Jazz Giants: 
The Photography of Herman Leonard

by E. "Doc" Smith on April 2, 2010

Beginning April 5th, jazz and photography lovers will be in for a real treat when they visit the Fillmore’s Jazz Heritage Center. In honor of Jazz Appreciation Month, the JHC is presenting Jazz Giants: The Photography of Herman Leonard—a collection of some of the greatest jazz photographs ever taken by one of America’s greatest living photographers. The show is Herman Leonard’s first in San Francisco since he briefly lived in the city twenty years ago. The exhibit includes more than forty classic black and white photographs of jazz legends, including Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Billie Holliday and Thelonious Monk. The images will be on exhibit April 5th – May 16th, in the JHC’s Lush Life Gallery and in the JHC’s Koret Heritage Lobby outside the entrance to Yoshi’s Jazz Club and Restaurant at 1320 Fillmore.

“Jazz Giants” is a photographic journey through the golden years of the Jazz, Blues and Bebop eras that document the larger-than-life legends that comprise the visual album of America’s music. Focusing on the life and times of famed artists such as Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk among countless others, this exhibition features a selection from Leonard’s extensive photographic history. Using a unique lighting approach, Leonard’s signature “backlighting” style and use of elements like smoke and strobe lighting gives his portraits a dramatic quality that is highly humanistic, capturing the illuminating personalities behind the music.

Born in Allentown, PA, Leonard discovered the camera at the young age of 11 and hasn’t stopped shooting since. While stationed in Burma in the Army Medical Corps during World War II he developed film late at night in his combat helmet. Leonard studied under famed Canadian portrait photographer Yousuf Karsh and had the invaluable opportunity to assist in shoots with Albert Einstein, Harry S. Truman and Clark Gable. It was from Karsh that Leonard received his most valuable advice as a photographer, to “tell the truth, but always in terms of beauty”. In the 1950s he became the personal photographer to Marlon Brando. Leonard’s fashion and advertising jobs have run in magazines like Life, Time and Playboy.

In 1956, Leonard moved to Paris and worked in advertising and fashion and for magazines including Life, Time and Playboy. After living in Europe for over 20 years, Leonard returned to the United States and settled in San Francisco and began printing his jazz negatives. In 1991, he moved to New Orleans after visiting the city for an exhibition of his work. Sadly, the devastation of Hurricane Katrina not only took his home, studio, and darkroom but over 6,000 of Leonard’s original photographs along with many of his exposure records were lost in the hurricane.

Leonard, now 87 and living in Los Angeles, continues to shoot, develop and exhibit his comprehensive archive. Most recently, the Smithsonian Institution honored Leonard by housing his entire collection in the permanent archives of musical history where they are considered as essential to American music history as Benny Goodman’s clarinet or Louis Armstrong’s horn. In October of 2008, Leonard was honored with a Lucie Award for his Lifetime Achievement in Portraiture. In June 2009 Leonard was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts degree by Ohio University, where he also delivered the 2009 Commencement Address.

The Herman Leonard Jazz Archive was established in 2007 and in 2008 was awarded a Grammy Foundation Grant for Archiving and Preservation. Herman’s goal through the archive is to bring his entire jazz collection, comprising a visual documentation of America’s original art form, back to life and preserve it for future generations.

There are some real gems in this exhibit, including some personal favorites; Billie Holliday cooking with her faithful dog “Mister” by her side; Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman and William Rodgers sitting front row for an Ella Fitzgerald concert; drummers Buddy Rich and Art Blakey flailing away ever so gracefully; vintage shots of Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett; a backstage shot of the elegant Max Roach; a young Thelonious Monk scribbling on sheet music, and of course, Miles Davis, signing some of his artwork from the modern “Amandla” and “Tutu” era.

Leonard, like the great Life magazine photographer Gordon Parks, had a knack for being in the right place, at the right time. From Monte Carlo and Manhattan, to festivals in Paris and Newport, Leonard has captured and preserved one of the most important eras in jazz history. His work, like those musicians he so lovingly photographed, will thankfully never be forgotten.

Jazz Giants: 
The Photography of Herman Leonard

April 5th, 2010 – May 16, 2010
Fillmore Jazz Heritage Center
1300 Fillmore

E. “Doc” Smith is a musician, producer and recording artist with Edgetone Records, who has worked with the likes of Brian Eno, Madonna, Warren Zevon and John Scofield among others. He is also the inventor of the musical instrument, the Drummstick. He can be reached via http://edgetonerecords.com/edoctorsmith.html

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