Herman Leonard in The Age of Jazz

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Friend and photographer to the immortals of jazz, Herman Leonard is the daddy of jazz photography. Paul Boakye caught up with a living legend still in pursuit of pleasure.

Herman Leonard

Born in Allentown, Pennsylvania, March 6th 1923, Herman Leonard was eight years old when he walked into a darkroom and saw naked pictures of his brother’s wife developing in a tray. It was 1931 with no Playboy magazine or anything like that around and the nudity shocked him. Then he said, “wait a minute, if he can do that with a camera, why can’t I?”

He never told his brother what he had seen that day, but he pestered him for a camera and got to borrow an old Box Brownie. He added a roll of film, pointed the thing and went outside. His first ever pictures were of his friends playing baseball in the yard. The next day they were developed and printed and he gave the prints away. All of a sudden he became a very popular young boy indeed. It was this same tactic that Herman used years later to gain unrestricted access to the late greats of jazz.

“I dreamt as a child of being Marco Polo. I wanted to travel all over the world and delve into other cultures and ethnic groups, and all that fascinated me.”

For many people, the photography of Herman Leonard is their first link to jazz culture. Classic portraits of Dexter with a Chesterfield, Duke in Paris, Billie and her dog, Mister, Miles in Malibu, Satchmo in Birdland …These images, in some cases more so than the music, are responsible for our devotion to preserving and protecting the art that musicians of mid 20th Century America created, and Herman was there to report it. It really wasn’t an exploratory thing about different cultures that dragged him into the heart of America’s black jazz scene. You can see it too in Herman’s ‘jazz work’ which came about because he really liked the music. Photography was a way for him to get into the clubs for nothing and get up close to the musicians.

When we think of the Harlem Renaissance, apartheid in South Africa, the great jazz years or the civil rights movement in America, we often notice the coming together of great black and Jewish artists and activists. I asked him what he thought it was that often brings these two groups of people together. “Poverty!” he says, bluntly. “If you’re black you have two strikes against you right away. If you’re Jewish you have a strike and a half against you right away. But minorities, certainly in those days, had a very difficult time in achieving lofty positions in business or anything else. So they went into the arts. It didn’t matter in the arts whether you were black or green, if you could play the instrument.” Except that if you were black, I remind him, you just couldn’t sit at the same table as most of the people who had come to see you play.

“I just hung out. I was just hanging around and shooting pictures of the people I liked. Fortunately, the early work was strictly for myself and not commissioned jobs for magazines or albums. So I had total freedom of expression.”

Herman Leonard, Charlie Parker with Metronome All Stars, NYC, 1949

Indeed, one of the most moving things about Herman Leonard’s photography is that he has never been a mere ‘tourist’ (on the outside looking in) but a participant (describing the inside from the inside) in all that he photographs. This is, I believe, why his photographs resonate with a special intimacy and nobility. In other words, his process directly illustrates the importance (and benefits) of actual participation in the world that we inhabit.

There is a clear and unpretentious symbiotic relationship between Herman and the subjects of his work, hence the viewer can feel the joy, the genius, the power of ‘being there.’ Not to mention his sheer mastery of the technical aspects of the art itself. But I am not objective at all when it comes to Herman’s photography.

“A lot of the pictures I shot in those days were not reproducible in news print; they’re too dark. In a fine quality magazine like Drum, yeah, but we didn’t have any fine quality jazz magazines.”

I ask him why he had spent so much time living outside of America, wasn’t he happy at home. “It’s just the way my life went,” he insists. Hired by Marlon Brando to be his personal photographer in 1954, they travelled to the Far East and on their way back, Herman stopped off in Paris. “France, as opposed to America, was a colonial empire with a certain amount of tolerance of other colours and cultures, so when black musicians came over who were very well known the French were enchanted. They weren’t producing anything of their own in that field, so they were very welcoming.”

Herman Leonard, Charlie Parker, Birdland, NYC, 1949

Whilst in Paris, Herman also worked in fashion and advertising and served as the European photographer for Playboy magazine. It seemed to me then that the pages of his life have always revolved around his search for personal pleasure, so I asked him this rather sheepishly.

“Sure!” he replies like a bullet. “How about yours?” I gasp for words. “What you’re doing now,” he says, “is something that you get joy, personal pleasure out of, yes? It’s not a question of the money so much as the accomplishment of it and the true satisfaction that you’re devoting your time to something that you consider rewarding and worthwhile. Some others may even agree with you. And that’s all there is: the pursuit of happiness; what the hell! What more is there in life?”

“Regrets? No, life is too short, man. As long as I keep doing and looking and searching and recording and creating, I have no regrets, none.”

What are you up to these days? I ask. “I’m redoing a Bellacq series, if you will. I call him the Toulouse-Lautrec of New Orleans.” Lautrec befriended the prostitutes of Paris and drew and painted them. So, apparently, Bellacq did the very same thing in New Orleans in the 1900s but with a camera. “It keeps my juices flowing. I get all these naked ladies to parade in front of me with a camera in my hand, but that’s about all I can do.”

None of the women photographed for this project are prostitutes; “It’s not a series of ‘hooker photos’ at all,” he tells me. When you look at the images you don’t doubt it. You certainly don’t think ‘hooker,’ you think what a beautiful woman set against these untouched 200 year homes in New Orleans.

And do these women, these mothers and daughters and secretaries from your ‘Bellacq project’ know that you’re about to make them immortal? I ask, finally.

“Yeah, that’s the reason they come here,” he said.

Herman Leonard (March 6, 1923, in Allentown, Pennsylvania – August 14, 2010, in Los Angeles, California).

  • Pick up Jazz, Giants, and Journeys: The Photography of Herman Leonard
  • Other books and prints of the photographer’s work can be purchased directly through the Herman Leonard studio.
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