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Herman Leonard, jazz photographer

Matt Schudel

In one of my earlier, mysterious lives, I used to be a jazz writer and art critic in Florida. Both interests came together when I interviewed Herman Leonard in 2001 in Miami.

Leonard may well be the greatest jazz photographer of all time, with his deeply atmospheric shots, often with through the haze of cigarette smoke, of musicians in performance or in reflective moods. The only photographers remotely in his league are William Gottlieb, William Claxton and Francis Wolff, but many people -- including me -- consider Leonard to be in a class by himself.

Leonard worked as a freelance photographer for most of his life, shooting travel and fashion, and for years his remarkable trove of jazz photographs -- taken between 1948 and about 1960 -- was forgotten.

"I had them in a cardboard box under my bed all those years," he told me in 2001. "I had a modicum of recognition in the early days by jazz people, but the general public knew nothing about me. I just shot the pictures for myself."

When he was living in London in 1988 and all but broke, he gathered together some of his jazz photos and went to galleries, hoping to find interest in a modest exhibition. Several galleries turned him down. But the exhibition was a smash, with 10,000 visitors, and Leonard's photographs were a revelation of a lost world of glamour, music and style.

He became friends with Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and Billie Holiday, once memorably shooting a photo of Billie frying a steak for her bulldog.

Here's more of what he told me about some of the musicians he worked with and came to know well:

"He was in the studio with Sinatra in 1956: 'There was an aura about him. You knew you were in the presence of somebody. I was scared to death.'

"He caught the young Tony Bennett in concert in 1953: 'He's the sweetest guy I have ever met in my life, without exception.'

"Nat 'King' Cole and his trio spent six hours in Leonard's Village studio, playing music as he shot photos for an album cover. Lena Horne came to his studio between shows at an uptown club in 1948 for a freckle-faced portrait: 'That's my all-time favorite portrait of anybody.'

"He was behind the bandstand one night in '48 as Ella Fitzgerald sang to an audience that included Benny Goodman and a broadly smiling Duke Ellington.

"Leonard took his memorable concert photo of Ellington by sneaking backstage at a concert in Paris in 1958.

" 'I crawled on my hands and knees,' he recalls. 'I stuck my camera through the curtains, so the audience wouldn't see me, but Duke noticed. He gave me a wink.' "

Leonard was a remarkable guy, and never more so when he picked up after Hurricane Katrina ruined his home and studio in New Orleans and kept on taking pictures.

Here's a gallery of his photos, plus an interview with Leonard in Montreal in 2009 below.

By Matt Schudel  |  August 19, 2010; 12:23 PM ET
Categories:  Matt Schudel  
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