law students should take note of how you were able to supplement your income while in school. That’s one way to deal with the high cost of legal education today — find some work on the side.

So, Judge, can you tell us about your latest musical project?

My debut CD, Enjoy The Ride, was released on January 3, 2012. The project contains elements of blues, R & B, and smooth jazz. The album is available through my website,, or through outlets like Amazon or iTunes. It has been well-received so far; reviews are collected on my website as well.

How did you come to record an album?

One of my personal goals for 2011 was to spend more time in the studio recording original material. I had been listening to some of the guitar players that I admire, like Larry Carlton, Derek Trucks, and Chuck Loeb, and it occurred to me that I would love to have the opportunity to work with a seasoned record producer just to see what might happen in the studio (as opposed to self-producing in my home studio).

So I emailed Jason Miles, a Grammy Award-winning producer who played keyboards with Miles Davis and produced Luther Vandross and other legends. I explained to him what I do for a living and my desire to record, attaching a couple of mp3 files to my email (an original instrumental song that I had recorded in the studio and an instrumental version of the old Hall & Oates tune “Sara Smile”). After exchanging a few emails and phone calls, we signed a production agreement in early February 2011. Because Jason Miles and I both have home studios, we were able to co-write some material, exchange ideas and put together the ten songs that eventually became Enjoy The Ride.

In June of 2011 I flew to Englewood, New Jersey where we recorded at Bennett Recording Studios. I recorded all guitar tracks on the project and was joined by Jason Miles on keys (Hammond B3, Wurlitzer and piano), Neil Jason on bass (Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Dire Straits, Billy Joel) and Brian Dunne on drums (Hall & Oates, Chuck Loeb). We recorded all of the basic tracks for the CD on that trip. I later recorded some of the lead and acoustic guitar tracks at Frank Farr Productions in Statesboro, Georgia. Cindy Bradley (2011 Jazz Artist of the Year) plays trumpet on a couple of tracks as well. David Mann and Barry Danielian also contributed horn parts. Mike Mattison, who is often referred to as the lead singer for the Derek Trucks Band, sings the R & B influenced track “Can’t Fight Love.” There is also a vocal track by Josh Dion from NYC.

What was the actual recording session like?

Working with such legendary players was a treat. I do recall being a bit anxious on the morning of the session. Bassist Neil Jason suggested that we loosen up a bit. What ensued was a free-style jam (think Allman Brothers). Afterwards we all settled in and it was a bunch of guys making music. Great fun.

How would you compare judging and making music — for example, similarities, differences, how one might inform the other?

There are some common factors. There is no substitute for hard work in either setting, whether it’s preparing for a hearing or trial, or putting time in with your instrument to take you to that space where you can perform at a level where people want to hear you play. The two also have in common that you never know exactly what’s going to happen until you are fully engaged, whether in court, the recording studio, or playing live.

And what are your future plans? Do you plan to continue serving as a judge and recording music, or could you see yourself going into a full-time music career once again?

I am very honored and humbled to serve as Superior Court Judge. I have the opportunity to help a lot of people who are hurting. In addition to my customary criminal and civil docket, I also run a drug court. It took a lot of hard work by a lot of friends and family to have this opportunity. I don’t foresee leaving the bench. Having said that, I am very serious about my career in music. I do intend to continue recording and playing live. I would have to see a lot of of people downloading my music or buying my CD before I would consider a full time career in music. I have a dear friend who is a legendary bass player who currently tours with a major artist. He likes to remind me that I have a roof and health insurance, two very good things!

Congratulations again on the album and all of your success, both in the legal world and the music world. Thanks for taking the time to chat with us here at Above the Law!

Guitarist Jay Stewart [official website]
Enjoy the Ride [Amazon (affiliate link)]
Review of Enjoy The Ride by Jay Stewart [Sounds of Timeless Jazz]

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