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Al Stewart’s “View from the Bandstand”

Al Stewart (on the right in the photo with Ziggy Elman and Louis Armstrong) began his career not as a photographer, but as a jazz musician. He was born before television, back when the center of entertainment in every home was the radio. He used to listen to live broadcasts (called "remotes") of the big bands that performed in hotels and ballrooms across the country, and years later Al eventually played with some of the very bands that he had heard on the radio as a young boy.

He began playing the trumpet in the Seth Low Junior High School Band in Brooklyn. As Al tells it, "My father bought me a used trumpet for ten dollars and my mother found a trumpet teacher who used to come all the way from Brownsville by two trains and a bus to give me a lesson once a week. He also taught me some theory and harmony. My mother paid him a dollar-fifty and an apple. I later realized he was worth the whole orchard."

Al enlisted in the Navy and was sent to the Navy School of Music in Anacostia, Virginia. There he met many of the musicians with whom he would play in bands after the war. In 1947 Al auditioned for and got the job with Louis Prima's band at the Strand Theater on Broadway in New York City. He was on his way. "Louis was a great entertainer, a funny guy, played a good trumpet, and sang. There was a lot of New Orleans in him—that's where he was from. We had a bus of our own, and after the Strand engagement we went 'on the road' for a string of one-nighters: a different town, a different ballroom every night. Except for an occasional theater gig, in those days we played for dancing all the time."

After about a year with Prima, Al was hired by Ray McKinley's band for a short time until in 1948 he got a call to join Benny Goodman's band where he remained until it broke up in 1950. After that he played and/or recorded with Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Barnet, Claude Thornhill, Woody Herman, Billy May, Lucky Millinder, Herbie Fields, Machito, Tito Puente, Tito Rodriguez, Freddie Martin, and Elliot Lawrence. In 1953 Al joined Benny Goodman and Louis Armstrong for an All Star concert tour. In Benny's band were Ziggy Elman, Charlie Shavers, Teddy Wilson, Gene Krupa, Israel Crosby, Steve Jordan, Willie Smith, Georgie Auld, Clint Neagley, Sol Schlinger, Al Stewart, Rex Peer, and Helen Ward. Some of the great musicians in Louis' band were Trummy Young, Barney Bigard, Cozy Cole, Arvell Shaw, Joe Bushkin, and Velma Middleton.

During the tour Al became friends with Louis Armstrong, a man he had idolized as a kid learning to play the trumpet. He used to hang out with him in the dressing room and listen to him tell stories of the old days in New Orleans–stories about musicians Al had known only from old records. "I even played his horn with his mouthpiece in his dressing room for him alone. All this and no camera? No...no camera. I didn't even own one at the time. Besides, I was completely engrossed in playing Louis' horn. A camera would have been an interruption. It would have gotten in the way of what I was doing–of what I was experiencing. In retrospect, it was a great photographic opportunity that was missed, but in real time, No!"

Al eventually settled in New York to do commercial recording and studio work. He played for many radio and television shows including Ed Sullivan, Jackie Gleason, Johnny Carson, Miss America Pageants, a number of Broadway shows such as "How to Succeed in Business," "Sweet Charity," "Woman of the Year," and "West Side Story," and has played or recorded with such greats as Sammy Davis, Jr., Tony Bennett, Della Reese, Jackie Gleason, Lena Horne, Michell Legrande, Johnny Mathis, Patti Page, Woody Herman, Steve and Edie, and Harry Bellafonte.

"My real interest in photography came about in the mid-1950's when I bought an Asahi Pentax SLR, and then later a friend brought me a Nikon F back from a trip to Japan. As a musician I was always in a situation that gave me the opportunity to photograph many performers, actors, and musicians in the world of entertainment—both in performance as well as behind the scenes. I took the photograph of Della Reese from my seat in the trumpet section during a performance at 'The Royal Box' (the nightclub in the Americana Hotel in NYC), and she used it on the cover of her 'Moody' album. The cover photo for 'Jackie Gleason Plays the Most Beautiful Girl in the World' is mine from a record session."

When Al switched from the Pentax to the Nikon, he found the shutter to be quite noisy, given where he did most of his shooting. "I traded it for a Nikon SP, which was a range finder and much quieter than the F. Eventually the focusing on the SP seemed to fade and became difficult for me. Nikon said the SP couldn't be repaired, so I went to an Olympus SLR. It had several means of focusing but I found the split-image best for me. The lens I used on both Nikons was a 50mm f1.4, and a 1.8 on the Pentax. Tri X was the film I used and, if I remember correctly, UFG was the developer. For 2-1/4 portrait shooting I used Panatomic X and Plus X film. Once in a while I used Tri X developed in Dektol, which gave a wonderfully interesting grain–almost like texture screening. Today I have a Nikon N70 with a Tamron 28 to 105 f2.8, an OM1 system with a 24, 28, 50 and a 75-to-150 zoom. All Zuiko lenses. I haven't used my 2-1/4 cameras for a long time but those are the Rolleicord, Rolleiflex, and a Mamiya C2 with a 135 lens. Given all the technology and conveniences of today's cameras, I still think that my manual cameras with my handheld light meter kept me in closer contact to what I was doing and how it would come out of the darkroom. Having said all of the above, I think that the darkroom part of it is where one can be most creative."

Click on photo to see a larger image of the Benny Goodman/Louis Armstrong Tour

The following gallery of photographs are from Al Stewart's collection "View from the Bandstand," which showed at the Bergen Museum of Art and Science in Paramus, New Jersey, and will also be on display for 2 months at the John Harms Center For the Arts in Englewood, New Jersey, starting July 26, 2001. Al has also had exhibits on Paris, Israel, Spain, and Greece.

To the GALLERY

Mr. Stewart can be reached at tandy49[AT]juno.com

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