Musician-photographer Al Stewart played trumpet with Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong and many other big-band greats, and documented his 60 years in show business with photos shot from his seat on the bandstand. WBFO News contributor and WGRZ-TV senior correspondent Rich Kellman has the story.
It’s Sunday morning in a retirement neighborhood in Sarasota, Florida. From one of the houses we hear somebody playing Stardust on the trumpet. At age 83, retired musician Al Stewart still practices most mornings. He recalls one of his first gigs, 62 years ago at the Town Casino in Buffalo. “It was September 19th, 1949,” he says, looking through the datebook that he carried with him on the road. “We opened for a week there with Benny Goodman.”
Al Stewart was just a kid then but hired to play first trumpet with the band. “I was in seventh heaven. I was just 21, I think. I remember Benny’s wife, Alice, knitting him sox, sitting there in a booth on the side.”
Al has a lot of what he did on LPs. He puts one on his turntable. It’s a modern take on the music of Bach. “I’m amazed that I did this,” he says. It was incredible.”
He played the Paramount in New York with Louie Armstrong. “Good guy?” we ask.
“Fantastic guy,” he says. ”I loved him.” He remembers the thrill of the band rising out of the pit at the Paramount. “Thrilling, thrilling. Lights were flashing and scanning the audience and the band, various multi-colored lights would hit your instrument and you could see reflections and shining and screaming and howling and people jumping and dancing in the aisles. It was unbelievable.”
He wanted to capture the excitement in some way besides the music. And so in the early fifties, Al Stewart took up another instrument. A camera. His home in Florida is filled with images he captured from his place on the bandstand. “Lucille Ball up here,” we say, pointing to a photo of the Jamestown legend holding a script onstage and looking pensive.
“Yeah,” he says, “that was at a rehearsal for pre-Broadway trials of the show she played in called Wildcat.” Others displayed in his hallway entrance show Jackie Gleason during rehearsal for a recording session with his orchestra, and another of Della Reese at the Americana nightclub in New York. “And this is what I saw,” he says, showing Reese backlit during performance. “I stopped playing and picked up my camera and took this shot, and she sent me the most lovely letter thanking me. She looked at that, and I think she said she wondered, who took it.” The photo ended up on the cover of Reese’s album called Moody. “I didn’t get album credits for it,” says Stewart, “but it’s my shot.”
He treasures a shot of bass player Milt Hinton, who wrote a book about being a black musician in the 1920’s. “You came to a water fountain and it was marked for colored only,” he says. September 15th, 1949, Columbia South Carolina. A near-riot breaks out when black saxophone player Wardell Gray appears on stage with white musicians. “The police led us back to our bus in safety,” Stewart recalls. “We never played a concert.”
Elsewhere in the south, “I went to the hotel to register with my real name, Al Goldberg, and I was refused entry to the hotel.” He pauses. “And here I am,” he says.
Al Stewart has assembled a loose-leaf book of his photos with notations on each. It’s a rich photographic history of the big-band era from a unique perspective. He hopes to get it published What will the title be ? “A View from the Bandstand,” he says, “Photographs by Al Stewart.”
Al Stewart, or Al Goldberg as he was reminded that day so long ago in South Carolina. By any name, he’s the guy who played trumpet with Benny Goodman at the Towne Casino in Buffalo when he was just 21. And he has the pictures to prove it.