Herman Leonard was arguably the photographer who defined jazz as the epitome of cool. His images of Miles Davis, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk contributed to all becoming iconic jazz figures. His rendering of the post-war New York club scene brought the musicians to life and seemed to capture the very spirit of jazz. His work is still very much in evidence today, on postcards and posters the world over, and Leonard himself said his work was intended ‘to create a visual diary of what I heard, to make people see the way the music sounded’.
He was born in 1923 in Allentown, Pennsylvania. His brother dabbled in photography and Leonard soon became enthralled with the developing process. In 1935, he began taking photographs including all the images for his school’s yearbook. He enrolled at Athens University, Ohio, and emerged in 1947 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree.
By 1948, he had set up his own studio in Greenwich Village in New York. This was a perfect location for documenting the emerging bebop masters who were performing nearby at Birdland, the Blue Note and the Village Vanguard. ‘I took advantage of being a photographer to get myself into the clubs so I could sit in front of Charlie Parker,’ he said. ‘I got to listen to the music in person. It happened in the clubs, not in a photo studio.’
His shadowy, smoky images of artists such as Nat King Cole and Sarah Vaughan, redolent of the parallel film-noir movement in cinema, were easy to sell to record companies and magazines. And the musicians could relax in his presence as they knew he would make them look good. As his longtime friend Quincy Jones said, ‘I used to tell cats that Herman Leonard did with his camera what we did with our instruments. Herman’s camera tells the truth and makes it swing. Musicians loved to see him around.’
In 1956, Marlon Brando commissioned Leonard to be his personal photographer on a trip to the Far East to research the film ‘The Teahouse of the August Moon‘. Later in the decade, he relocated to Paris where he documented the vibrant jazz scene and also branched out to work in the fields of fashion, advertising and travel photography. He also photographed Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong on the set of the 1961 film ‘Paris Blues‘.
He moved to Ibiza in 1980 before relocating to London in the mid-’80s where his retrospective show at the Special Photographers’ Gallery in Notting Hill in 1988 was visited by over 10,000 people during its month-long run. Leonard returned to the US and settled in New Orleans. Disaster struck in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina wrecked his home and destroyed thousands of his prints, though mercifully many were saved having been housed at the city’s Ogden Museum of Southern Art. Leonard tirelessly worked at rebuilding his archive of images, a painful process captured in the documentary ‘Saving Jazz‘.
Leonard moved to California where he resided until his death. His book ‘Jazz’ featured many images that were ‘saved’ from New Orleans. A modest, popular man, he once said, ‘When I was photographing Miles or Dizzy in the early days, I knew these were good and important musicians, but not as important as they turned out to be. I had no idea. If I had any inkling, I would have shot ten times as many pictures. Ninety-nine percent of everything I shot was off the cuff. My whole principle was to capture the mood and atmosphere of the moment.’
Herman Leonard is survived by his four children and six grandchildren.
• Herman Leonard, photographer, born 6 March 1923; died 14 August 2010