Herman Leonard’s photos are unmistakable. Jazz enthusiasts everywhere with large record collections will be familiar with his work, which has adorned the covers of jazz albums by legends such as Duke Ellington, Miles Davis and Dexter Gordon.
Odd angles, often shot from below the subject; stark contrasts between black and white tones; smoke circling lazily in the air; the images capture the dim and sometimes dingy culture of jazz in the 50s and 60s, as this gallery collection shows. A young Miles Davis with an ankle crossed over one knee casually plays; Dizzy Gillespie amidst phantom-like swirls of smoke above his head; drummer Art Blakey is pictured truly caught up in the music; the great bandleader Duke Ellington appears all alone at the piano on a concert-hall stage; Frank Sinatra gestures with his cigarette from behind a radio microphone. These images capture the transient nature of jazz: improvised, spontaneous music that sings one moment and is gone the next, never to be repeated live.
Perhaps the most memorable for me is the portrait of Dexter Gordon: smoke curls and twists around him like one of Gordon’s own melodic improvisations. There’s a casual feel to the image, a languor imparted by the tilt of Gordon’s head, the hat-brim turned up from the forehead, the cigarette between the fingers. Taken when he was twenty-five years old, he looks lost in contemplation, at ease with himself. There are other musicians around him: the bell of a trumpet protrudes from the left-hand side, and a drummer grins in the dimness behind him, sharing a joke with another player outside the picture on the right. But it’s Gordon’s moment, lit from above-left in an almost celestial fashion.
Once seen, never forgotten: Herman Leonard’s jazz photographs are the quintessence of jazz music made visual.