Capturing a Smoke-Filled Era of Jazz

by John E. Uhl

"I did not set this up," insisted Herman Leonard, a photographer best known for the intimate, smoke-hued black-and-white portraits he took of jazz musicians in the 1940s and ’50s.

Lester Young's Hat, 1948 [Image credit: Herman Leonard Photography, LLC]
Lester Young's Hat, 1948. Click to view a slideshow of Leonard's photos.
Image credit: Herman Leonard Photography, LLC

Leonard, who has been called the dean of jazz photographers, was speaking at a discussion, sponsored by Columbia's Center for Jazz Studies on Oct. 19, that looked at his work as art and historical record. He was referring to a still life he shot in 1948 called Lester Young's Hat, which shows a burning cigarette balanced atop an open soda bottle and the round porkpie hat of tenor saxophonist Lester Young hanging on a briefcase full of sheet music.

That iconic photo is part of a retrospective of Leonard’s work currently on display at Jazz at Lincoln Center. "In the Best Possible Light: The Classic Jazz Photography of Herman Leonard" was curated in part by Robert G. O'Meally, professor of English and comparative literature and founder of Columbia's Center for Jazz Studies.

Although Leonard, now 86, also worked in fashion and advertising, his photos of jazz musicians were the result of a keen eye, good lighting and fortuitous circumstances, not staging. "I did not put smoke in my pictures,” he told the audience in Philosophy Hall. “It was there!"

Before Leonard spoke, members of the exhibit's curatorial team—visiting professor C. Daniel Dawson; associate professor of art history and archeology Kellie Jones; Diedra Harris-Kelley; and Garnette Cadogan—showed slides of his photos and interpreted them as major artistic accomplishments.

Jones, for instance, spoke of the way in which Leonard often "monumentalizes” the musicians by "shooting from a lower perspective, so that the figure seems much larger." In the 1940s, during the Jim Crow period, she said, the idea of monumentalizing the black figure was "monumental in and of itself."

Leonard, however, seemed to downplay their significance, dismissing a famous shot of Duke Ellington as "technically speaking, nothing extraordinary." A photograph of singer Billie Holiday in an apron, cooking a steak for her dog, Leonard said, "has become a very popular shot in my collection because it shows Billie Holiday in an unconventional way. That's all. Nothing other than that."

And one of the trumpet player Clifford Brown and drummer Max Roach relaxing backstage was "nothing special," he said. "I just liked these guys and I liked their faces."

A close-up portrait of Miles Davis with pursed lips and far-off eyes taken six weeks before Davis died, however, gave Leonard pause. "I think that in this image, he knew he was going to die," Leonard said, growing quiet. "Look at that face. Look at those eyes!" he then cried. "He is by far the best subject I have ever had in any category. It was impossible for me to take an uninteresting picture of Miles."

In a recent interview, O'Meally said that, "Herman was accepted by Miles and Sarah Vaughan and Quincy [Jones] as a true friend. That explains why they let him get close enough to get pictures no one else was getting."

O'Meally referred to Leonard as someone who "loved the music and the people who made it, and wanted to present them in a way that was celebratory." Or, as Leonard said, "I took these pictures for me, not for money. There was no money in it."

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