Teaneck jazz photographer Chuck Stewart, 87, honored by township
Chuck Stewart, 87, an award-winning photographer, was recently named one of Teaneck most outstanding residents.
TEANECK — Chuck Stewart didn’t move to this township half a century ago just because he’d heard good things about it.
Stewart, a renowned photographer of thousands of jazz album covers and editorial spreads for such icons as Miles Davis and Billie Holiday, had been tracking down a music industry associate, who moved from New York City to Teaneck without telling him. That business associate, famed R&B disc jockey Jack "The Pear Shaped Talker" Walker, owed him some records.
Stewart found Walker living on Teaneck’s Rensselaer Road in 1965. He also discovered a better place to live. Soon after, the photographer, his wife, Mae, and their three small children moved from their apartment in a deteriorating building in the Bronx to a two-story, three-bedroom home on Voorhees Street.
"Teaneck chose me. I didn’t choose Teaneck," said the 87-year-old, who was recently recognized by the Township Council as "one of this community’s most outstanding residents."
His family’s accidental landing in Teaneck worked out, Stewart said. The children grew up and attended school in a suburban community known for embracing upwardly mobile minorities, and that freed Stewart to focus intensely on his career photographing the world’s most celebrated jazz and pop musicians.
Stewart’s youngest son, Chris, 51, said his father "went to work and we were safe here. Every now and then, if I didn’t know where he was, he’d leave a ticket stub on the kitchen table. He’d take us into the darkroom and show us the pictures. So we knew dad was exactly where he said he was. He wasn’t cheating on mom, that’s for sure!"
After they met their neighbors, Mae Stewart told her husband she was worried that they weren’t going to "keep up with the Joneses," Stewart recalled. The neighborhood, a formerly Jewish area of town where real estate agents steered black families looking to move to Teaneck, became home to couples, many making nearly $100,000 annually.
Confidently, Stewart assured his wife, "What we do is make the Joneses keep up with us."
That took some creative thinking. Even though he held a degree in fine arts from Ohio University — "I was probably one of the best-trained photographers in the world" — advertising agencies on New York’s Madison Avenue, which paid $1,500 per ad, weren’t falling over themselves to give work to African-American photographers over whites, who dominated the trade, Stewart recalled.
That didn’t bother him much, considering he had steady work photographing the likes of Gil-Scott Heron, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and Sonny Rollins. But that work averaged just $150 per shoot. He eventually found work with a small ad agency and used his connections to bring home the finer things to his wife and children.
The agency had an account with the Stiffel Lamps Co., which sold household table lamps for $400 each. After Stewart photographed some of those lamps, the company parted with $1,200 worth of them for $75. Later, he shot a $1,200 dining room set and took it home for $150. The floor rugs for every room of the house cost him $500, instead of the $2,000 they would have cost him in a department store, he said.
"I got these things for practically nothing, so, in some instances, I probably made more money than my neighbors did," Stewart said. The Stiffel lamps are still in his living room.
Stewart’s wife died in 1987. The business and the neighborhood changed over time, and he closed his New York City studio and moved his darkroom to his basement in the 1990s. He started to notice there were fewer children playing in front yards and more aging residents, like him, using canes. That cycle has recently reversed as young families have moved in again.
Stewart has long been a valued member of the community. Councilman Henry Pruitt, who lives a block from him on Voorhees Street, said neighborhood block parties wouldn’t be the same without Stewart’s peach cobbler.
Stewart has passed the recipe on to his son David, 56, who, he said, "makes it better than I do." Stewart also has a daughter, Marsha, 58, who lives in Chicago.
Stewart prizes his jazz portfolio, from which images have been published in his book, "Jazz Files," as well as in a number of publications, including Esquire and The New York Times. His photos have also been shown in exhibitions at Lincoln Center and at the bergenPAC in Englewood. In March, he was honored by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History during its annual jazz-appreciation celebration.
Fifty years after he moved to Teaneck, the now-retired photographer knows the stability that homeownership brought was good for his family and for his career.
"I never thought of myself as an intelligent person, in terms of the subject matter," he said. "I was taking pictures of what I was assigned to do, in order to make a living for my family. That was my job."
Grammy-winner Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks have played in New York nightclubs appeared in films (The Cotton Club, The Aviator, Finding Forrester, Revolutionary Road, and HBO’s Boardwalk Empire) and for concerts at the Town Hall, Jazz At Lincoln Center and the Newport Jazz Festival. Other recording projects include soundtracks for Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World, Tamara Jenkins’s The Savages, Robert DeNiro’s The Good Shepherd, Sam Mendes’s Away We Go, Michael Mann’s film Public Enemies, and John Krokidas’s feature, Kill Your Darlings; along with HBO’s Grey Gardens, Todd Haynes’s HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce and an upcoming Haynes’ film called Carol. The Nighthawks are also seen and heard in the USA Network series Royal Pains and the PBS series Michael Feinstein’s American Songbook.
A Brooklyn native, Vince Giordano’s passion for this music and the people that made it began at age 5. He has amassed an amazing collection of over 60,000 band arrangements, 1920s and 30s films, 78 rpm recordings and jazz-age memorabilia. Giordano sought out and studied with important survivors from the period: Whiteman’s hot arranger Bill Challis; drummer Chauncey Morehouse; and bassist Joe Tarto. Giordano’s knowledge, passion, and commitment to authenticity led him to create a sensational band of like-minded players, the Nighthawks.
Giordano has single handedly kept alive an amazing genre of American music that continues to spread the joy and pathos of an era that shaped our nation. This summer, Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks will perform at Lincoln Center’s Midsummer Night Swing; Town Hall’s American premiere of Cole Porter’s La Ambassadeur Review; Music Mountain; Old Westbury Gardens; Kingsborough College; Pier 84’s Moon Dance; the Newport Jazz Festival; Morgan Park in Great Neck; and Levitt Pavillion in Westport, CT. Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks can be heard every Monday and Tuesday at Iguana NYC.
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