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)

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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?


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