Herman Leonard's photographs of the 1940s and 1950s can be credited with building a national appetite for jazz. Early on, Herman grasped jazz's drama and genius, and he began spending as much time as possible in New York's clubs and recording studios documenting jazz artists at work. Herman's goal was twofold: to preserve the expressive poetry of exceptional musicians and singers, and to capture and share jazz's nocturnal mystique. All of Herman's iconic images from this golden era have polished Rembrandt-like contrasts and the perspective of an excited fan. [Self-portrait by Herman Leonard]
Herman knew from the start that his images were in competition with the music itself. So he always sought to deliver in print the grace and dexterity of what he heard nightly on stage. The lighting had to be theatrical yet innocuous, while the resulting images had to tell a story—often left unresolved. That's why when you look at a Herman Leonard photograph, you're left yearning to know what took place the moment the shutter came down. To this day, Herman's photographs provide penetrating insight into the personalities of jazz legends and their immediate surroundings. [Photo of Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Allen Eager and Kai Winding at New York's Royal Roost in 1948 by Herman Leonard]
Next week (October 13th), a retrospective and sale of more than 40 of Herman Leonard's images will open and run until February 14th at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York. The exhibit, In the Best Possible Light: Herman Leonard’s Jazz, is free and features black-and-white photographs of Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, Thelonious Monk and many others. And from October 22-February 7, another retrospective of Herman's works will be showing at the exhibition hall Maison du Festival Rio Tinto Alcan in Montreal.
During my conversation with Herman, 86, the dean of jazz photography talked about his technique and answered questions about two of my favorite photos—one of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie mid-joke, and one of Ella Fitzgerald singing to a club audience that included Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman:
JazzWax: After graduating from Ohio University in the 1940s, you apprenticed with photographer Yousuf Karsh. Did Karsh teach you about light?
Herman Leonard: Yes, I would say so. Though we concentrated on portraiture and controlled lighting, I used that training to create the lighting I needed in nightclubs.
JW: How did you get such high contrasts in venues with notoriously dim lighting?
HL: In the clubs I was limited to the equipment I had. I always carried two small portable strobe lights. Being confined to two sources of light provided me with an advantage: I had to be careful. Many photographers used too much light and complicated the whole thing. I always tried to preserve the pure atmosphere of the club as much as possible.
JW: How did you do it?
HL: I put one strobe light next to the club spotlight in the ceiling. The other I placed behind the artist in the background. I used wireless units to trigger the strobes, but I'd use these strobes only if I had to. The light was disturbing to the artists. But most of the photos I took were during rehearsals, so it wasn't too bad.
JW: What about images taken during a live club date?
HL: During a performance, club owners were very cooperative. Of course, I didn’t shoot all night long. That would have been invasive to the musicians and the audience. So I was limited to how many frames I could shoot. This required enormous care and frugality on my part.
JW: What kind of camera did you use?
HL: A Speed Graphic, which is a rather large camera that uses 4 x 5 sheet film. I would go to a club early and clamp the strobe lights where I needed them. My aim was to preserve the natural atmosphere of the club.
JW: Your images look so rich they almost seem posed.
HL: [Laughs] It ended up that way but it’s not the way I approached it. I saw photographing jazz artists as a visual diary of what I was hearing. I wanted to preserve the mood and atmosphere as much as possible. My goal was to capture these artists at the height of their finest creative moments.
JW: You certainly were in the right place at the right time.
HL: Yes, I opened my first studio on Sullivan Street in New York's Greenwich Village in 1948. I worked free-lance for magazines and spent my spare time at places like the Royal Roost and Birdland. I did this because I loved the music. I couldn’t wait to be with Lester Young at a club and hear him and photograph him playing his music. I hoped that on film I could preserve what I heard. It didn’t hurt that I got into the clubs for free. My photographs helped publicize the clubs, so owners let me in.
JW: Did you have much competition?
HL: Not really. There were hardly any true jazz photographers then. There were press photographers who had to light their subjects for easy reproduction on newsprint. I had more freedom, since I was photographing for myself.
JW: Did musicians mind you taking pictures of them?
HL: They didn’t know me from Adam. I hadn’t achieved any recognition yet. But they didn't mind, since they needed photos for publicity purposes, and I'd give them what they needed.
JW: What was Norman Granz like?
HL: He loved the music and wouldn’t let anything stand in his way of recording jazz for posterity. He treated all of his musicians first-class. When we first met in 1949 backstage at one of his Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts, I didn’t know who he was. The first jazz photos I ever took were of one of these concerts. When he saw the images I had taken, he asked me to photograph album covers for his record labels. It was mostly recording session stuff. But that’s where I had the freedom to get in closer with my camera and photograph highly candid and personal moments.
JW: Tell me about the Charlie Parker-Dizzy Gillespie photo.
HL: Those two were amazing. They were kidding around all the time. I shot this one in a corridor at a recording studio, probably in 1947. I don’t know what they were saying. These two guys were the creators of the bebop movement, and I got them together having a good time. What I like about the image is the camaraderie. Parker was holding a cigarette in his right hand, and they were kidding around during a break at a recording session. [Photo by Herman Leonard]
JW: What about the one of Ella Fitzgerald?
HL: It was her birthday party, I believe she was turning 31 [in 1948], and she was singing at New York's Down Beat for people she loved most. Dizzy, Nat King Cole and all her friends were there. I’m asked a lot if I recall the song she was singing, which unfortunately, I don’t.
JW: Where were your strobe lights?
HL: One was next to the spotlight illuminating Ella. The other one was pointed a little more toward the audience.
JW: Did you notice Duke Ellington's expression when you were taking the photo?
HL: No, I didn’t see it until later.
JW: What did you see through the viewfinder?
HL: I was looking at the total scene. I asked myself, "What am I getting here. I got Ella on the left, with the audience on my right." I captured Ella in near-silhouette because that's all you needed to know instantly who was singing.
JW: Do you still get chills looking at your jazz photos today?
HL: It is amazing how an image can revive the feeling of the moment. The thrill of actually being there has never left me.
All photos by Herman Leonard ©Herman Leonard Photography LLC/all rights reserved. Photos used here with the artist's permission.