For many of us, the photography of Herman Leonard is our first link to jazz culture. Ellington in Paris, Dexter with a Chesterfield, a youthful Miles, Satchmo in Birdland…These images, in some cases more so than the music, are responsible for our devotion to preserving and protecting the art the musicians of mid 20th Century America created, and Herman Leonard reported on.
We were honored that Herman Leonard took the time and consented to an exclusive interview with Jerry Jazz Musician. As a primary witness to some of the world’s great musical and cultural events, he has a special understanding of history, and of the people and events making it.
All images in the interview: Copyright Herman Leonard
JJM Your work and William Gottlieb’s work have been so influential in my life, in terms of getting me interested in not only the music but in the whole culture of this incredible art form.
HL Thank the guys that play the instruments, not us!
JJM How did you get involved with photography?
HL It was my brothers fault. When I was a kid, in the 1930s, we didn’t have Playboy and Penthouse, but we took some pictures of his beautiful wife with very little clothing on I came across it when I was 11 years old, and it stunned me..
JJM I bet it did!
HL So, my brother loaned me a camera and I took some pictures of my friends playing baseball, and suddenly I was popular, because I was giving them the prints that’s how it all started
JJM Simultaneous to this, did you have an interest in music as well?
HL Only girls
JJM So, just girls? Not girl musicians?
HL No, I didn’t have a particular interest in jazz at that stage. It was a bit later than that, when I was about 14 or 15.
JJM What happened then?
HL I was exposed to a lot of classical music. My father and mother were both very interested in music, but they were always playing Beethoven and Bach and that sort of thing. One day I had the radio on and I heard a Louis Jordan thing, and I heard an early Nat Cole song, “Straighten Up and Fly Right”. When I heard the rhythms, it made me feel good, and I said, “hey, this is happy music, feet tapping music!” That’s how I got interested in that form of music.
JJM Tell me where you grew up?
HL I grew up in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and I left there when I went to college, and I never went back to live there.
JJM You went to college in Ohio?
HL Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. That was the only university in those days that gave a degree in photography.
JJM Is that right? In the whole country?
HL Yes, in the whole country. It wasn’t recognized as an art form of any kind, so they didn’t give any degrees.
JJM So this was right after the war then?
HL That’s right. Actually I went to the university before the war in 1940, and finished two years there, and then I went to the war and came back in 1945 and finished my college there, and graduated in 1947.
JJM Now, you took some pictures while you were in the service?
HL Yes. I wasn’t an active photographer. The army failed me when they gave me a test on photography, and they turned me into a medic, and I did anesthesia in Burma on the Chinese troops. We didn’t have any fighting troops in Burma, but we only had service and support troops, and I was part of that group. We were attached to the Chinese Army, which were fighting the Japanese in Burma.
JJM Did you take a volume of photographs during that time?
HL No. It was very difficult. When you are fighting a war, unless you are an active photographer, you can’t pay attention to equipment and the film and the humidity and all of that Sometimes we would be out there for two or three months and we would be lost, because there were no roads We were supplied by air, and sometimes they couldn’t find us. I took pictures, many of which have been lost since then. I wish I had done more but there was no opportunity.
JJM You must recall some of the photographs that you took at the time. Were they any good?
HL Hell no They were snapshots, like a news photographer would go around and shoot the pictures of whatever was going on. I shot pictures of some of the scenes we were involved with, and then we would come in contact with some of the mountain villages, and I would be able to photograph some of the things there at that time. That was always very interesting.
JJM After the war, and after you graduated from college, then what happened?
HL I went up to Canada to try to get a job with Yousef Karsh was and still is the greatest portrait photographer in the world. He did all the world’s most important people, and I admired his approach and his quality. But he wouldn’t hire me, he didn’t need anybody, but he suggested that if I could afford it I could study with him for six months. So I called my Dad, and he supported me. I actually stayed a year with Karsh, a real turning point in my life because we photographed President Truman in the White House, Albert Einstein in Princeton University, General Eisenhower, Clark Gable .a whole bunch of people, which was really a mind blowing experience for me, not only to be with Karsh but to meet people of that stature.
JJM That must have been quite an experience, beyond photographing them, but to be able to sit and talk with them, understand their mannerisms .
HL I was able to observe how Karsh handled all these different kinds of people. He was an absolute master at it.
