Chuck Stewart – Jazz Photographer
February 15, 2017
It is not only musicians who have made an important and valuable contribution to jazz. There have also been club owners and promoters and record producers (Milt Gabler, Norman Granz, Barney Josephson, Gene Norman, Rudy Van Gelder), writers (Whitney Balliett, Will Friedwald, Gary Giddings, Ted Gioia, Dan Morgenstern), filmmakers (Frank D. Gilroy, Gjon Mili, Thomas Reichman, Bert Stern, Bertrand Tavernier), and photographers. The work of this last group has gone far beyond publicity material, edging across the border into art and creating some of the lasting images of the music in the past hundred years. Significant names include William Claxton, William P. Gottlieb, Herman Leonard, David Redfern, and Valerie Wilmer. Apart from the last-named, none of these artists of the camera named here is still with us but their work lives on in many areas of the arts.
Chuck Stewart, another exceptional jazz photographer, died on 20 January 2017. He was born Charles Hugh Stewart in Henrietta, Texas, on 21 May 1927. Raised in Arizona, Chuck had his first brush with commercial photography when he used a Box Brownie to record a visit to his school by the legendary contralto Marian Anderson. Sales of the pictures he took that day raised $2, which was riches indeed in those Depression years. At his mother’s urging, Chuck took piano lessons, but this never developed into anything approaching a professional standard. However, his interest in photography grew and after graduation from Ohio University he moved to New York where he joined Herman Leonard with whom he worked in the city’s clubs. This was at the end of the 1940s, and the jazz scene was thriving as the tail-end of the swing era met with newly-arrived bebop. Drafted into the military in the early 1950s, Chuck would later state that he worked as a photographer at the atomic bomb testing sites in Nevada. Back in New York, he periodically ran their studio when Leonard was out of the country working on motion picture commissions.
Although specializing in jazz, his first and enduring musical love, Chuck also photographed artists from other musical areas, among them the Beatles, James Brown, Bo Diddley, Judy Garland, Janis Joplin, Led Zeppelin, Tito Puente and Frank Sinatra. For Chuck to attain and maintain his commercial success he clearly needed more than the jazz world and he also worked in many other areas, including sports, fashion, theater and films. It is, however, the images he recorded of jazz masters that stand out and they include Count Basie, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Elvin Jones, James Moody, McCoy Tyner and Dinah Washington. An indefinable element that appears in much of Chuck’s work is the fact that his subjects liked and trusted him, and this is most apparent when he photographed musicians on recording sessions. Many of these photographs appear on album sleeves, estimated at more than 2000, while his entire library of negatives exceeds three-quarters of a million.
Among the books displaying the work of jazz photographers are these by William Claxton, Jazz, William P. Gottlieb, The Golden Age of Jazz, Herman Leonard, Jazz, David Redfern, The Unclosed Eye, and Valerie Wilmer, Jazz People, all of which help us see into the hearts and souls of many of the greatest figures in the history of jazz.
All of these books can be found at Amazon.