Remembering Jazz Photographer Herman Leonard

Herman Leonard i i

hide captionHerman Leonard in 2008.

Charley Gallay/Getty Images
Herman Leonard

Herman Leonard in 2008.

Charley Gallay/Getty Images

Herman Leonard's life was an example of the phrase "everything in its time."

Shortly after earning a fine-arts degree in photography in the late 1940s, Leonard was making a living as a commercial photographer during the day and hanging out in jazz clubs in New York at night. Leonard focused his camera's lens on young musicians who would go on to become jazz legends: Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, to name just a few.

Today, Leonard's black-and-white photographs of jazz musicians are considered as artful and expressive as the music they chronicled.

"You could look at his photos and almost hear the music," says John Edward Hasse, curator of American music at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. "He used light, shadow and smoke, and he made indelible the faces of many of the greatest American musicians of the 20th century."

While many of his subjects became his good friends, only a few of his photos were used on album covers. He gave many away to jazz clubs for promotional purposes. Mostly, the negatives sat in boxes.

Meanwhile, Leonard's career took him to Paris, where he worked as a fashion and commercial photographer for almost three decades. After taking a break from photography, the Leonard family eventually landed in London.

His daughter Shana Leonard remembers it being a tough time. "He was in his 60s at this point," she says. "I can't imagine when you're in your 60s and you have no money ... he was pretty lost at that point."

For direction, he returned to those early jazz negatives. "I would very comfortably say that these jazz negatives saved his life," Shana Leonard says.

Herman Leonard published his first book of photographs in 1985, more than three decades after he made his first images. After being turned down by the major London galleries, his first exhibit took place in a small space in 1988. More than 10,000 people visited the show in its first month.

What those people saw was what Leonard saw through his viewfinder sitting in the front row of jazz clubs so many years before, as he explained in a 2007 interview with NPR's Michele Norris.

"Well, that's where I could hear the music," Leonard said. "And that's where it happened. It happens in the clubs. It doesn't happen in a photo studio. And I wanted to record image-wise to make a visual diary, if you wish, of what I was experiencing."

Leonard died Saturday in a Los Angeles hospital, according to his official website. No cause of death was listed.

But today, his photography is now exhibited in galleries around the world. His images have been reproduced frequently in jazz books and magazines.

And 155 of his prints are in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. They share space there with many jazz items, including the trumpet of his old friend, Dizzy Gillespie.

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