The Iconic Jazz Photos You Never Saw : The Picture Show A new book of photographs by jazz photographer Herman Leonard shows a mix of the iconic and the unseen moments.
NPR logo The Iconic Jazz Photos You Never Saw

The Iconic Jazz Photos You Never Saw

I've often told anyone who would listen that if I could jump into a time machine I'd go back to New York just after World War II to soak up the birth of bebop from the front row of so many small, cramped, smoky nightclubs.

Page 33 of a new book of Herman Leonard photos takes me as close as I'll ever get. Jazz was published last month, shortly after the photographer's death.

The book is a bittersweet possession for Leonard fans. There is an excitement about the 60-plus never-before-published images. They are hardly outtakes or throwaways salvaged for the book. They are new photos of familiar faces: Ella, Basie. Lady Day, Pops. And while so many of Leonard's shots have become iconic, many of these new discoveries deserve the same recognition.

The shot on page 33 for instance: a dapper, young Thelonious Monk in 1949 leaning over a piano, working something out on a sheet of music paper, framed by the open top of the piano, bathed in a strategically placed light and of course textured by the smoke of a burning cigarette.

The image gives me the chills: It was taken inside Monton's Playhouse, an intimate uptown after-hours room where Monk, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and others worked out the foundations of bebop — the sound that revolutionized jazz.

There are other Leonard photographs that display more of his signature strokes (the lights, the smoke, the intimacy), but this photograph in particular reflects the other Leonard trait that made his work so compelling: being at the right place at the right time, with just the right person lined up in the frame.

Another new image I'm fond of is page 152, violinist Stephane Grappelli and pianist Oscar Peterson in Paris in 1958. It's not a performance shot but rather a moment when Grappelli placed a bottle of wine in Peterson's hands during a break at a recording session. It has all of the earmarks of a family snapshot: spontaneous, slightly grainy, barely in focus.

But what elevates this shot is intimacy. The smiles on their faces remind me of those that I see on the faces of my young son and his first-grade pals as they share an excitement about friendship that I can only describe as little-boy joy. Unbridled, unguarded, pure happiness.

And that brings down the bitter part of the sweetness: knowing the man responsible for these photos has passed on.

Herman Leonard was a family photographer in a way — for the family of jazz fans around the world who couldn't make it to all of the family reunions and celebrations. Through him we are there, we feel the warmth and excitement of the kind of bond that binds families together.