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Herman Leonard, Noted Jazz Photographer, Dies

Photographer produced iconic images of jazz legends from nearly every era

Herman Leonard
Mark Ruffin, Kris King, Herman Leonard and Scott Thompson at Jazz at Lincoln Center

Noted jazz photographer Herman Leonard died on Saturday, August 14 at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, Calif. Leonard was 87. The cause of death was not provided, but Leonard had been battling cancer for a few years.

Leonard’s iconic images of jazz musicians from the bebop era helped to elevate those artists in the public eye. His trademark use of smoke in the foreground, particularly in his famous photos of Dexter Gordon and Billie Holiday, gave his photos a unique and strangely elegant beauty and made his work instantly recognizable. A passionate jazz and music lover, Leonard never stopped shooting musicians and performances. He could often be seen shooting away at clubs and festivals in New Orleans, his adopted hometown. He rarely went anywhere without a camera.

Leonard had a massive influence on several generations of photographers, many of whom developed a warm personal relationship with him. Rarely seen without a twinkle in his eye, Leonard was a charming and entertaining man, who loved a good story, whether told or heard. He counted among his friends famous celebrities such as Jack Nicholson and Quincy Jones, yet Leonard retained his touch for the common man. Photographers and fans meeting him at gallery openings or special events were often surprised to find him such a humble and considerate man, with considerable energy and verve.

Jimmy Katz, noted photographer of the contemporary jazz scene and a longtime JT contributor, gave this statement to the magazine about his friend and mentor: “There are a number of great and influential photographers who photographed jazz during the last century. Herman Leonard was not just a master of this art form but rather he was the master. His iconic images of jazz visually define the art form like no other photographer before or after him. To people who know jazz, Herman’s image of Dexter Gordon with the smoke swirling about him at the Royal Roost is an image of a major innovator of the tenor saxophone, but to the world at large it is the defining image of the art form itself. There can be no better legacy than that.”

Leonard was born in Allentown, Pa. in 1923 and was introduced to the magic of photography by his brother. Leonard went on to study photography at the Ohio University, where eventually he obtained a BFA in photography, though his studies were interrupted by a stint in the U.S. Army with whom he served in Europe during WWII.

Immediately after graduating from Ohio University in 1947, Leonard apprenticed with the famous portrait photographer Karsh. According to a press release received from Leonard’s estate, after Leonard had spent one year with Karsh photographing Albert Einstein, Martha Graham and other cultural icons, Karsh pushed Leonard to go out on his own as a photographer, telling him ” I know you have it in you to be a great photographer. Go out and conquer.” Upon leaving, Karsh told Leonard, “Always tell the truth, but in terms of beauty.” Judging from the quality of his output during a long career as a portrait photographer, Leonard took those words to heart.

Leonard moved to New York City, where he became immersed in the jazz scene. It was fortuitous timing because the bebop revolution had begun with its nexus on 52nd Street and the various clubs in the city. Leonard started shooting musicians in the clubs, often getting permission for the club owners, by giving them a photo of their marquee in exchange for the access. Leonard has said that his aim at that time was “to create a visual diary of what I heard, to make people see the way the music sounded.” Many of his iconic jazz photos come from this period, including his images of Dexter Gordon, Billie Holiday, Art Blakey, Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, Thelonious Monk and many more.

In 1956 Leonard’s career took a bit of a turn, as he was retained as Marlon Brando’s personal photographer for an extensive research trip to the Far East. Later in that decade, Leonard moved to Paris and worked in fashion, advertising, travel and editorial photography, with assignments for Life, Playboy and other notable mainstream magazines of the time. He also continued to shoot jazz and with so many great jazz musicians, many of whom had decamped from America to live in Europe, while others were simply passing through on tours of the continent, there were plenty of opportunities. It was during this time that he spent a great deal of time with Quincy Jones, whose big band had come apart during a tour in Europe. The two cut a certain bohemian swath through the Paris cultural scene and they remained close friends for the rest of their lives.

In 1980, Leonard moved from Paris to the island of Ibiza, where he remained until 1987, living a reclusive life removed from many of the comforts of civilization. Around that time Leonard rediscovered his jazz negatives and in 1985 released his first book, The Eye of Jazz, published by Hachette/Filipachi Publications. In 1988, the first exhibition of Leonard’s jazz photographs was held at the Special Photographers Company in London. Leonard’s first US show premiered in 1989 and toured nationally. His images began to appear again with more regularity in magazines, films and album covers.

In 1992, Leonard moved to New Orleans, where he became a fixture on the music and cultural scene, exhibiting his work at local galleries (including the noted Photographic Image Gallery on Royal Street) and restaurants. His book, Jazz Memories, was published by Filipacchi in 1995. Iin that same year, he was awarded an Honorary Masters of Science in Photography from The Brooks Institute of Photography. Other awards included the “Milt Hinton Award for Excellence in Jazz Photography,” from Jazz Photographer’s Association in 1999, the “Excellence in Photography Award” from the Jazz Journalists Association in 2000 and a “Lifetime Achievement Award” from Downbeat Magazine in 2004. In 1997 Leonard was the subject of a public TV documentary Frame After Frame narrated by his lifelong friend Tony Bennett.

Hurricane Katrina in 2005 changed New Orleans forever and had a devastating effect on Leonard. His home and studio were severely damaged and he lost over 8,000 prints in the disaster. However, his negatives were saved and housed at a local museum – the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, many of which were scanned for his web site, After Katrina, Leonard relocated to Los Angeles and once again restarted his personal and professional life. In 2006, he was the subject of a BBC/Sundance documentary Saving Jazz, which followed Leonard on his painful return home and his efforts to rebuild his life’s work. In 2008, Leonard was the first photographer to be granted a Grammy Foundation Grant for Preservation and Archiving, enabling him to digitize, catalogue and preserve his collection of nearly 60,000 jazz negatives.

At the time of his death, Leonard was generally regarded as the pre-eminent jazz photographer of the 20th Century. Beginning in 1994, fellow jazz photographer Lee Tanner curated an annual section for JazzTimes called “Indelible Images,” with select photos from a half dozen noted photographers each year. Leonard was one of the first to be featured in that section and in the 16 years that followed he was a frequent contributor to the publication.

To see many of Leonard’s photographs, you can visit his web site.

This obituary uses material from a press release received from Leonard’s estate after his death.

Originally Published