Thursday, August 19, 2010

All That Jazz

Herman Leonard
Rest In Peace

"Quincy Jones once said, 'I used to tell cats that Herman Leonard did with his camera what we did with our instruments. Looking back across his career, I’m even more certain of the comparison: Herman’s camera tells the truth, and makes it swing. Musicians loved to see him around. No surprise; he made us look good.'

With their rich blacks, whites and silvers, the sense of images both fleeting and permanent, Herman Leonard’s photographs look beautiful and astonishing, the way the music was then, and still is; they look, as the great critic Whitney Balliett famously said of jazz itself, 'Like the sound of surprise.' Leonard caught the musicians in performance, but also at ease, or at home, or backstage, as if a friend had dropped by: Louis Armstrong with a sandwich and a bottle of champagne, or Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn sharing a cigarette by the piano. Herman’s images seem imbued with the friendship and collaboration that is the essence of jazz.

The special quality of the photographs is in the iconic beauty of the pictures, the way Leonard made up the language of jazz photography, the fact that when people think jazz, as often as not, they see his pictures. There’s something else, something indefinable that is revealed in the photographs: Herman really knew his subjects; they were his friends, they gave him access. The photographs — Billie Holiday just released from jail, Frank Sinatra, melancholy in a recording session — show an intimacy and trust and a kind of love for the man on the other side of the camera who always told the truth.

Herman was in love with his subjects and the musicians knew it. They felt it. They let him in not just because he took wonderful pictures and evolved as a master printmaker, a genius at exquisite detail, of light and shade, but because you couldn’t make these pictures unless you were Herman. They are, in that sense, an act of being Herman Leonard.

Herman Leonard’s photographs have given generations of jazz lovers a way in, as if we’d been there in New York at the Roost or Birdland or later in Paris or San Francisco. I look at them, and I can feel Herman there, the Herman who tells a great joke, and is also deeply humane, a great artist, a profoundly good man. A mensch.

And now Herman is gone. When I got the news that he had died, I looked at his photographs on my wall and I recalled what Tony Bennett said when he heard Frank Sinatra was no longer with us: 'I don’t have to believe that.'" -Reggie Nadelson [taken from Herman Leonard's official website]

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