Quincy Jones, who once roomed with Herman Leonard in Paris, wrote of him: “When people think of jazz, their mental picture is likely one of Herman’s.” All certainly true of the wonderfully talented photographer who died in California two months ago at 87. Strictly speaking, there can be no jazz greats from the mid-1940s to the present who were not captured by Herman’s camera.
I first met him in Paris on the set, fittingly enough, of Paris Blues, a film that featured a plethora of iconic figures: Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn. Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Sidney Poitier, and Diahann Carroll filled out the rest of the cast. It was about that time that I was also on an assignment from Playboy to produce a story on The Girls of Russia and the Iron Curtain Countries. My husband Richard and I had set forth from our Paris base to Moscow with a photographer in tow; but in Budapest, having had enough of Iron Curtain life, the photographer defected. Back in Paris I found that Herm would be only too glad to carry on with the assignment in Warsaw and Prague.
I seem to recollect that on the flight from Paris to Warsaw Herm filled me in on his earlier life: days with the U.S. Army in Burma and India during World War II, life in Greenwich Village and the jazz clubs, living next door to Marilyn Monroe (and noting Bobby Kennedy coming to visit), being an apprentice to Yousuf Karsh in Ottawa, travels in the Far East as Marlon Brando’s “personal photographer.” It was Herm’s photograph of the lovely young Czech actress Olga Schoberova that constituted the cover of the March 1964 issue of Playboy.
Back in Paris, our Playboy mission at an end, Herm continued his life as a professional photographer, working in fashion, advertising, and travel but always finding time for the jazz clubs he loved. Eventually he moved to London, where he had an exhibit of some of his jazz photographs, and in 1990 he toured U.S. galleries and decided to settle in New Orleans the following year. “When I moved here, I found my place,” he said. “I’ve never felt myself more comfortable in my skin than in New Orleans.” But then Katrina hit and Herm’s home and studio were under eight feet of water. He managed to move his negatives to high ground, but still lost 8,000 prints and the records of all his exposures.
In 1990 Herm had met John Edward Hasse, curator of American music at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, and Herm donated more than 150 of his jazz photos to the Smithsonian. The museum, in turn, commissioned an oral history of his photographic career, mounted three displays of his work, and honored Herm on several occasions. He continued to be utterly tireless. In 2009, at age 86, he was the official photographer for the Montreal Jazz Festival. That same year his alma mater, Ohio University, awarded him an honorary degree and he gave the commencement address. Herm was lively, alert, witty, and the graduates loved him, giving him a lengthy ovation. Next month his last book, Jazz, will be published by Bloomsbury.
Herman Leonard’s photographs speak for themselves. He was at one with the musicians, capturing their mood, and the time and place, effortlessly, magically. He also captured a half-century’s worth of a uniquely American art form, with consummate skill and imagination.
A sample of Leonard's jazz photography:
'Billie Holiday,' New York City, NY 1949; (c)Herman Leonard Photography LLC
'Dexter Gordon,' New York City, NY 1948 (c)Herman Leonard Photography LLC
'Duke Ellington,' Olympia Theatre, Paris, 1958, (c)Herman Leonard Photography LLC
With special thanks to http://www.hermanleonard.com