Esmond Edwards

Esmond Edwards clearly remembers the day he took his first professional photograph. It was January 27, 1956, a cold winter Friday in New Jersey. He did not know it at the time, but he would frequent the house he was visiting many times in the following years. The address was 25 Prospect Avenue in Hackensack, and it belonged to Louis Van Gelder and Sarah Cohen. Their son Rudy operated a studio in his parents’ house, building a control room next to the living room, which was used as a performing area for jazz musicians. Crossing the bridge from NYC, they flocked the modest establishment to record their albums in a single day of recording.

Esmond Edwards

On that faithful day, 29-years old Edwards, who had the aspiration of becoming a jazz photographer, visited the studio with a friend. He tells the story: “Arthur Taylor was a neighbor of mine. As kids, we lived in adjacent blocks, and I knew he was a drummer.  One day I said, ‘Hey, A.T.  I’d like to see a jazz session and take pictures.'”  The session he attended was headed by alto sax player Jackie McLean, intended for a release on the Prestige jazz label: “I took some pictures, took them around to the office and showed them to Bob. He liked them and chose one to use on the cover.” The resulting album was Lights Out, the first to be graced with a photograph of Esmond Edwards on its cover.

Lights Out by Jackie McLean. Cover photograph by Esmond Edwards

That Bob was Bob Weinstock, the man behind Prestige Records, one of the giants in the tiny industry of jazz record labels in the 1950s and 1960s. He founded the label in 1949 and Lights Out was the 35th release since the label started producing albums in the LP format.  Weinstock run a company on a tight budget, acting as manager, producer and sometimes a photographer of the label’s album covers. He decided to use Esmond Edwards on a freelance basis, providing the aspiring photographer access to many recording sessions. This was the beginning of Edwards’ rich career in the music industry, and it freed up Weinstock to focus on management. The first part of the job he would relinquish was to be the man with the camera. Edwards recalls: “I never saw him with one after I came around.” Here is another photograph by Edwards from his early association with Prestige records in 1956:

When Farmer Met Gryce. Cover photograph by Esmond Edwards

Bob Weinstock recognized in Esmond Edwards a kindred spirit in his love of jazz and his artistic leanings, and made him an offer. Edwards: “We talked jazz, and one day he said, ‘Why don’t you come and work here part-time?’ I said, ‘Okay.’ I’d work in the morning and go around to agencies in the afternoon. I sent out catalogs for Bob and whatnot. It just expanded, and it became full-time. I started going to all the sessions, taking pictures.” These photographs appeared on album covers recorded early in 1957:

Ray Bryant Trio. Cover photograph by Esmond Edwards
On the Sunny Side, by Paul Quinichette. Cover photograph by Esmond Edwards

As Prestige added more jazz musicians to its roster and the workload of producing and supervising the recording sessions increased, Bob Weinstock needed help. Who should he turn to but his trusted right-hand man: “One day he said, ‘Look, you go to the session.’ That was the Coltrane date. So that was my very first as a producer.” Talking about being thrown at the deep end. In 1957 Coltrane was kicked out of the Miles Davis Quintet for drug abuse, but after cleaning himself up he was signed to Prestige Records. The contract was for 3 albums a year, $300 each. His first session as a leader took place on May 31st 1957 and yielded the album Coltrane. Edwards produced the session, his first, and took the fantastic photograph on the cover of the album.

Coltrane. Cover photograph by Esmond Edwards

Edwards’ photographs of John Coltrane during his tenure with Prestige Records are legendary. Each album cover captures him in a different pensive mood. This would become a template for the covers of Coltrane’s albums on Impulse Records later in the 1960s. Edwards on his technique and Coltrane: “One of the occasional traits in my work was direct eye contact between the subject and the camera. Coltrane had this kind of direct openness of his face that lent itself to a certain kind of expression. You get the expression that he is dedicated, devoted kind of person, which he was.” Here are a couple more albums by Coltrane with covers featuring the photography of Esmond Edwards.

Traneing In. Cover photograph by Esmond Edwards
Lush Life by John Coltrane. Cover photograph by Esmond Edwards

While Edwards tended to avoid the cliché of jazz photography that focused on musicians playing their instruments, and instead favored placing the musicians in other settings, he sometimes had to use that cliché: “I had a problem with  the horn-in-mouth type of pictures, even though sometimes that was the only way to go.”

Screamin’ the Blues. Cover photograph by Esmond Edwards

In time Edwards added album cover design to his multi-tasking job at Prestige, and along with his photography skills was able to enrich the visual appeal of albums by the biggest star of the label, none other than Miles Davis. Prestige released a number of albums by the trumpeter’s quintet after he left the label for the lucrative Columbia Records, based on recordings he made while still with Prestige.

Workin’ With the Miles Davis Quintet. Cover photograph by Esmond Edwards
Relaxin’ With the Miles Davis Quintet. Cover design by Esmond Edwards

Edwards’ interest in photography did not stop at capturing jazz artists. He loved photographing urban streets, buildings and architectural structures. Some of these photographs found their way to album covers when the musicians were not available for a photo session. Here is an example of the George Washington Bridge on the cover of Red Garland’s 1958 album All Morning Long. Edwards on the photograph: “It was not far from where I was living. I went out at different times of day and shot the bridge in morning, noon and night.”

