Herman Leonard: Immortal Images of Jazz Greats: And Great Stories as Well

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I’m a big fan of the late Herman Leonard.  He took such great pictures both here and in Europe, spanning a career that lasted 70 years,  from 1939 until his death in 2010.   In his wonderful autobiographical book Jazz, Giants, and Journeys, he chronicles his fascinating life journey:  from discovering nude pictures his older brother took of his wife, which sparked his interest in taking pictures, to going to Palestine in the 1930’s with his mother, who was part of the Hadassah organization.   He also ran Playboy’s Paris office, taking pictures of Grace Jones, Duke Ellington, Nico, and the titans of jazz having fun in the City of Light.  HIs first Playboy assignment was The Girls of Warsaw;  when he arrived he was told he could photograph somebody’s sister, and it turned out she was pregnant.  Herman rose to the occasion and took sexy pictures of here somehow.  Herman also took pictures of opium addicts in Bangkok in the 1950s, Burma during World War II, where he was stationed, as well as India and in Afghanistan,  where he captured incredible sights of the architecture and of the giant Buddha that the Taliban sadly destroyed.

Leonard took gorgeous portraits of Marlon Brando, with whom he travelled the Far East for months in preparation for the film Sayonara, Natalie Wood, Audrey Hepburn, and and Tony Bennett hugging a Columbia Records microphone during his first recording session in 1955.

Two stories stand out.  In one, Leonard arrives at Billie Holiday’s home.  He’s greeted by a woman in an apron.  He thought it was the housekeeper at first.  Instead it was Billie herself, preparing a steak dinner for her boxer dog.

While apprenticing under the watchful eye of the great portrait photographer Yousef Karsh in Ottawa in the 1940’s, Leonard assisted in a photo session of Winston Churchill, who was visiting Canada for a political congress.  Churchill entered the studio with a scowl and impatience written all over his face:  he was in a bad mood.  To further exacerbate his bad temper, he was told he couldn’t smoke his cigar in the studio.  He kept smoking it.  Karsh removed the cigar from Churchill’s mouth, and Churchill glowered even more.  The memorable photo came to symbolize the bulldog determination of Britain to fight and overcome the Nazis.  In fact, it was just Churchill in a foul mood.

Rick Frystack, my great longtime friend at Amoeba Music, set up a book signing with Herman, which is on Amoeba’s website: