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Jazz Photographer Lee Tanner Dies at 82

Documented the jazz scene for more than five decades

Lee Tanner, whose photographs of jazz icons documented the music for more than 50 years, died Sept. 7 at age 82 in Sonora, Calif, where he had retired after spending many years in Berkeley. The cause of death was not divulged.

Tanner, who was also an award-winning metallurgist, photographed such jazz legends as Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Chet Baker, Charles Mingus, Ella Fitzgerald, Stan Getz and Oscar Peterson during his career.

Born in New York City in 1931, Tanner became a jazz fan at age 8 and a photography lover during his teens. He spent much of his childhood in Boston, a city he returned to as an adult. In 1945, at the age of 14, he obtained his first camera. While in college, he hosted a campus radio show and worked on the weekends at the Sam Goody record store in midtown Manhattan, where he was the sole jazz expert.

Following his college graduation, he was drafted into the U.S. Army. Returning to civilian life in 1955, he entered graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania. Tanner received a Masters Degree in Metallurgy and Materials Science in 1958. It was during this time in Philadelphia that Tanner began his photography of the jazz scene at local nightclubs.

After living in Chicago for a brief time, in 1960 Tanner’s career brought him back to Boston where, in addition to photographing in clubs and at concerts, he also captured the performers on the WGBH television program Jazz. By the late-’60s, he was producing his own weekly live music television program on the PBS station, Mixed Bag, which featured jazz, jazz-rock, blues and folk.

Tanner next moved to New Jersey, where he lived until 1980. His scientific career proceeded in parallel with his photography of jazz musicians for four decades. He had numerous one-man shows in galleries and jazz clubs across the country, including the Jazz Gallery in New York City and Vision Gallery, Kimball’s East and Yoshi’s in the San Francisco Bay area, as well as at the jazz festivals in Newport, San Francisco and Monterey. He was also responsible for mounting a series of group exhibits under the title “The Jazz Image.”

In 1958, DownBeat was the first magazine to publish his work, and his images have appeared in many national and international publications over the years, including JazzTimes, where he curated thematic photo essays. His work also graced numerous album covers.

Tanner published four books of photography: Dizzy (1994), Images of Jazz (1996), Images of the Blues (1998) and The Jazz Image…Masters of Jazz Photography (2006), the latter an anthology of images by 27 photographers.

In 2006, Tanner received the Excellence in Photography Award from the Jazz Journalists Association. In 2010, he was presented with the Lucie Award for Achievement in Documentary.

Originally Published