JJM Now, he’s a portrait photographer
HL That’s right. He’s now about 83 or 84. He’s not shooting much anymore, obviously He’s done the most important portraits that have ever been done..Churchill, everybody
JJM Let’s jump ahead How did you get to New York? So many of your most beloved photos took place in New York..How did you wind up in New York?
HL After leaving Karsh, that’s where I wanted to go. I moved there, into a little studio in Greenwich Village and started photographing business executives doing a “Karshy” type approach to photography. Then I got some jobs with theatre companies and dance companies photographing the theatre, rehearsals, assignments for magazines. I got on as a stringer for Life Magazine and Look Magazine.
JJM And you had an interest in jazz at this time?
HL The whole time, yes. But I couldn’t afford to pay the entrance fee and I wasn’t a drinker, so I used the camera. They allowed me to come in in return for my giving them photographs. I began giving some prints to the musicians, and the whole friendship thing started.
JJM Were you in some of the same clubs simultaneous to when William Gottlieb would have been there? Were you ever shooting side by side?
HL No The funny thing is Bill stopped shooting in 1948 actively, and I started in 1947, but we never overlapped, we didn’t know each other at that time. Bill was a reporter, he wasn’t a photographer, and he just took his camera and started shooting, and he became a documentary photographer, and got some unbelievable things and but I didn’t run across him, no.
JJM You guys are the connection for all of us to that era, and to be able to talk to you about some of these moments you spent is really a privilege to me
HL We didn’t know at that time, you never know .only later in retrospect. Either you wasted your time or your time was well invested.
JJM What was your very first evening of photographing jazz? What was the club?
HL Gee, I don’t remember I have no idea. Well, I do remember the first pictures I took. I was still in the university, early 1947 Norman Granz, the producer of Jazz at the Philharmonic Concerts..he brought a concert to Columbus, Ohio, and I ran up to Columbus from Athens to see this, and sat in the audience with my big newspaper events camera..the camera I used was a big speed graphic, a big 4 x 5 thing, and from about 20 rows back (I was too scared to go up to the stage), I shot about 4 or 5 picture of the performers on stage. Those were the very first shots I did, and I look at them today, and they’re not bad! They are a document of that moment.
JJM When somebody mentions 52nd St, what goes through your mind? What is the image in your head of 52nd Street 40, 50 years later?
HL If you could imagine, in today’s terms, going to one block where you would be able to see the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, the U2, Def Jam you name it all within like a couple hundred yards of each other, playing on the same night, and you could go from one place to another that’s what it was like.
JJM You said exactly what William Gottlieb said you almost took the words right out of his mouth Every time I hear that, and every time I hear of 52nd Street, it makes me wish I had lived in a different era
HL I can’t say that your impression is wrong. Now that I have come this far, I can look back and have some perspective, and Bill and I were extremely lucky to have been born at that time and be exposed to this kind of thing. Today, I just haven’t found an element like that anywhere
JJM You and Bill had so much to do with perpetuating this art form
HL You know, actually there are three of us, not just two, who, as far as I am concerned, documented them in our own individual fashion. Jazz from the 30s to now. William Claxton is the other. So, Claxton, Gottlieb and myself constitute a range of photographers that overlapped each other. Claxton started shooting in the mid 50s I think, and he is still shooting. He did the west coast
JJM Yeah, he did the Chet Baker’s and the Art Pepper’s
HL That’s right. He covered the west coast, Gottlieb did the east coast earlier on, and I did the east coast following him. We just had a triple show in Berlin, in fact. It was the first time that we ever exhibited together. Someone in Berlin called me to do a show, and I had experience in exhibiting my stuff around the world, and people pay high compliments, but that’s about the end of it..they don’t buy anything. I wasn’t too enthusiastic about doing the single show in Berlin, so I suggested we do a triple show, so I got in touch with Claxton and Gottlieb, and they were all for it, and we had this wonderful show there. All of us, we each had about 90 picture exhibited there. A tremendous response .Nobody sold anything, because the Europeans are not art collectors, only in America and England, surprisingly enough. Even in France, where the people are fanatic about American jazz, they don’t buy the prints. That’s how we make our living, at this point
JJM Does it inspire you to do more shows like that, only in the US?
