MILES DAVIS HOLDING COURT with the press after a performance at Lincoln Center is one of Frank Stewart’s more well-known photographs. A camera flash shines bright aimed at Davis who is perched against a wall on the opposite side of the room, elevated slightly just above everyone, his shadow cast behind him.

Stewart shot the scene for Ebony magazine in 1981 and titled the black-and-white image “Miles in the Green Room.” He describes the jazz trumpeter’s mien as “Christ-like” and explains that he timed the shot to utilize the light from the other photographer’s flash.


Christ-Like Figure in Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center: FRANK STEWART, “Miles in the Green Room,” 1981 (inkjet print, 33 1/2 x 49 inches. | © Frank Stewart, Courtesy the artist

 

The photograph is one of nearly 80 by Stewart on view at the Ethelbert Cooper Gallery of African & African American Art at Harvard University. “The Sound of My Soul: Frank Stewart’s Life in Jazz” showcases five decades of images, dating from 1973 to this year. The presentation is the first museum exhibition of his jazz photography.

The color and black-and-white photographs depict musicians and vocalists behind the scenes during downtime, playing in local clubs, and working on the road at annual jazz festivals and on the grand stages of the world. A few images focus on objects and space, exploring line and form. More recent photographs experiment with silhouettes and color gels on lights.

Stewart brims with fascinating stories about each one—about the subjects, the circumstances, and the techniques he used to capture them.

In addition to Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey, Sonny Rollins, Walter Davis Jr., Dianne Reeves, Dexter Gordon, Lionel Hampton, Benny Carter, Marcus Roberts, and Cassandra Wilson, many more are featured. Stewart knows nearly all of them personally.

Shortly before it opened, Stewart walked through the exhibition with curator Ruth Fine, who organized the show. Standing before the Davis photograph, he explained his early connection with the jazz legend.

“I lived right next door to Miles’s sister in Chicago. …Growing up she was like my aunt. I was over there all the time. In fact, her husband kind of taught me how to cook barbecue. …We loved them,” said Stewart, who was living with his father, Frank Lehman Stewart, at the time.

“And Miles would come there. Whenever he was in Chicago, he would stay with them. So, I would see Miles sometimes. I was a little boy.”

 


The Changing Face of Jazz: Installation view of “The Sound of My Soul: Frank Stewart’s Life in Jazz,” Ethelbert Cooper Gallery of African & African American Art, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. (Sept. 16-Dec. 13, 2019). | Photo by Melissa Blackall, Courtesy Cooper Gallery

 


From left, FRANK STEWART, “Max Roach, Jazzmobile,” circa 1978 (gelatin silver print, 11 x 14 inches); and FRANK STEWART, “Roy Haynes, Alice Tully Hall,” 2002 (gelatin silver print, 10 x 8). | Installation detail, Photo by Melissa Blackall, Courtesy Cooper Gallery

 

The stories keep coming. Photographs of Max Roach and Roy Haynes hang side by side. Stewart has a recollection about Haynes: “He told somebody, one time, he was the second greatest jazz drummer in the world. The first being Max Roach, the guy that’s right next to him. When Max passed, I guess he became the greatest.”

Mirrors often appear in Stewart’s photographs. He appreciates reflective surfaces and uses them to compose space, layer images, and open up perspectives. The possibilities are evident in a circa 1989 photograph of Roy Hargrove, featuring a mirror that reflects an image of an otherwise unseen bookcase.

“Roy Hargrove just passed this year. (He died in 2018.) That’s a big loss for us,” Stewart said. “I been knowing Roy since he was 16. He was just a phenomenal talent. He was like a prodigy on the trumpet. We hadn’t seen anything like that in a long time. We may never see anything like that, again.”

“Roy Hargrove just passed this year. That’s a big loss for us. He was just a phenomenal talent. He was like a prodigy on the trumpet. We hadn’t seen anything like that in a long time. We may never see anything like that, again.” — Frank Stewart

“Cécile, New Year’s Eve” (2016) is an up close, celebratory image of Cécile McLorin Salvant lost in song. “I get a Josephine Baker vibe from her,” Stewart said. “And that’s what I was trying to bring out. You know, the feathers. The lights. The hands and her singing. The glamour of it.”

Stewart is a senior staff photographer at Jazz at Lincoln Center, where Wynton Marsalis leads the orchestra and serves as artistic director.

A group of photographs show the Lincoln Center musicians backstage. Mirrors are present in these images, too. In one of them, Marsalis is admiring his newly pressed slacks. “These are indicative of what it looks like behind the scenes,” Stewart said. “Wynton irons his own clothes every day and it’s like therapy just before he goes on. He gets that quiet time to iron his suit and his shirt and pants and it’s very therapeutic for him.”

