Alexander Jarman

A Terrible Piano Player

Alexander Jarman
A Terrible Piano Player

This weekend's album art post focuses on the work of legendary photographer Chuck Stewart, who sadly died a week ago at the age of 89.  

Early Life

We know that Chuck had a camera in hand from an early age, and one of his stories about growing up in the Depression in Arizona involved learning that he could make money from his photography.  While he grew increasingly interested in the photographic medium, his mother also forced him to take piano lessons.  But after years of hard work, practice, and a good investment of time and money, Stewart said he was still a terrible piano player, being able to perform but a single song, Bach's Minuet in G.  But the most important thing to come of all of that was the fact that Chuck had caught the music bug. 


After graduating from Ohio University, Stewart would go to work for another legend in the music photography field, Herman Leonard, from 1949-1956 (except for a few years in the middle when Chuck proudly served his country as a military photographer).  He took over Leonard's studio in '56 and went on to forge his own vision of portrait photography, taking pictures that landed on over 2,000 albums (including covers and liner notes) for artists such as Ray Charles, Louis Armstrong, John Coltrane, Archie Shepp, Pharoah Sanders, Count Basie and so many more. Chuck was not always welcomed by record labels due to racist practices and policies of mid-20th century America.  But his friendships with musicians gained him access to their recording sessions and his undeniable talent eventually gained him notice by record label designers and producers. His works are now found in the collections of such prestigious institutions as the Smithsonian.  


Chuck Stewart knew that he was taking photographs of the types of people who often have their photo taken, so it was imperative to him that he find a way to make his own style stand out. When he took photos during recording sessions, he often found ways of isolating a figure against a monochrome wall and making the rest of the visual cues of the studio disappear.  These are the types of photographs that Stewart is often celebrated for, especially those of the 1964 recording session of John Coltrane's A Love Supreme.  (Ironically, the cover image for that album was not taken by Stewart. The producer Bob Thiele used an image he had taken himself, even though he was told by Stewart that the latter clearly had the better pictures.)  But if you look at the album covers on which designers used Stewart's photographs, you can see an incredible range of portraiture.  The five album covers below offer a glimpse of this range.  Albert Ayler's Music is the Healing Force of the Universe and Heavy Sounds by Elvin Jones and Richard Davis both feature cropped, intimate views of the performers that rely on a strong lighting source to create extreme highlights and/or matching extreme shadow; Alice Coltrane's Journey in Satchidananda has the feeling of a highly theatrical stage set or a view into a dream world; and Bashin' by Jimmy Smith and Jazz As Played in an Exclusive Side Street Club by Nina Simone are two very different takes on portraiture in the landscape, where Jimmy feels in control of his circumstances and Nina seems somewhat isolated or resigned to her circumstances.  This is all to say that Chuck Stewart has a keen enough eye to make a good picture out of a multitude of different circumstances.  And looking at his biography more closely as an African American man in 20th century America, he used that approach both with his photography and his life.  This May would have been Chuck's 90th birthday and it can only be hoped that he will still be celebrated not only this May but for 90 more Mays yet to come.  

Albert Ayler, Music is the Healing Force of the Universe, 1969

Photo: Chuck Stewart Design: George Whiteman

Elvin Jones and Richard Davis, Heavy Sounds, 1967

Photo: Chuck Stewart Design: Robert and Barbara Flynn

Alice Coltrane, Journey in Satchidananda, 1971

Photo: Chuck Stewart Design: Wallace Caldwell

Jimmy Smith, Bashin': The Unpredictable Jimmy Smith, 1962

Photo: Chuck Stewart Design: Sung Lee

Nina Simone, Jazz as Played in an Exclusive Side Street Club, 1958

Photo: Chuck Stewart

And here's the only song Chuck said he could play, Bach's Minuet in G.  

You can find more great stories and photos from Chuck Stewart here:

New York Times

Amsterdam News