Herman Leonard, the great jazz photographer, died this past Saturday at age 87. He once said that his aim was “to tell the truth but to tell it in terms of beauty,” and he hit that target with nearly every shot.
There are others who can be mentioned in the same sentence as Leonard. Francis Wolff, the in-house photographer for Blue Note in the 1950s and ‘60s, captured the intensity of a recording session. William Claxton and Lee Friedlander portrayed the cool of individual musicians, usually in their spare time, sometimes posed.
But Herman Leonard caught jazz itself—its passion, spontaneity, and rhythm—in the jazz clubs, while the musicians were playing, flooded in a pool of smoke-drenched light against black-silk backdrops. You see, even feel, the glow of a horn, the shimmer of a trap set, the character of these men and women at what Henri Cartier-Bresson called “the decisive moment.” It’s no fluke that Leonard’s photographs are as valued among collectors as paintings and limited-edition prints by other artists. They are works of art. He was an artist.
But above all, Leonard loved the music, and he used his photo rig as an “open sesame,” as he once put it, to see his favorite musicians work and play. His old friend Quincy Jones once wrote that Leonard invented “the vernacular of jazz photography—when people think of jazz, their mental picture is likely one of Herman’s.”
His trademark shot is the one of Dexter Gordon, at the Royal Roost in 1948, cradling his tenor saxophone on the bandstand, dangling a cigarette between his two fingers, blowing more smoke out of his nostrils than you might imagine human lungs could hold.
Or there’s the shot of Ella Fitzgerald, in 1949, singing at a New York nightclub while Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman watch from a front-row table, beaming with delight—maybe the most evocative photo ever of the music’s sheer joy.
There’s Dizzy Gillespie fronting his bebop big band, Art Blakey sweating out a drum solo, Billie Holiday crooning a mournful tune, and Sarah Vaughan belting a swinging one. There are quiet moments of friendship (Ellington and his writing partner, Billy Strayhorn, sharing a cigarette break in Paris), solitude (Louis Armstrong backstage, looking beat), concentration (Thelonious Monk composing at the keyboard), and radiant beauty (Lena Horne laughing in front of a microphone).
There’s Percy Heath, wrestling with a knotty passage on his bass. There’s Charlie Parker, mesmerized while unleashing a supersonic solo. There’s Frank Sinatra, enchanting a crowd in Monte Carlo in 1958, the shot taken from behind, but something about it—the insouciance of his wave captured, again, at just the telling moment—lets you know it’s Sinatra; you can practically hear him singing.
Most of Leonard’s pictures were taken in the heyday of bebop, from the late 1940s through the early ‘60s, but there are wondrous pictures from later times, too: a chiaroscuro shot of Miles Davis in the late ‘80s, painting; the young Nicholas Payton and the old Doc Cheatham playing a duet on trumpet; and wondrous swing dancers in mid-’90s New Orleans.
Not only was Herman Leonard a great artist; he seems to have led a great life. He left New York for Paris in 1960, traveled worldwide for European magazines in the ‘70s, then moved to the Mediterranean island of Ibiza with his family, living healthily and off the grid for more than a decade.
Leonard was forgotten by the time he re-entered society in the mid-1980s, but then something wonderful happened: He was rediscovered. Successful gallery shows, press profiles, more assignments, book deals, and, in the last few years, several lofty awards.
He settled in New Orleans in the early ‘90s, out of love not just for its history and music but also for its atmosphere and tolerance, and struck up an artist-dealer relationship with the local establishment A Gallery for Fine Photography (one of the finest photo art galleries in the country and still one of two places—besides Leonard’s own Web site—where you can purchase hand-signed, museum-quality prints and portfolios of his works).
During Katrina, he lost thousands of prints, but his negatives were saved before the storm struck. After the disaster, he moved to Los Angeles, where he started up his studio again.
I met Herman Leonard only once, three years later, in the spring of 2008, at a gallery show in SoHo, his first New York exhibition in 20 years. He gave an hourlong slide show of his works, telling stories about the musicians he knew and photographed. He was wry and funny. He laughed a lot. He was clearly delighted to be lauded.
In his last couple of years, he went through all the negatives rescued from Katrina and found a few hundred shots that he’d forgotten about. He compiled the best of them, and laid them out alongside many of his well-known classics, for a new 320-page book, titled, simply, Jazz. It will be published in October. He lives on.
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