I’m not the only person who considers Herman Leonard his favorite jazz photographer. Quincy Jones and Miles Davis felt the same way. He captured something that no other photographers did. Looking at his pictures makes you feel joy.
His interest in photography was sparked by seeing a picture of his older brother’s wife—nude. Titillated by this early experience, he decided to become a photographer. He found a way to get out of Allentown, PA, where his dad, a Romanian immigrant, manufactured undergarments. He went to New York to work for the great portrait photographer Yousef Karsh, and started visiting jazz clubs to photograph Charlie Parker, Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett, Dexter Gordon, and other icons of modern music.
Herman was a totally cool guy. That’s one reason why jazz musicians liked him so much. He also devised an ingenious way to get light on musicians in clubs without hitting them with flash, one reason why his club pix are so crystal clear and detailed.
Leonard went to Palestine in the 1930s with his mom, who was there with the Hadassah Organization, a woman’s charity. His dad gave him $15.00 and he bought a donkey, then charged other students to transport their school books on the long trek to school. This was an early business savvy he got from his father.
During World War II, he was stationed in Burma and took many pictures. After the war, Leonard went to the Philippines and Japan with Marlon Brando—who asked him to accompany him. Brando was a bongo player and a big jazz fan, and the two got along famously. Leonard also set up a studio in Paris in the mid 1950’s, photographing not only jazz musicians but also budding fashion models like Nico and Grace Jones and numerous other attractive young Parisiennes.
I cried when I first perused Jazz Giants and Journeys: The Photography of Herman Leonard. I was moved by the photography, by the human joy, by the artists who were no longer here. I laughed when I read about Herman being hired by Hugh Hefner to be Playboy’s European photographic correspondent; on his first assignment to do a centerfold, he was presented with an attractive model who was five months pregnant! And Herman managed to pull it off. Later came chases by the KGB on a photo shoot in Russia.
Herman Leonard’s photos beautifully captured the feeling of jazz music because he was a creative improviser too.
Pictures of Tony Bennett hugging the Columbia Records microphone on his first recording date. Billie Holiday cooking a steak under the watchful eye of her dog (who got the steak for dinner). Dexter Gordon shrouded in cigarette smoke. A topless Grace Jones. Duke Ellington being admired by a bevy of young French women. Even Johnny Hodges, Ellington’s alto sax player, being served champagne at the chic Brasserie Lipp during the 1950s, a time when bigotry and racism ran amok in the U.S.. You don’t easily forget these images: they are indelible memories.
But more than photography, Herman celebrated people and life itself. He lived a full and eventful life. I’m grateful to have met him and known him. He will be missed.