HL To be honest, I have lost a little bit of enthusiasm for photographing the musicians of today for several reasons. First of all, I don’t get quite as excited as I used to about the music that’s coming out. I have not heard anything innovative, anything really new and solid and good..not that I was fully aware of that when I first heard Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis I mean, I liked them, but I wasn’t aware of how important they would be later on. Today, I don’t hear anybody. I hear the young guys that are extremely proficient, technically fantastic, but there is no message, there is no soul in what they are doing. They are either rehashing the old stuff or ..just no content there. Which brings to mind something that Dizzy Gillespie told me when I told him I heard this incredible alto guy I heard on the radio that I thought was Charlie Parker, but it wasn’t, but he was playing just as fast and efficiently as Parker, but there was something missing. I mentioned this to Dizzy and he said, the trouble is that the kids grow up under more comfortable conditions, and they go to school, and they learn all the techniques, but, our school was the street, and we had something to say there is a soul to it, suffering in it .That’s the thing that sets Billie Holiday apart from all the other singers..she suffered so much, and it comes through in her singing. The passion .Today, I don’t hear any passion
JJM I have to admit, I am kind of stuck in the 50s, in terms of the art of jazz. I tend to agree with you Mostly I haven’t had the time, nor really the income at this point to go out and buy every CD by Nicholas Payton and Wynton Marsalis and..all these guys are great, but I agree, I think that there is a lot of technical wizardry out there
HL But there is no soul!
JJM There is a lot of honoring of this era (50s) musician Of the contemporary musicians, who would be easiest to be transported to 52nd Street in 1949? Who would it be? Marsalis?
HL No, not Marsalis, and Wynton is a dear dear friend, I love him, But he is a highly skilled musician who really knows his music backwards and forwards which brings to mind a story Gunther Schuller is a musician, arranger, conductor, composer, writer We were talking about Wynton, and I had just finished photographing Wynton a few days before, and Gunther said “this kid came to me a few years ago, and he was very cocky, and he wanted to do an audition for me. I thought I would throw something tough at him. Can you do the Brandenburg Concerto? He just blew right through it, without looking at music.” It just knocked Schuller out, how technically proficient he was, and how aware He is a much better jazz trumpet player than a jazz trumpet player, although he can do anything! Wynton can play anything! I have heard him play the blues, I have heard him play everything, and he is wonderful, but it just doesn’t have the suffering behind it to be able to really punch through that feeling that jazz has.
JJM One of my favorite musicians of all time is Thelonious Monk. I wonder if you have any special memories that you could share with me…
HL The same as anybody else he was a weirdo. I am not a musical expert, and I love what he did, because every note was a surprise, you just didn’t expect to hear that off tone note or chord. He didn’t play many chords, actually, he just played notes. Somebody once said that he was unique because he played between the keys. Little pauses and hesitations where you don’t expect them that’s exciting to me, that’s innovative, he had his own feel But as a person ..you couldn’t talk to him.
JJM He was difficult to connect with?
HL Yes. He was somewhere up in orbit somewhere, all the time. Very fascinating man, big man, physically, imposing. When he stared at you, he stared through you I liked him a lot, but I never got close to him personally, because he lived a rather isolated life.
JJM Who was the most charismatic figure you photographed?
HL Dizzy Gillespie. Dizzy was a great human being. He had such empathy for everybody and for the suffering and all that..he was amazing, aside from being an incredible musician. Just an hour ago, I was listening to a Getz/Dizzy tune, and the ideas that he had, the variations that he would give to a standard was absolutely amazing. Dizzy was a comedian, a showman, a musician, a humanitarian He was a member of the Bahai faith, and they believe that everyone is a brother, and he practiced this, he really actively practiced it, all the way through. He was a good, fine gentleman. Dizzy and I got very close in the later years, we were not too close in the early years, and that was a matter of geography really, but we got along fine in the beginning, but in the later years, we seemed to connect in the same places at the same time. We used to hang out a lot, played a lot of backgammon .he was a lousy backgammon player. I had to let him win all the time. But funny, terrific guy
JJM As a young man, I remember seeing him and Louis Armstrong..who were really the ambassadors a link between jazz and be bop to people like me. What I remember of him is that he seemed like a really genuine human being, very hip, but in a reachable way, not ..Monk was more of a ..hip that not to many people could connect with, whereas I think Dizzy really put himself out there and tried to be an ambassador..
HL To give you an example of what you’re saying, I was with him in Paris, and I was in the Green Room with him, and after the show, at 2 AM, he is tired, very tired, but he sat there for 2 1/2 hours talking to one musician who was on junk, having trouble .I asked Dizzy about it, and he said he knew this guy for years and I have been trying to help him. I asked him if you can see that there isn’t much you can do to help him, why spend so much time? He said to me, look man, I know what I am to them, and I would like to help if I can help. What’s another hour or two? This is the way the man was.