All Mornin’ Long by the Red Garland Quintet. Cover photograph by Esmond Edwards

Esmond Edwards’ production career went on to eclipse his parallel work in photography. In 1958 Weinstock appointed him head of Artist and Repertoire (A&R) at Prestige. Talking about the recording methods at Prestige, he commented: “With Prestige we primarily worked on a limited budget, and things were, more or less, done in the studio: no rehearsal as a rule, it was the matter of getting compatible musicians together, and to some extent giving them a direction in advance. A lot of times things were ad-hoc. You get four or five guys in the studio and, ‘What are we going to do now?'” Saving costly tape, they would often re-record over abandoned takes and erase any chance of re-releasing those takes in the future, unlike Blue Note when they started re-releasing the albums in CD format with alternate takes.

The role of a producer took a different meaning with Prestige, given its low budget mentality: “A lot of times I was a combination of traffic cop, psychologist, and ‘producer/director,’ trying to keep things moving. Waking a guy up when he was on the nod so he could start his solo. Everything.” It is not surprising that his credit on some of these albums was not as a producer, but rather ‘Supervised by’.

“Jug” by Gene Ammons

Talking about a guy on the nod (a term for Heroin addicts in a state that alternates between drowsiness and wakefulness), that was the reality for many of the jazz musicians Edwards worked with. One such example was the jazz-soul tenor saxophonist Gene Ammons, with whom Edwards produced a number of albums in the early 1960s. He comments: “Gene Ammons, he was our typical junkie. He would sit there with a lit cigarette in his mouth, nodding and the ashes would be burning up his tie, and you’d swear he was in a trance. When it was time for him to play, he just came out of it and blew his butt off. Then he went back to dozing again.”

Red in Bluesville, by Red Garland. Cover design and photograph by Esmond Edwards

Jazz musicians often were not the most reliable sorts back then. Red Garland, a wonderful pianist famous for his work with the classic Miles Davis Quintet in the mid-1950s, was also known for his tardiness: “Red Garland was famous for showing up an hour, two hours, three hours late for a session. He was so self-effacing and gracious, that great big kewpie grin of his. ‘Oh man, my grandmother died’ – again. But the wonderful thing about Red, he’d come three-hours late, and in an hour-and-a-half or two hours he’d recorded the album.” Garland’s tendency to be late did not stop with recording gigs and he upped the ante with live gigs: “He’s the only guy I’ve ever seen late for a New Year’s Eve gig. He was playing at Count Basie’s on Seventh Avenue in Harlem. You know, big night—biggest night of the year. Midnight, no Red Garland. He shows up about 12:30, smiling, casual, with some bullshit story about the subway train being messed up. You could never get mad at the guy.”

Hawk Eyes by Coleman Hawkins. Cover design and photograph by Esmond Edwards

Esmond Edwards grew up on jazz, listening to all the jazz greats of the 1940s – Count Basie, Duke Ellington. That music was popular then at school parties. His position at Prestige enabled him to work with the heroes of his youth and find out the real people behind the music he so adored. One such artist was Coleman Hawkins: “You could tell him six months in advance you had a session, and he would not do anything towards preparing for it. I’d show up at the date with a briefcase full of sheet music and say, ‘Hawk, you want to try this?  You want to try that?’  Surprisingly, a lot of the tunes which I considered well-known standards, he wasn’t that familiar with, but the guy, you’d stick the music in front of him.  He’d run it down once, and it was like he wrote it the second performance.”

Out There by Eric Dolphy. Produced by Esmond Edwards

Perhaps Edwards’ greatest achievement as a producer was a streak of albums on the Prestige sub label New Jazz featuring the amazing talent of Eric Dolphy at the start of his short recording career. Under Edwards’ supervision Dolphy released a number of classic albums including Out There, Far Cry, and Live at the Five Spot. Edwards recalls that the sessions with Dolphy were very professional, requiring very few takes to nail down the final performances. He was unaware of Dolphy’s ability to play multiple instruments when he signed him, and was pleasantly surprised during his first recording session with Dolphy: “When he pulled out his bass clarinet, Rudy Van Gelder and I did a double take. It was phenomenal. That’s some of my favorite playing of his, on the bass clarinet. I love that sound.” But playing multiple instruments proved to be a challenge in the studio with Rudy Van Gelder’s rigid methods of recording. Edwards tells the story: “In the studio he had rather strict parameters as to how he wanted to set up his microphones and so forth. Now, here’s Eric doubling on an alto and a flute on a tune, and Rudy wanted to mike the alto primarily, and when Eric was to do his flute solo, he had to almost bend double to be close to where the mike was set up for the alto. He protested vehemently, and Rudy was adamant that he didn’t want to move the mike. It was quite a crisis. I think Rudy prevailed.”

