Herman Leonard's Jazz

Attention, last-minute Christmas shoppers: No gift could be more welcome to a jazz lover than a copy of Herman Leonard’s last book of photographs, titled, simply, Jazz (Bloomsbury, 320pp., $40 retail).

Leonard was the consummate jazz photographer, a true artist as well as a chronicler, whose black-and-white pictures—most of them taken between the late 1940s and the early ’60s (though with a remarkable reprise in the late ’80s and ’90s)—captured, even visually defined, the passion of the music, the intimacy between the musicians and the moment, the spirit of the times.

He worked most avidly in the New York nightclubs of the be-bop era, making icons from the swirl of light and shadow and smoke. Later in life, he settled in New Orleans, lost thousands of prints in Katrina, but saved the negatives before the storm hit.

Setting up a studio in L.A., he went through those negatives, found hundreds that he’d forgotten about, and planned a new book that would feature a mix of the familiar classics and the discoveries. He died last August, at the age of 87, just as the book was going into production. Through it, he lives on.

Given a choice, it’s a toss-up whether I’d buy Jazz or his 1996 collection, Jazz, Giants, and Journeys: The Photography of Herman Leonard . The earlier book includes pictures of celebrities, war scenes, and nude models, as well as jazz musicians. (His journeys included stints with news magazines and Playboy.) The new book is just jazz, and many of the shots are bigger, some a bit clearer. And while it shortchanges Duke Ellington, it includes some lovely, previously unseen shots of Dizzy Gillespie (one of them showing an adoring Miles Davis some chords on the piano), Ben Webster (looking so cool), and Billie Holiday (looking so forlorn), among others.

Probably you should buy both.

John Atkinson's picture
I recognize Duke Ellington digging the music at the front table, but who is the singer? Is it Lady Day?
michaelavorgna's picture

...Fitzgerald (and Benny Goodman with the glasses).