 


FRANK STEWART, “JALCO Getting Dressed,” circa 1996 (gelatin silver print, 11 x 14 inches). | © Frank Stewart. Installation detail, Photo by Melissa Blackall, Courtesy Cooper Gallery

 


FRANK STEWART, “Marsalis and Reed,” 1990 (gelatin silver print, 16 x 20 inches). | © Frank Stewart, Courtesy the artist

 

THE GIANTS OF JAZZ, art and photography are ever present throughout the life and career of Stewart. He was born in Nashville and came of age in Memphis and Chicago. From childhood, he can track key moments and periods to influential figures such as Davis, Romare Bearden, Roy DeCarava, and Marsalis.

Growing up in the segregated South and segregated North, music was present from the beginning, playing on the “phonograph” and on the radio in the family home. Gospel played all-day Sunday. The rest of the week it was “race” music—rhythm and blues and jazz.

Stewart’s uncle, a military veteran who served in Korea, played jazz records in the evenings. The first one the photographer remembers hearing was “Charlie Parker with Strings.” He was also exposed to jazz by his mother, Dorothy (Dotty) Jean Lewis Stewart, and stepfather, pianist Phineas Newborn Jr.

Stewart was a child in the late 1950s when Newborn took him to night clubs until the wee hours of the morning and captivated him with photographs documenting his experiences on the road.

The summer of 1963, Stewart took classes at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and went with his mother down to the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in Washington, D.C. She had a Kodak Brownie camera in tow. When Stewart saw she wasn’t using it, he picked it up. Taking photographs for the first time, he trained his lens on the endless sea of black and white people gathered on the National Mall. He was 14.

Stewart briefly attended Middle Tennessee University, a white school that had just begun taking black students. He had a scholarship to run track. It was about 40 miles from Fisk University, where he spent a significant amount of time. He audited African American art history classes taught by David C. Driskell and connected with photographer Robert Sengstacke, who was also on faculty at the HBCU. Sengstacke’s family owned the Chicago Defender. Stewart knew him from the neighborhood back in Chicago.

 


Frank Stewart’s Instruments: Installation view of “The Sound of My Soul: Frank Stewart’s Life in Jazz,” Ethelbert Cooper Gallery of African & African American Art, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. (Sept. 16-Dec. 13, 2019). | Photo by Melissa Blackall, Courtesy Cooper Gallery

 

He fondly called his mother a “jazz hag” and said she “knew everybody and hung out all the time” and booked acts for the Presbyterian Jazz Society in Mt. Vernon, N.Y. Living in nearby New Rochelle, N.Y., with his mother, Stewart sought out DeCarava.

He went to Manhattan to meet the photographer, who became a mentor and was instrumental in his enrollment at The Cooper Union. Stewart had discovered DeCarava in Chicago. He was mesmerized by “The Sweet Flypaper of Life,” which captured life in Harlem during the late 1940s and early 1950s. Originally published in 1955, the heartwarming volume featured DeCarava’s photographs alongside the words of Langston Hughes.

“Roy DeCarava’s work influenced me about jazz and how to shoot jazz. And it was ‘The Sweet Flypaper of Life,’ his book, that influenced me a great deal,” Stewart told Fine, who is planning a comprehensive retrospective of Stewart’s work.

“Just how somebody can in photographs treat black people with dignity. That I’d never seen before. Growing up in the South, when you see a person in the newspaper, and he was black, he was either shackled, handcuffed, or hanging from something.”

“Roy DeCarava’s work influenced me about jazz and how to shoot jazz. And it was ‘The Sweet Flypaper of Life,’ his book, that influenced me a great deal. Just how somebody can in photographs treat black people with dignity. That I’d never seen before.” — Frank Stewart

DeCarava was among Stewart’s Cooper Union instructors, along with Garry Winograd and painter Jack Whitten.

After Stewart graduated from The Cooper Union with a BFA in photography (1975), pianist, composer, and band leader Ahmad Jamal hired him to go on the road. For two years, Stewart was essentially his road manager. He carried instruments and shot photographs. The experience was the springboard for his jazz photography.

From 1975 to 1988, Stewart worked for Romare Bearden, helping out in a variety of capacities, all the while photographically documenting the artist’s life until his death. He observed and listened to the pivotal figure, absorbing all kinds of knowledge and life lessons and adopting news ways of seeing and framing his own work.

 


Cécile McLorin Salvant celebrating at Dizzy’s Club: FRANK STEWART, “Cécile, New Year’s Eve,” 2016 (inkjet print, 33 x 49 inches). | © Frank Stewart, Courtesy the artist

 


Installation view of “The Sound of My Soul: Frank Stewart’s Life in Jazz,” Ethelbert Cooper Gallery of African & African American Art, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. (Sept. 16-Dec. 13, 2019). | Photo by Melissa Blackall, Courtesy Cooper Gallery

 

NEW YORK-BASED Stewart is a member of Kamoinge, the collective of black photographers. Founded in 1963, DeCarava was the first director of the New York group.

Since 1989, Stewart has been a part of Jazz at Lincoln Center. He works with Marsalis and travels around the world with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. The past 18 years, he’s also been an official photographer for the Savannah Jazz Festival.

