There’s an African proverb: “When somebody of great stature dies, a mighty tree has fallen.” I wish a lot more people had known Chuck Stewart; he was such a great guy. When I was I growing up in Chicago, as a teenager I would see the Impulse! album covers—John Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders—but I didn’t attach Chuck’s name to them yet. Then, after I came to New York, when I was in my 20s, I worked at galleries and museums. One of them was Gallery 62, at the National Urban League. They would put on shows of different artists and I would take a portrait of the artist. One of them happened to be Chuck Stewart. We became fast friends after that, and we had a relationship until he died. When I [started working with] Jazz at Lincoln Center, we bought a bunch of his photographs to put up in the hall and around the offices, and I went over to his house a lot.
I had known about other jazz photographers, and Chuck’s work was along the lines of Herman Leonard. He would use salon lighting, or sometimes he would take the lights onto the stage or shoot people in the studio. I liked the way he shot and definitely respected what he did, but I didn’t think I could ever do it that way.
He had a great rapport with artists, and I try to do the same. He knew them all and he was accepted as one of them. You could see that they were very much at ease with him. I think he even traveled with Max Roach for a while. He shot over 2,000 album covers. That’s magnificent—he shot everybody! It’s hard to pick one favorite, but one of mine is [his photo of] John Coltrane with wife, Alice, sitting in back of him: That’s a masterpiece. He shot [Coltrane during the session for] A Love Supreme, but they didn’t use [his photos for the cover]! Chuck took him into the studio at 4:30 in the morning, from a recording date. When you look at that stuff, it all seems very spiritual. Not only that, but the level of difficulty with what he was doing was so great too. He was shooting with medium format, and it’s a slow film that you shoot with, and to have that much clarity and resolve is great. I like a lot of his Dinah Washington stuff, and Betty Carter with Walter Davis in the background.
And Chuck was a prankster! I did a book on Wynton Marsalis, and when I got to Paris all these photographers were looking at me. I was looking back at them and thinking, “Why are they looking at me?” One of them came over to me and said, “You look good!” I said, “What are you talking about?” He said, “Chuck told us you were his father. You look good for your age!”
[As told to Jeff Tamarkin]
Frank Stewart is a longtime photography professional and the senior staff photographer at Jazz at Lincoln Center.