Charles Stewart (May 21, 1927 – January 20, 2017) was an American photographer best known for his portraits of jazz singers and musicians such as Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, John Coltrane, Ella Fitzgerald, and Miles Davis, as well as artists in the R&B and salsa genres. Stewart’s photographs have graced more than 2,000 album covers.
Stewart was born in Texas on May 21, 1927, and grew up in Tucson, Arizona. He received an Kodak Brownie camera as a present when he was 13 years old and used it that same day to take photos of Marian Anderson, who had come to visit his school. After they were developed, he was able to sell his photos for two dollars, making him a professional photographer from his first day he took pictures. He attended Ohio University as a photography major, one of the only two universities in the United States that offered the program at the collegiate level and the only one that would then accept African American students.
While in college, his friendship with photographer Herman Leonard helped him make connections with record companies in New York City. His clients would include Impulse, Mercury, Reprise and Verve, for whom he took cover photos of artists such jazz and R&B icons as Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Ray Charles, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Lionel Hampton, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Charles Mingus, Max Roach, Sonny Rollins, Sarah Vaughan and Dinah Washington, appearing on more than 2,000 albums and in publications including Esquire, Paris Match and The New York Times, as well as in the Encyclopedia of Jazz by jazz journalist Leonard Feather. He also worked for Chess Records in Chicago (and its Argo subsidiary).
Stewart always tried to capture his subjects in as flattering a pose as possible, saying “I didn’t want them picking their nose or scratching their behind. It was important to me that I take a picture of a person in a manner that I thought they looked best.” During the 1950s and 1960s he was turned down for more lucrative advertising photography when agencies said that their clients “don’t have black people down here sweeping the floors” and would rather resign the account than accept him.
In conjunction with Stewart’s recognition with the Milt Hinton Award for Excellence in Jazz Photography, Jazz at Lincoln Center presented an exhibition titled Looking at the Music: The Jazz Photography of Chuck Stewart, which ran from November 2008 to February 2009. In 2014, 25 of Stewart’s photographs documenting the recording of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme were inducted into the Smithsonian.
A widowed father of three children, Stewart lived in Teaneck, New Jersey from 1965 in a home furnished with carpeting and fixtures that he received from some of his photography assignments. Despite having a piano in his home, Stewart remarked that he himself “couldn’t play Chopsticks“, even after years of lessons. He died in Teaneck on January 20, 2017, at the age of 89.
- Steven Otfinoski African Americans in the Visual Arts, New York: Facts on File, 2003, p. 193
- Beckerman, Jim. “Chuck Stewart’s photo portraits of jazz greats on display at bergenPAC”, The Record (Bergen County), October 14, 2010. Accessed October 14, 2010.
- “Reflections in Black: Smithsonian African American Photography”, Frist Center for the Visual Arts, p. 13. Accessed October 14, 2010.
- Looking at the Music: The Jazz Photography of Chuck Stewart, Jazz at Lincoln Center. Accessed October 14, 2010.
- New Photos of Coltrane Rediscovered 50 years After They Were Shot
- Chinen, Nate. “Chuck Stewart, Master Jazz Photographer, Dies at 89”, WBGO, January 23, 2017. “Chuck Stewart, one of the most prolific and admired photographers in jazz — an intimate chronicler of many of its icons and milestones, including the historic recording session for John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme — died on Jan. 20 in Teaneck, N.J. He was 89.”