Picks and Pans Main: Etc.

updated 05/28/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/28/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT


The honor roll of photographers who covered jazz in the fertile '40s and '50s is fairly short and, in jazz circles, familiar: William Gottlieb, William Claxton, Ray Avery, Burt Goldblatt, Bob Parent and Gjon Mili might head the list. A currently touring show, however, makes the case that the all-but-forgotten name of Herman Leonard deserves inclusion in the pantheon. His superb, recently rediscovered photographs are being shown in 10 cities this year.

Herman Leonard?

Think of him as Karsh of Greenwich Village. Before arriving in Manhattan in 1948, Leonard had earned an M.F.A. in photography from Ohio University and had apprenticed himself for a year to the master portraitist Yousuf Karsh—Karsh of Ottawa. Setting up his own studio in the Village, Leonard, then 25, became a commercial and magazine photographer by day, a denizen of the Royal Roost, Minton's Playhouse and other meccas of jazz modernism (in the '40s, bebop) by night. Leonard soon adapted stage lighting techniques and Karsh's way with subjects to the kinetic and cramped nightclub stages where he found the geniuses of the new music—Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell and many more. Aided by his own garrulous-ness, craft and visual intuition, he made what might be called action portraits. They captured all the spontaneity and atmosphere of jazz (billowing, flash-lit cigarette smoke was a Leonard signature) but were as artfully lit, solidly structured and finely detailed as any statuesque study by his mentor. "He was an outstanding photographer, technically better than almost anyone else at the time," says Dan Morgenstern, director of the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University. That the photographs are on view today is, to paraphrase Cole Porter, just one of those crazy things.

Leonard is 67 and lives in San Francisco now, but is still the bearded enthusiast he was when he was hanging out all night with the beboppers. The son of an Allentown, Pa., corset manufacturer, he early preferred Louis Jordan and Nat King Cole on the radio to the Brahms and Beethoven his parents enjoyed.

He learned photography in his brother's darkroom and was selling pictures for a dollar apiece when he was drafted into World War II. He flunked the photography test for not knowing darkroom chemistry and was trained in Colorado for snow duty in the medical corps. Parkas, skis and all, his unit was sent to Bombay. In stunning heat (and tropical gear) they marched from Assam to Mandalay and were attached to the Chinese Army. In the field he learned anesthesia and mastered the morning ritual of leech removal.

After the war Leonard went to Ohio, where he had earned a B.A., and took his photography degree. "Then I drove to Ottawa to knock on Karsh's door," he says. "I wanted to be his assistant. He told me he didn't need one, but since I had driven so far I could come to lunch. We got along well. He said, 'Would you be willing to be an apprentice?' "

Though unpaid, he was greatly enriched. Karsh and Leonard traveled together to photograph Einstein, Truman and Gable, among others. "Einstein made me tremble with fear and excitement," Leonard says, "because I knew I was in the presence of true genius. The only other time I felt like that was with Art Tatum." Next stop, Greenwich Village. Making a living from showbiz and corporate work, he took jazz pictures for his own pleasure. In the '50s he shot memorable album covers, but mostly he gave prints to the musicians and threw the negatives into a box under his bed.

Leonard's sojourn in jazz in New York City lasted less than a decade. In 1956 Marlon Brando hired him as his personal photographer for a trip to the Far East. He settled in Paris after that and traveled the globe as a fashion and magazine photographer.

Then, one day in 1985, the phone rang. Leonard was married, raising two children and living in semiretirement on the Spanish island of Ibiza ("At the time, a great hangout for artists and writers"). The caller was Daniel Filipacchi, whom Leonard had known as a jazz disc jockey in Paris. Filipacchi was now a media magnate, publisher of Elle and Paris Match, the Rupert Murdoch of France. Did Leonard still have those great jazz pictures? Filipacchi wondered. If he did, Filipacchi wanted to publish them in a book.

"I hadn't thought of those pictures in years," Leonard says. "Half of them I had lost in my travels. But I found the box on a shelf, and I was so inspired it gave me energy to print. I worked for 40 days and 40 nights, practically around the clock."

The French book led to a show in London and an English edition of the book, The Eye of Jazz, which Viking issued in 1989. Last year Gilbey's Gin approached Leonard and proposed underwriting the current traveling exhibition.

For Leonard, the show has shaken loose old memories. Two of his favorites relate to the ear and eye of Sinatra. In the mid-'50s Leonard was shooting a Sinatra recording session with Nelson Riddle. "In the middle of a take," Leonard says, "Sinatra held up his hand and stopped the orchestra. Tour second violin is off,' he said. They checked the violinist's score and, sure enough, there was a wrong note on it. I was astounded. The guy hears everything."

Last year Leonard was in Palm Springs with Quincy Jones to photograph a star-encrusted Red Cross benefit concert. "Quincy said, 'Let's go to Sinatra's place,' " Leonard relates. "I thought, wow! Well, it was like Fort Knox. Dogs everywhere. Inside, a lot of people." Leonard happened to have some prints with him, one a picture he had taken of Sinatra singing at a Red Cross benefit in Monte Carlo in 1958. "It was taken from backstage," Leonard explains. "You see Sinatra's back, his hand in the air holding a cigarette, the outline of his tuxedo. Everything else is dark, nothing recognizable. I showed it to him. How many millions of concerts has he had since then? He said, 'That's Monte Carlo,' and walked away."

Herman Leonard's Images of Jazz (there are two identical touring exhibits) is at the Barbara Gillman Gallery in Miami through June 9 and will be at the Fay Gold Gallery in Atlanta, June 1-27. The rest of the schedule: Chicago: Catherine Edelman Gallery. July 6-Aug. 18; Boston: Robert Klein Gallery, July 12-Aug. 18; San Francisco: Robert Koch Gallery, Aug. 15-Sept. 22; Washington, D.C.: Addison/Ripley Gallery, Sept. 7-28; Denver: The Camera Obscura Gallery, Sept. 28-Oct. 28; New Orleans: A Gallery for Fine Photography, Oct. 6-Dcc. 15; New York Brent Sikkema Fine Art, Dec. 6-Jan. 5, 1991.

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