BY BOB STUDEBAKER
Pittsburgh native Bob Studebaker is the production director and longtime morning jazz host on WDUQ-FM 90.5. He has written and produced several award-winning documentaries on local musical traditions, and enjoys studying all aspects of jazz history.
See Herman Leonard's photos at hermanleonard.com
Listen to Bob Studebaker's WDUQ radio interview with Heather Pinson. The interview includes a personal message to Pinson from Leonard
I enjoy talking about jazz as much as I enjoy listening to it. That's how I met Heather Pinson, Ph.D., at a lecture about Pittsburgh’s jazz history given by a prominent local pianist. After the presentation, we stood outside talking about what we had heard. It was immediately obvious that we shared the belief that you can learn a lot about America’s history by looking at the origins and evolution of jazz. It was also immediately obvious that I could learn a lot by talking with her.
She brings a lot to a conversation. A classically trained violinist who also plays bluegrass and has an extensive performance resume, Pinson studied art and philosophy for her doctorate and is an assistant professor of communication and media arts at RMU. She publishes on popular music, jazz, aesthetics, and race theory.
I took full advantage of a chance to ask questions, and the more we talked, the more animated she became. Her enthusiasm mirrored my own, and when we got around to discussing her new book I knew it would be filled with the kind of insights that make you say, “hmmm.”
In her book The Jazz Image: Seeing Music through Herman Leonard’s Photography, Pinson tells us photographs have become as “necessary in the definition of jazz as the music itself.” I know just what she means by that. Music invariably causes us to visualize, to conjure an image. Much of what comes to me when the music is jazz is one of Leonard's images, or one inspired by him. I never thought about it, though, until I read this book.
Leonard, who died in August at the age of 87, began by using his camera as a way to get free admission to the clubs where the music was happening. He would then give prints to the club owners and musicians, who would use them to promote appearances. This was a change from the more traditional promotional headshots that were used in the 1940s. The difference between a picture that only puts a face to a name and photography produced by an artist is striking.
Close your eyes for a moment. Picture a black-and-white photograph of a young African American man holding a saxophone. Add some curling cigarette smoke to that image. I’ll bet you’ve seen such an image before. That’s the legacy of Herman Leonard.
Pinson's book is about investigating why one photographer “has been so instrumental in representing what a jazz musician looks like.” Her investigation is extraordinarily thorough and reflects her unique musical and academic background.
She introduces Leonard and the concept of visual culture simultaneously. His work is rooted in the years when America became increasingly reliant on visual images. Leonard’s love of jazz and his love of photography were his inspirations, and because there hadn’t really been any predecessors in the field to influence his work, he was free to follow his own instincts. At first there was little financial value attached to his work, and that too allowed him a freedom that he might not have had if he were satisfying commercial interests. Pinson explains how Leonard's contributions to the circulation of jazz imagery helped establish a market for it, and how his work, when turned into album covers, placed in storefronts, and featured in magazines, gradually solidified into a canon of jazz imagery.
Imaginative people found new applications for photographs. Pinson relates an example of one of her colleagues, RMU media arts professor Lutz Bacher, Ph.D. Bacher, a musician and jazz advocate, was the manager of many well-known acts in the '60s and '70s. His use of photography in promotional materials fostered increased circulation of jazz images.
When Pinson says that Leonard’s work, adapted for posters, is particularly well suited to our own time of digitized music collections, I think of my 24-year-old son’s apartment. A Herman Leonard photo of Pittsburgh jazz great Ray Brown was the first thing he hung on his wall. Leonard posters followed. They are an expression of how my son sees himself in the context of the world, something members of my own generation often accomplished by the way we kept and displayed our LP record covers.
Pinson concludes that the jazz image has remained constant since it was set more than 50 years ago. I do a lot of reading about the history of the music, the musicians, and the times they lived in, and I completely agree with that statement. Contemporary jazz photography often imitates Herman Leonard’s technique. Moreover, contemporary musicians quite often seem to be influenced by those images of what she sees as the golden age of jazz, which solidified the music's position as an intellectual pursuit.
Herman Leonard’s work defined an era. That era came to define jazz. The Jazz Image takes you deep inside the reasons this happened.