Herman Leonard (1923-2010)

Perhaps only the most enthusiastic jazz fan would recognize Herman Leonard as the ingenious artist behind smokey, backlit photographs that defined the jazz age. However, his photographs are instantly recognizable classics of performers such as Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis and Frank Sinatra. A protege of the great Yousuf Karsh, Leonard was encouraged by Karsh to break out on his own. Starting in the late 1940s, Mr. Leonard not only followed jazz as a musical genre but helped define it too. He used the cigarette smoke present in the clubs as if it were a part of the music itself, and also followed the musicians behind the scenes too.

His memorable photos were countless: Ella Fitzgerald in Paris in 1960, eyes closed in fierce concentration, with a rivulet of sweat coursing down her cheek; unmistakable silhouette of Frank Sinatra; Louis Armstrong munching a sandwich while looking at bottles of champagne; Armstrong lighting a cigarette as Duke Ellington looks on from the piano, a still life of sheet music, cigarette, a Coke bottle, a porkpie hat and a saxophone case that defined Lester Young; silver and smoke portrait of Dexter Gordon; Dizzy Gillespie with his bebop big band, Art Blakey on a drum solo; Duke Ellington and his writing partner, Billy Strayhorn, sharing a cigarette break in Paris; Thelonious Monk at the keyboard; Lena Horne laughing in front of a microphone; and the list goes on. Of all these, the above photo I chose was that of Ella Fitzgerald, in 1949, singing at a New York nightclub as Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman looked on from a front-row table. (See all of his great images here, and collected in The Eye of Jazz (1985).

Jim Marshall captured rock and roll stars behind the scenes; William Claxton, Lee Friedlander and Annie Leibowitz all depicted off-guard moments of individuals and bands. But Herman Leonard captured jazz itself—not only its passion and spontaneity but its sound and smell too. After his archival prints were lost to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Leonard became the subject of the BBC program, documenting his painful journey home and his efforts to rebuild his life’s work. It was fittingly called Saving Jazz for Mr. Leonard who died last month (14th August 2010) at the age of 87 immortalized jazz. The jazz age lives on in his photos.

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