JJM I am looking at the photo of him right now that you took in 1948, the picture of him on the stage, standing up ..where was that taken?
HL It was taken at the Royal Roost that was not on 52nd Street. That was on Broadway. Most of my better shots were done at the Royal Roost.
JJM In my web site, in couple of places where your photos appear on the album covers, one of which is the Dexter Gordon, where there is a lot of smoke, I mentioned something about promising not to sue for second-hand smoke so much of the ambience of the photographs is really set off by that smoky, three o clock in the morning setting
HL That’s the way it was. Essentially, all these pictures in the beginning I just shot for myself, they were not assignments. I never made any money on the jazz pictures until 40 years later
JJM There is one photograph that you took that, to me , is almost larger than life. A lot of these other photographs are wonderful, but the one of Ellington that you did in Paris, of him at the piano with the beam of light, that is almost surreal, so incredible What are the circumstances behind that photograph?
HL That was shot at the Olympia Theatre in Paris, and piano players are very difficult to photograph because you only have two angles where you can see both their face and their hands on the keyboard from the right or from the left, you cant see them from any other angle. You can’t shoot them from the front, because you don’t see the hands on the keys. Every time you shoot from the audience point of view, you are always going to get the same thing, depending on what’s behind him. For this photo, I went backstage through the curtains toward the audience, and that’s how I got the spotlight like that.
JJM I know you got connected with Marlon Brando I am just curious about one thing .Was he a jazz fan?
HL Yes, he was a jazz fan! The only reason I met him was because I had by sheer luck photographed a girl who lived around the corner from me in the Village, who turned out to be his girlfriend, and she announced to me that he was in town, looking for a photographer to go with him and his film company on a research trip. Every photographer in America wanted that assignment guys from Life and everybody, and I told her that I take portraits and do jazz photos, and she said to go see him. That was on a Wednesday, and I went to see him at the hotel. I laid out the pictures and he liked them, and he looked at me and he said “can you leave Friday?” two days later. I had a business in New York at the time a studio and an assistant, the whole thing, and I said, “Yes!” I packed my bag and we took off from LA. There were four of us on the trip, Brando, myself, a film producer by the name of George England and a writer named Stewart Stern. We had this idyllic dream trip, sponsored by Marlon Brando, and we just hung out together for all those weeks. It was an invaluable experience.
JJM Did you get out to any jazz clubs with him?
HL Only when he came to Paris. After we did that trip, he went to Japan and did a film called “Teahouse of the August Moon”, and I came back to New York, and then eventually I moved to Paris, and every time he would come through, we’d meet and hang out, and go to the clubs in Paris.
JJM You have had quite a life!
HL I have had a ball, and still having a ball! I just recently moved to New Orleans and it’s a whole new lease in life.
JJM I have never eaten so much in my life as I did during a week in New Orleans! Are you planning to do more shows around the country?
HL Oh yes. I have galleries around the country that sponsor me. (At this point his assistant hands him a Tony Bennett book ) Oh, my assistant just gave me a Tony Bennett .he and I have recently become very good friends ..Oh I don’t like the cover .he looks too serious no..that’s not Tony.
JJM He narrated your Images of Jazz TV show, isn’t that right?
HL Yes, he narrated it. The producers of the show received the highest prize from PBS for documentary last year. Got the top award, the one on me!! It’s a well done documentary, and will be rebroadcast nationally in late January on PBS.
JJM One other quick question .Where were you in 1963 when Kennedy was shot?
HL I was in Paris living in Paris
JJM Anything specifically you were working on at the time?
HL I was trying to make money I was working in fashion advertising at that point of my life, and I had just opened up a new studio
JJM What was the reaction in Paris?
HL Stunned! We thought it was the end of the world all the American expatriates living in Paris, we all got together As a matter of fact, Brando was there at the time. I recall us discussing that .
JJM You are selling your work through the Barbara Gilman Galleries?
HL A lot of places sell my work, yes, Barbara Gilman in Miami the best gallery in the world in my estimation is right here in New Orleans, its called A Gallery for Fine Photography. He has the most incredible collection of photographs on display, that you could ever want to see. On Royal Street in the Quarter. It’s like a museum for sale.
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