Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

The world of jazz as seen through the lens of Herman Leonard.

Think of jazz photography, and you must think of Herman Leonard, the shutterbug whose moody shots of the '40s and '50s jazz pantheon of 52nd Street and Harlem capture the soul of that musical era like the backlit wisps of smoke so often seen drifting through his famous frames. Those images -- of Count Basie, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and anyone else who haunted the jazz clubs of New York City back in the day -- are instantly recognizable to aficionados now, so it's hard to imagine that Leonard sat on the sacred shots for thirty years while pursuing a more commercial photography career and raising a family on the island of Ibiza.

That glittery existence bore little resemblance to Leonard's clubbing days and the photos he admits evolved as a condition of poverty. "I was a jazz fan, but I couldn't afford to get into the clubs, so I made deals with the owners to come in and photograph the musicians," he recalls. "I shot them for myself, not as a source of income. The pictures were a visual record of what I was hearing." And those were infinitely different times: "I was doing magazine assignments -- commercial work, portraits of people in show business -- but jazz was my passion, and I was able to shoot rather freely because I knew the club owners and musicians fairly well."

Resurrected in the darkroom in the '80s, the resulting prints are more than a mere record; they're also history. Though people now ask Leonard to re-create such scenes spontaneously, he says it "ain't gonna happen. Conditions are not the same today. The whole atmosphere of the clubs is different now: People have changed, the clientele is different, the atmosphere isn't the same." So, whether you're a collector or simply a fan, the chance to see some of these photos in person is well worth the trip north to Fort Collins, where Jazz Memories will hang at the Walnut Street Gallery through the end of October.

Another slice of the jazz life by Herman Leonard.
Another slice of the jazz life by Herman Leonard.

Part of the reason the photos are so fleeting is that Leonard wields a camera much in the same way a jazz musician handles a melody. "The essence of jazz is improvisation," he notes. "Even photography is improvisation in a way: If you're not afraid to improvise, you can make progress; it opens up doors." And if Leonard can't inject that freedom of movement into the imagery, he'd rather not try. "I just went to the Monterey Jazz Festival," he says. "I also took a camera, but I only shot half a roll of film in three days." Why? "The circumstances and conditions of shooting were so limited that no creativity was possible. You're standing in a pit under the bandstand with 10,000 other photographers, all of whom have lenses longer than yours, and you're all getting the same thing. What's the point?"

Indeed. These days, Leonard adds, the scenery he shot so freely years ago doesn't just happen. And something's missing, too, he thinks, in the subjects themselves. "I once asked Dizzy Gillespie about that," he says. "I had heard on the radio an alto sax I thought was Charlie Parker, but it wasn't. The kid was fantastic, but something was missing. And this is what Dizzy said: 'These kids grow up in comfortable circumstances, they go to music school and learn technique. But our school was the street. We were playing to stay alive. That produces a different kind of sound, a different kind of music.'"

Rest assured, there's still life in Leonard's world. He's turned his visual eye toward the highlife in his current hometown of New Orleans, where he's been compiling images for a proposed book. "I've had a good life, and it's all been because of the camera," he says. "I'm 78 now, but I'm not slowing down; I'm speeding up. I have less time left to enjoy life, so I'd better hurry up." Anything else? "Oh, yeah, but we don't have the time, honey."

 
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