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)

(Continued from page 1)

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?


Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus