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Herman Leonard :: Interview
by Anatoly Kiryushkin, April 1998

In the late 1940's, Herman Leonard's passion for jazz brought him to the swinging clubs of Broadway, 52nd Street and Harlem. With the camera as his free ticket, he photographed and developed friendships with some of the greats of jazz history including Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington and many more.

A year's apprenticeship with Yousuf Karsh provided invaluable experience photographing the likes of Albert Einstein, Harry S. Truman and Clark Gable. In 1956 Leonard was chosen to be Marlon Brando's personal photographer for an extensive research trip to the Far East.

In the late 1950's Leonard headed for Paris where he worked in fashion and advertising and served as the European photographer for Playboy Magazine. Finally, in the 1980's, Leonard left the glitz of Paris behind and moved to the island paradise of Ibiza to raise his family. It was there, in a cardboard box stashed under his bed, that Leonard discovered his long forgotten accumulation of jazz negatives, negatives that were destined to yield one of the world's photographic treasures.

In 1988, his first ever jazz exhibition in London was a huge success. Since then, over 100 exhibitions have been held around the world. The Smithsonian Institution in Washinton DC has honored him by housing his entire collection in the permanent archives of musical history. President Clinton presented a portfolio of Leonard's prints as an official gift from the United States government to a fellow musician, the King of Thailand.

Leonard's work has become a ubiquitous presence in contemporary culture. Whatever the medium, whether print, documentary or popular film, the jazz photographs of Herman Leonard appear as companion to the great musicians who created the unique sounds of America's original art form

Leonard has published Jazz Memories, a personal photographic diary of his early career and a sequel to The Eye of Jazz. Now settled in New Orleans, Herman is working on a collection of photographs to capture the spirit of New Orleans.


Velasquez became famous painting kings having no interest in politics but Toulouse-Lautrec was painting dancers because being fond of Moulin Rouge. Whatís more important to become a famous jazz photographer, to be a professional or a music lover?

In any field, be it photography, music, or training elephants....if you love what you are doing, you will succeed. So obviously, if I am good at photographing jazz musicians, I must really like the subject. An elephant trainer must really like elephants to be good at it. Yes, I like jazz...always have.

Do you think that you made the best photos from the musicians which played music you liked most of all?

The "best" photos I've made were never by design or preference for the musician. It's that they were great visual subjects...like Dexter Gordon who gave me my most popular image. He was extremely interesting to photograph but not necessarily my favorite tenor-man. But the best subject I've ever photographed was Miles Davis...by far the most intriguing. And along with Dizzy, my most preferred trumpet man. And he gave me my most satisfying series of pictures...powerful images and moments I'll never forget.

Do musicians understand that the most of the world see them through a cameraís lenses and at moments of a photographerís choice?

I don't think musicians care much how the world sees them in pictures. There are good and bad photographers. There is no control over that.

Itís often happen that an artistís pet works are connected with particular personal memories and not well recognized by spectators. Does public opinion about Your works always the same as Your own?

No. Public opinion of my work is not always the same as mine. That's normal. We are all individuals and see things differently. I have personal images that mean a lot to me that others cannot grasp because they weren't there at the time.

When did you get interested in jazz music and who are Your favorite musicians?

As a child I found jazz more fun and lively than Brahms and Beethoven. Favorite musicians? Many. Mostly from the Be-bop era...Dizzy, Miles, Monk, Basie, Bird, Fats Navarro, Duke Ellington, Max Roach, Ray Brown, Ealla, Sarah, Billie, Louis Armstrong, Tatum...and more. Enough?

What do you think about contemporary jazz music especially the penetration of electric and now electronic into jazz?

I have nothing against Contemporary jazz except I find it boring. Very often, the musicians don't seem to have much individuality. Electronics are O.K. if they are used with imagination and taste.

Unlike pop, rock and even classic musicians, jazzmen have much longer working life,- itís really hard to find a jazz musician ďat pensionĒ. Do people with huge life energy tend to play jazz or the music helps musicians to remain young through the whole life?

All creative people...musicians, painters, comics,...it doesn't matter seem to live longer active lives. Doing what you like to do is the key. Doing what gives you a return that's more than money. It makes living much more enjoyable...so I guess that tranlates into a longer life-span. I'll be 75 on March 6th and I feel like 45! I have many things to accomplish...something new everyday.
published 30.06.2005© 2005 jazz news :: home page

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