A number of great and influential photographers captured jazz during the last century. Herman Leonard was not just a master of this art form; rather, he was the master. His iconic images visually define the music like no other photographer’s work has, before or after. To jazz lovers, Herman’s image of Dexter Gordon at the Royal Roost with the smoke swirling about him is the portrait of a major innovator of the tenor saxophone. But to the world at large, it is the defining image of jazz itself. This is how they will imagine jazz for all eternity.
Historically, photographers are judged by their iconic images, and it often turns out that when their work is examined closely they have few photographs that stand the test of time. Herman, on the other hand, produced an extraordinary number of timeless photographs. I remember a fan looking at an image from one of his books and saying, “Oh, I think Herman must have just gotten lucky.”
“Yes, he did,” I replied. “And like only the very best photographers, he ‘got lucky’ again and again and again!” When I told Herman this story, he was such a generous man that he just laughed. He knew.
Herman created his most revered images in the 1940s and 1950s, long before digital photography was conceived, when photography was an extremely demanding art form. He often used big flashes and big pieces of film, shooting 4X5 and medium format. Controlling the flash ratios and registering an image on film in the 1940s—in a dark nightclub, no less—was only for those who had the skills of a real photographer, and Herman had that in spades. Herman told me he wanted to capture the emotion of the moment, but to do that he also had to have the deep understanding of the technical requirements of the day. Herman studied photography seriously and he assisted the legendary Yousuf Karsh, so when he decided to turn his eye on the jazz scene in New York, he knew exactly what was required.
I once asked him if he knew that the musicians he was photographing in the 1940s would turn out to be great figures in the music. He told me that although he knew they were all very good, he didn’t know that they would become the legends that they became. He explained that he just loved the music and that it gave him this exquisite environment to work in.
Once when he came to New York, my wife Dena and I went out to Long Island to assist him in photographing the trombonist Al Grey at his home. Al had seen Herman’s first great masterpiece, the now out-of-print and hard-to-find book The Eye of Jazz, and I think Al was hurt that he was not included in this anthology while so many of his friends were. I don’t think Herman was dying to do Al’s portrait, but he agreed because he wanted to be kind and make Al feel like a star. And he did.
I assisted Herman a few times, and watching him photograph was always an amazing experience; he could find something interesting to capture even when there was nothing. He might see a reflection or some rain on a window and work it into a composition. He could make something out of nothing.
He was also fearless. Years later, when we were photographing Tony Bennett, Herman asked me to get a 25-foot ladder. Since Herman was 79 at the time, I assumed that I would be going up it to move a light or something. To my surprise, as I started to climb it, Herman said, “No, that’s for me, my boy,” and immediately darted up it to get a better angle to shoot from. He had incredible energy.
The first time I met Herman I was in awe, having been such a big fan for so many years. He told me that he had been following my work for some time, and then he asked me if I would be willing to trade him prints. Needless to say I was quite floored. I mention this because it was an incredible validation as a young photographer to get that kind of encouragement, and he was always very encouraging to people whose work he thought was strong. When we talked for the last time and he knew he was going to die, he again wanted to trade me prints. He wanted to say goodbye by giving me a gift. That was my last conversation with Herman, and he also said he’d had a really good life and experienced a lot. He was right—he’d led an extraordinary life. I just hope he realized how much he gave to all of us and to the history of jazz.