Perhaps you’ve seen the photograph: A dimly lit nightclub. A musician attired in a jacket, neatly pressed shirt and a porkpie hat, sits in a cloud of smoke, a cigarette in one hand, a saxophone in the other. A picture so vivid you can practically hear the music – jazz.
That atmospheric portrait of Dexter Gordon, and those of other legends -- Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis -- are so ingrained in our consciousness that those pictures are what we think of when we think about jazz. They are the photographs that Robert Morris University professor Heather Pinson explores in her new book, “The Jazz Image: Seeing Music through Herman Leonard's Photography,” available this summer from the University Press of Mississippi.
“The Jazz Image” analyzes the work of the late photographer Herman Leonard, who took some of the most iconic photographs of jazz’s golden age during the 1940s and 1950s, in clubs and concert halls from New York to Paris.
“Leonard’s photographs have become as necessary in the definition of jazz as the music itself,” writes Pinson, an assistant professor of communication at RMU.
A native of Allentown, Pa., Leonard, who died Saturday at age 87, studied under famed portrait artist Yousuf Karsh before opening his own studio in Greenwich Village in 1948. Over the next eight years he gained a reputation as a commercial photographer, shooting album covers and promotional materials for major record labels and becoming the personal photographer for Marlon Brando.
Leonard loved jazz, and he followed performers from nightclub to nightclub, shooting candid, black-and-white photographs of musicians in repose or alone on stage as they performed. “This image of mid-twentieth-century jazz musicians has continued to grow despite jazz’s decline as popular music since the swing era,” writes Pinson.
Pinson describes Leonard as a master of his craft, a groundbreaking photographer who humanized his subjects at a time when they were struggling off stage for equality and civil liberty. Today his photographs sell as fine art for thousands of dollars, and he was much in demand even in his last years as a photographer for A-list celebrities like Bono, Lenny Kravitz and President Clinton.
“Through his use of smoke, black and white film, lighting, framing, and compositional arrangement, Leonard simultaneously exposes the rigorous professionalism, lighthearted humor, improvised musical style, and notorious lifestyle of the jazz artist,” writes Pinson.