HERMAN LEONARD
Jazz Classics


October 3, 2003 - November 15, 2003
Artist's reception: Friday, October 3, 2003 5-7 p.m.
Art Blakey, Club St. Germaine, Paris, 1958

The Andrew Smith Gallery presents an exciting exhibit titled Jazz Classics by Herman Leonard, the greatest jazz photographer of our time. The exhibit opens Friday, October 3, 2003, with a reception for the artist from 5-7 p.m. Photography and jazz music have been Herman Leonard's two great passions for over fifty years. Combining an intimate, informal style of portraiture with impeccable print quality, Leonard's photographs captured magical moments when the great jazz musicians were utterly transported by their music, relaxing backstage, and joking among friends. Leonard's photographs sparkle with intense light and dark values that spotlight the musicians and their instruments against masses of shadow. Leonard invoked smoky, late night atmospheres by backlighting his subjects, or silhouetting them against ethereal curls of cigarette smoke. Above all, Leonard's piano, trumpet, bass, trombone, and drum playing musicians and singers all seem to be having the time of their lives. The exhibit continues through November 15, 2003.

Herman Leonard was born in 1923 in Allentown, Pennsylvania. He was introduced to photography by his brother, also a talented photographer. After serving in Burma during World War II, Leonard returned to the U.S. where he began photographing jazz concerts using a Speed Graphic press camera with 4x5 inch films. Even at that early stage he was fascinated by dramatic lighting techniques.

In 1947 Leonard traveled to Ottawa to meet a photographer whose work he admired, the famous portraitist, Yousuf Karsh. Karsh invited him to become his apprentice for a year, during which time he taught Leonard the "supreme importance of print quality." Leonard was with Karsh when he made his famous portraits of Albert Einstein, President Harry S. Truman, and Martha Graham.

In 1948 Leonard opened a studio in Greenwich Village where he did commercial work for Life, Look, Esquire, Playboy, and Cosmopolitan, and made portraits of movie and theater stars. At night he roamed the jazz nightclubs on 52nd Street, Broadway, and in Harlem, often trading the admission fee for free photographs of the musicians the club owners could use for publicity. He befriended and photographed the greatest jazz musicians of that era: Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Count Basie, Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Sarah Vaughn, and many others.

Dizzy Gillespie, Royal Roost, NYC

To Leonard, Dizzy Gillespie was a "monument to jazz . . . a pure soul." In Dizzy Gillespie, Royal Roost, NYC, 1948, Leonard aimed his camera diagonally, catching Gillespie in profile as he played his trumpet below an undulating, metallic ceiling.
Billie Holiday, NYC, 1949


In the image, Billie Holiday, NYC, 1949, Leonard photographed the attractive and well dressed diva singing emotionally into a microphone. Cigarette smoke curls behind her. As if emerging from the smoke, a small stone or painted angel floats in the air.
Dexter Gordon, Royal Roost, NYC


According to Leonard, it wasn't easy to get all of Dexter Gordon in the camera frame. In Dexter Gordon, Royal Roost, NYC, 1948 he photographed the gangling six foot two king of bebop taking a cigarette break in-between sets.

Ella Fitzgerald with Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman, Downbeat Club, NYC, 1949

In the photograph, Ella Fitzgerald with Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman, Downbeat Club, NYC, 1949, the great lady of jazz sings to her adoring fans a few feet away. All look enchanted, but Duke Ellington, clasping his hands to his chin, is clearly the most enraptured.


Leonard had been selling album covers and publicity photos to major recording labels when his work caught the attention of Marlon Brando. In 1956 Brando invited him to travel to Asia for three months as his personal photographer. After that job Leonard spent time in India, and then moved to Paris to work as chief photographer for the French music label Barclay Records. In those years Paris was the European capital of jazz. Leonard met and photographed many of his old friends there including Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Lester Young, and Bud Powell, among others.

Duke Ellington, Paris, 1958According to Leonard, Duke Ellington was "elegant, refined, articulate, attentive to the slightest details." At a concert in Paris Leonard made the photograph, Duke Ellington, Paris, 1958. Sitting straight backed before his piano, Ellington lifts his left hand momentarily in the air above the keys as two great diagonal beams of light dramatically illuminate the musician from behind.

Besides photographing jazz musicians in Europe Leonard shot images for Dior, Chanel, Yves St. Laurent, and other major clients. His photojournalism assignments took him to Hong Kong, Bali, Singapore, Kuala-Lumpur, Bangkok, Agra, Bombay, Delhi, Katmandu, Kabul, Teheran, Istanbul, Nairobi, Uganda, Tanzania, and Ethiopia. He and his wife lived in Spain and in England for a time. Eventually, Leonard settled in New Orleans where he currently lives. Throughout his long, diverse career he has continued to photograph jazz musicians.

The Smithsonian Institution has the entire set of photographs from Leonard's Images of Jazz portfolio in its permanent collection.

Liz Kay



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