Editor's Note: Herman Leonard died on Saturday, August 14, 2010 at the age of 87.
More than six decades ago, Herman Leonard began photographing icons of jazz in the smoke-filled nightclubs and rehearsal houses where the musicians worked. From jazz singers Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday to the geniuses of bebop—Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie “Bird” Parker and Miles Davis—Leonard captured for posterity a transitional period in the history of jazz.
Why did it take so long for your jazz photographs to become recognized by the public?
All of my jazz pictures, I did strictly for myself. After a while I did assignments for record companies, particularly Verve Records with Norman Granz as the producer. But the public didn’t know anything about my work in historic terms until 1988. Forty years after I shot them I had my first full-fledged exhibition of my jazz work in London, England. And as a result, a company picked up my show and became the sponsor and decided to do a tour of the show in the United States and Europe.
How did your jazz photographs come to the Smithsonian?
Well that tour took me to an exhibit in Washington, DC, and it was [there] that John Edward Hasse, [Curator of American Music, National Museum of American History], came to me and said, “Mr. Leonard, I would very much like for you to be part of the Smithsonian.” I said, ‘Oh, my goodness! This is the greatest honor that I could ever receive.’
Did you choose to photograph these artists performing because of your love for the music?
When I walked into a jazz club, I was fascinated by the atmosphere, in general. I wanted to make, yes, individual pictures of the musicians I admired a great deal, but I also wanted to record the scene so that later on, if I looked at that picture, it brought back the memory, even the feeling or the smells of that night.
You captured a lot of musicians playing at New York City’s Royal Roost in the '40s and 50's, including the great alto saxophonist Charlie Parker.
The Royal Roost gave me carte blanche to shoot. I became friends with the owners and told them, ‘If you allow me to come in and shoot rehearsals I’ll give you free prints for your bulletin board outside.’ And I also gave free prints to the musicians.
There’s a story about Charlie [Parker], where he was playing in a club and was told that Igor Stravinsky was coming to the audience. Well, he made no acknowledgement of Stravinsky’s presence, although Stravinsky was sitting at a table right in front of him. But in the course of what he was playing he played 16 bars from the Le Sacre du Printemps, The Rite of Spring of Stravinsky. And when he got through with those 16 bars he looked down at Stravinsky, whose eyes were wide open with surprise. How Bird incorporated those phrases from a classical piece in his jazz is one of the amazing things about Charlie Parker.
These musicians seemed incredibly comfortable around you.
I must confess to you that I always felt very comfortable in black society. I never felt that I was out of place or a foreigner. I don’t know why I was accepted. I wasn’t judgmental when I was in their company as a lot of people are, instinctively, that way. They say “Oh! They’re black, they’re different.” Not me….They knew that they were a minority and had to stick together I appreciated that.
I was of Jewish origin from Allentown, Pennsylvania, for God’s sake. So I know what a minority is because I was highly criticized as a child for being Jewish. So I had a lot of empathy.
When did you first meet Billie Holiday?
When I first photographed her in 1949, I believe it was on assignment for Ebony magazine. We took some pictures and one of them is one of the more popular ones that I have now. She looks very healthy and vibrant. She was just wonderful at that time. However, her life was not a happy one.
By 1955, I think that was the last session [at which] I photographed her. Her condition was not good, and there was a recording session that I was asked to shoot by Norman Granz. She walked into the recording studio and looked just awful. I said to Norman, “I can’t shoot this. You can’t use this type of thing on your record album cover.”
He said “Herman, get your ass out there and shoot because it may be your last opportunity.” And for me personally, it was.
I would say about 85 or 90% [of those photos], I will not show the public because it shows a sad lady. When I was apprenticing and studying photography and portraiture with [Yousuf] Karsh, he said to me, “Herman always tell the truth in terms of beauty.” In other words . . . do not exploit the unfavorable side. It isn’t fair.
What made Miles Davis so intriguing?
You know you meet special people, creative people like a Duke Ellington. Duke was the Beethoven of jazz or the Bach. Dizzy was the clown and the musical genius. [But] Miles was a profound intense intellectual jazz musician. I call Miles the Picasso of jazz because of the various stages that he went through in his creative career. Just as Picasso went through the blue period and the cubist period and so on, Miles went from [bebop] and he ended up with hip hop, which is so uncharacteristic in my mind, yet he adapted to it and incorporated it [into his playing] . . . He kept changing and changing and changing and improving. He searched for new methods of explaining himself.
When you think about all the images of jazz greats that you have captured for posterity, what do you feel?
It’s beyond any expectation that I had when I shot the pictures… I was not aware when I was shooting this how relatively important they would be in later years. I was giving an exhibition of my jazz stuff and a little talk; I think it was in Denver. And at the end of the show three teenagers came up to me. They could have been like 13, 14. And they said, ‘Mr. Leonard we’re so glad you were there because we love the music but we never fully realized what it was like to be there.’ And I got a thrill. I mean these were not musicians who understood, these were teenage kids. And if I can reach them and have an effect on their reaction to jazz, this is very gratifying. I mean, you bake a cake and everybody loves it. What can be better than that?