Remembering Jazz Photographer Herman Leonard Leonard photographed and befriended the greats from the heyday of jazz. In his artful photographs of musicians such as Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Duke Ellington, Leonard captured an era. He died Saturday in Los Angeles.
NPR logo

Remembering Jazz Photographer Herman Leonard

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Remembering Jazz Photographer Herman Leonard

Remembering Jazz Photographer Herman Leonard

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Photographer Herman Leonard died in a Los Angeles hospital on Saturday. According to his official website, he was 87 years old. Leonard's black-and-white photographs of jazz musicians are considered as artful and expressive as the music they chronicled.

But as NPR's Felix Contreras reports, the negatives sat out of view for decades under Leonard's bed.

FELIX CONTRERAS: 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 in New York as a commercial photographer during the day and hanging out in jazz clubs at night. Herman Leonard focused his camera lens on young musicians who would go on to become jazz legends: Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, to name just a few.

(Soundbite of music)

Dr. JOHN HASSE (Curator of American Music, Smithsonian National Museum of American History): You could look at his photos and almost hear the music.

CONTRERAS: John Hasse is the curator of American music at the Smithsonian's Museum of American History.

Dr. HASSE: He used light, shadow and smoke, and he made indelible the faces of many of the greatest American musicians of the 20th century.

CONTRERAS: While many of his subjects became good friends, only a few of his photos were used on album covers, and 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 landed in London.

His daughter Shana Leonard remembers it being a tough time.

Ms. SHANA LEONARD: He was in his 60s at this point. I can't imagine when you're in your 60s and you have no money and your family is broken up, and, you know, he was pretty lost at that point.

CONTRERAS: For direction, Herman Leonard returned to those early jazz negatives.

Ms. LEONARD: I would very comfortably say that these jazz negatives saved his life.

CONTRERAS: He published his first book of photographs in 1985, more than three decades after he made the images.

(Soundbite of song, "Ain't Nobody's Business If I Do")

Ms. BILLIE HOLIDAY (Singer): (Singing) If I should take a notion to jump into the ocean, ain't...

CONTRERAS: After being turned down by the major London galleries, Leonard's first exhibit took place in 1988 in a small space where over 10,000 people visited the show in the first month.

What those people saw was what Herman 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.

(Soundbite of archived NPR broadcast)

Mr. HERMAN LEONARD (Photographer): Well, that's where I could hear the music, 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.

CONTRERAS: Herman Leonard's photography is exhibited in galleries around the world. His images have been reproduced in jazz books and magazines.

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

Felix Contreras, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)


You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.