Herman Leonard’s Eye for Jazz

In the 1940s and 50s, photographer Herman Leonard captured icons of the jazz world, including Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington

Herman Leonard photographed jazz icons such as Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Dizzy Gillespie. (Herman Leonard)

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.


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