Beyond jazz, Stewart is drawn to all manner of subjects. If there’s a through line, perhaps it’s an attention to community and culture and the pursuit of a better picture, whether he’s photographing dance in Berlin, barbecue in the American South, artist portraits, or abstract compositions.

He ventured into new terrain after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Turning his attention to global warming, he’s documented the Louisiana coastline and fires in Colorado and California.

“There are three things great photographs have in common. They either talk about subject matter, the medium, or the person that’s taking the picture,” Stewart said, a few years ago, in a Jazz at Lincoln Center interview. “I always like my photographs to talk about me, and I always like to talk about how I feel about the world, so the great photographs talk about all three.”

Stewart worked with Marsalis on the book “Sweet Swing Blues on the Road: A Year with Wynton Marsalis and His Septet.” When the band leader joined Jazz at Lincoln Center, Stewart said he “came over with him.” He said Marsalis is like a brother to him. Chuckling, he added they are like an old married couple—an odd couple.

Marsalis wrote about Stewart’s photography for the Vision & Justice issue of Aperture magazine published in summer 2016.

“As dreams of previous generations erode, there is nothing more uplifting than the clear vision of a veteran free of bitterness. That’s why I love the work of Frank Stewart,” Marsalis wrote. “His vigilant eye is trained on counter-narrative realities that run deeper than race, gender, class, or even oppression itself.”

He continued: “Frank loves black folks, but he focuses on timeless HUMAN fundamentals that only increase in value and intensity with time. He is a jazzman with a camera. Improvisational, empathetic, and accurate, all kinds of folks trust him and let him in.” CT

 

“The Sound of My Soul: Frank Stewart’s Life in Jazz” is on view at Ethelbert Cooper Gallery of African & African American Art, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass., Sept. 16-Dec. 13, 2019
View exhibition brochure

“Time Capsule: Photographs by Frank Stewart” is on view at Gallery Neptune & Brown, Washington, D.C., Nov. 23, 2019-Jan. 11, 2020
View images

 

BOOKSHELF
Frank Stewart has published a few titles. “Romare Bearden” by Stewart is a fully illustrated chronicle of his time with the legendary artist. In addition, “Sweet Swing Blues on the Road: A Year with Wynton Marsalis and His Septet” and “Smokestack Lightning: Adventures in the Heart of Barbecue Country” feature Stewart’s images on the road. “Procession: The Art of Norman Lewis” and “The Art of Romare Bearden” document important retrospectives organized by Ruth Fine, a former curator at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

 


Frank Stewart walks through “The Sound of My Soul: Frank Stewart’s Life in Jazz” with curator Ruth Fine, sharing insights and backstories about the photographs and jazz figures featured in the exhibition. | Video by Hutchins Center/Cooper Gallery

 


Installation view of “The Sound of My Soul: Frank Stewart’s Life in Jazz,” Ethelbert Cooper Gallery of African & African American Art, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. (Sept. 16-Dec. 13, 2019). | Photo by Melissa Blackall, Courtesy Cooper Gallery

 


FRANK STEWART, Installation view of “Self Portrait, Dominican Republic,” 1986, “The Sound of My Soul: Frank Stewart’s Life in Jazz,” Ethelbert Cooper Gallery of African & African American Art, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. (Sept. 16-Dec. 13, 2019). | Photo by Melissa Blackall, Courtesy Cooper Gallery

 


Walter Davis Jr. and Art Blakey: FRANK STEWART, “Bu and Humphrey,” 1989 (gelatin silver print, 11 x 14 inches). | © Frank Stewart, Courtesy the artist

 


From left, FRANK STEWART, “Marcus Roberts,” 1994/95 (gelatin silver print, 20 x 16 inches); and Walter Blanding Demonstrating Coltrane: FRANK STEWART, “Walking the Bar,” 2002 (inkjet print, 30 x 20). | Both © Frank Stewart. Installation detail, Photo by Melissa Blackall, Courtesy Cooper Gallery

 


FRANK STEWART, “St. Louis Cemetery II,” 1980 (gelatin silver print, 11 x 14 inches). | © Frank Stewart. Installation detail, Photo by Melissa Blackall, Courtesy Cooper Gallery

 


Wynton’s Mutes: FRANK STEWART, “Mutes,” 1991 (gelatin silver print, 20 x 16 inches). | © Frank Stewart. Installation detail, Photo by Melissa Blackall, Courtesy Cooper Gallery

 


FRANK STEWART, “Stomping the Blues, 1996” (inkjet print, 20 x 30). | © Frank Stewart, Courtesy the artist

 

SUPPORT CULTURE TYPE
Do you enjoy and value Culture Type? Please consider supporting its ongoing production by making a donation. Culture Type is a solo editorial project that requires countless hours and expense to research, report, write, and produce. To help sustain it, make a one-time donation or sign up for a recurring monthly contribution. It only takes a minute. Many Thanks for Your Support.