A whiff of cigarette smoke, a touch of spotlight, a tenor saxophone taking the lead, it's as if you're in the very presence of the late great Louis Armstrong or Miles Davis or Ella Fitzgerald or Duke Ellington. It's an unlikely scenario now, but for Herman Leonard, photographing the art of Jazz was an everyday song.
Herman Leonard is one of the most respected Jazz photographers of all time, working or contributing to the field almost up to his death in 2010. He has photographed virtually every well-known Jazz artist since the 1950s, so much so that according to Quincy Jones, "...When people think of Jazz, their mental picture is likely one of Herman’s.”
Leonard's passion for photography began when he was just nine years old. He saw an image being developed in his brother's dark room and was entranced. He later studied at Ohio University, the only place at that time that offered a degree in photography. Part of his success in his field may be credited to his years of apprenticeship to another giant in the field of portrait photography, Yousuf Karsh, who in Leonard's own words, was his "greatest influence in his whole life".
By the late 1940s, another passion was leading him to start out on his own: Jazz. After completing his apprenticeship, Leonard came to New York City and almost immediately began photographing Jazz musicians there. Being a photographer meant that he had unprecedented access to these artists, and captured them both on-stage when they were at their heights, and off-stage when they were a bit more contemplative.
Along the way, he made many steadfast friends, including Quincy Jones, Tony Bennett and Dizzy Gillespie. While he would later on work outside of the Jazz circle, his passion would bring him back to the music scene that he loved.
Leonard's images of Jazz icons work on so many levels because of their in-the-moment, "Cartier-Bresson" nature; many of his most powerful images are made in concert when the musicians are at the top of their game. However, some of his more somber photographs work equally well because they are honest depictions of the humanity of these artists.
Of course, the smoky atmosphere, the strong black-and-white contrasts, and the brilliant character in the faces of his subjects all help to deliver the mood of his photographs. But it's more than just what's evident in the image, it's the feeling that the photograph evokes, the heat off the spotlight, the energetic stillness of the crowd and the glorious music from the artists. All of these help make you realize one thing: this is Jazz.
You can check out Herman Leonard's look at the art of Jazz over at his website. Those looking for more sexy images can go for the hardcover Jazz or Jazz, Giants and Journeys: The Photography of Herman Leonard. The Jazz Image: Masters of Jazz Photography is also a good choice which collects images from other greats in Jazz photography.