Edwards kept climbing the ranks at Prestige, achieving a producer role in 1957 all the way to vice-president within a few years. Quite an achievement at that time for an African-American. A year earlier Quincy Jones became a vice-president at Mercury, the first African-American to hold an executive position in a white-owned record label. Edwards left Prestige in 1962 and moved to Chess records to manage its jazz subsidiary Argo Records. The Chess brothers started Argo in 1955 to diversify their blues and rhythm and blues catalog. Working in the same office as the Chess brothers and their blues artists was a culture shock for Edwards: “Everybody, male or female, seemed to be named motherfucker. My mouth was hanging open. ‘What the hell is going on here?’ Leonard would come up to Muddy (Waters), ‘Hey, motherfucker.’  Muddy would say, ‘Yeah, mother fucker. I want a thousand dollars.’ ‘I just gave you $500 yesterday motherfucker’. That’s how they would go. They would go up in the studio, while they were recording and go, ‘Hey motherfucker, play that riff that you did back on that other record last year.’ It was fantastic.”

Esmond Edwards, right, 1975.

When Edwards joined Chess, he continued the label’s goal to make jazz reach a wider audience: “I didn’t feel that jazz artists should be restricted to ‘esoteric areas.’  I felt that, if the guy that knew three chords could make a million dollars, the guy who knew 100 chords should be able to make a hundred-thousand dollars, at least, without compromising their talents and their art.”

Ramsey Lewis, Richard Evans, Esmond Edwards

One of Edwards’ best accomplishments in balancing commercial and artistic levels was his work with pianist Ramsey Lewis. The trio Lewis formed with drummer Isaac “Red” Holt and bassist Eldee Young was one of the first to sign with Argo, and they released a dozen records on the label before Edwards joined the ranks.

The In Crowd by Ramsey Lewis

At Argo Edwards used a valuable skill he learned from Rudy Van Gelder – the art of splicing tape. This is a lost art with today’s computer technology and digital editing, but back then if you wanted to edit the recorded material you had to use your hands and get to work. Edwards reminisces: “When I went to Argo in Chicago and started working with Ramsey Lewis, I had to do a lot of editing. Ramsey was not the most precise pianist. I would take a note from bar twelve and move it up to bar two and stuff like that.  Fortunately, bassist Eldee Young was like a machine in terms of keeping time, and I was able to do a lot of that without it being apparent.”

Editing the tapes was required not only for fixing mistakes, but also to make the recordings radio-friendly and gain airplay. A tune had to be no longer than two and a half minutes to be considered for radio, and luckily instrumentals were in vogue then, sometimes being used to play small one-minute segments before the news break: “I had to do all kinds of things like, maybe, take the third chorus and put it up front. When Ramsey hit a clinker, I had to find the same note somewhere else in the tune. The tape looked like it had been through a buzz saw with all those splices in it.”

Here is The In Crowd, a major hit for Ramsey Lewis from 1965, produced by Esmond Edwards. The song was performed live during an engagement at the Bohemian Caverns club in Washington D.C. in May 1965, and went on to win the Grammy for Best Instrumental Recording.

In 1965 Argo changed its name to Cadet after finding that its name conflicts with the UK Decca Argo subsidiary. Edwards continued to work with the same roster of artists and scored more hits with Ramsey Lewis. Wade in the Water was Ramsey Lewis’ third big hit with Edwards, completing a streak of 1-million singles sold together with The In Crowd and Hang On Sloopy. Altogether the two collaborated on more than 20 albums.

Esmond Edwards continued his impressive career in the music industry as he moved to other labels including Verve in 1967, back to Chess in 1970 and then Impulse Records in 1975. Some of the artists he worked with during these years included Kenny Burrell, George Benson, Cal Tjader, Stan Getz, Wes Montgomery, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Yusef Lateef and Keith Jarrett. In his lifetime he amassed close to 200 credits for album covers and over 600 production credits. His impact on the visual and sonic aspects of jazz history remains profound.


The following resources were used during the writing of this article. Both are highly entertaining and well recommended reads :

Pressed for All Time: Producing the Great Jazz Albums, by Michael Jarrett

Blue Notes in Black and White: Photography and Jazz, by Benjamin Cawthra


If you enjoyed reading this article you may also like this detailed chronicle of the last Miles Davis recordings for Prestige Records:

Categories: Album Art, Artist

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6 replies »

  1. Really enjoyed the article! Did not know Edwards was African-American — that makes his achievements even more meaningful given the social climate of those days.

    I laughed out loud at the “motherfucker” episode. Hilarious!

  2. Very interesting article, I did n`t realise that he`d had so many production credits. Imagine not having any production experience and your first album is `Trane!

  3. I am very appreciative of this wonderful article about my brother Esmond. Growing up in our family’s Washington Heights Brownstone in NYC, our home was where Esmond began to show his early love of music & photography. There was an eight years difference in our ages so we didn’t have many friends or activities in common. But as his annoying little sister, I was in awe as he used our basement as a Darkroom and I watched him for hours develop his earliest black & white photos. Thank you for your showcasing much of his outstanding work in the world of Jazz & photography.

    • Thank you Lois for your feedback, it is very rewarding to read these lovely memories from a family member. Your brother was behind many favorite albums, music and visuals alike. I hope that this article will expose his work to readers who may not be aware of him.

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