The legendary American photographer famous for his photos of jazz greats such as Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker and Miles Davis, has died. He was 87. Leonard died Aug. 14 at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, according to his publicist.
Leonard was the official photographer for the Montreal Jazz Festival, where he captured images of legends such as Tony Bennett and Dave Brubeck. In June 2010, the Montreal Jazz Festival awarded Leonard the Bruce Lundvall Award for his lifetime contribution to jazz.
His career spanned more than 50 years, beginning in 1947 when he became an apprentice with Ottawa-based master portrait photographer, Yousuf Karsh.
He photographed Albert Einstein, Martha Graham and other cultural icons for Karsh and Karsh encouraged him to break out on his own.
“I know you have it in you to be a great photographer. Go out and conquer,” Karsh said to him.Tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon was photographed by Herman Leonard in 1948 at the Royal Roost in New York. (Herman Leonard Photography)Leonard moved to New York and made arrangements with club owners there to photograph their musicians for marquee images. He formed lifelong friendships with Dizzy Gillespie, Quincy Jones and Bennett in this period.
On Monday, Jones paid tribute to his old friend.
“The importance of Herman’s jazz images transcends their visual appeal,” he said. “They are documents of historic significance, cataloguing the development of one of the greatest art forms in American history.”
Leonard rapidly became known for his smoky black and white images of jazz greats and celebrities.
In 1956 Leonard was chosen to be Marlon Brando’s personal photographer for an extensive research trip to the Far East. In the late 1950s Leonard moved to Paris and continued to photograph the jazz scene, as well as taking on fashion and editorial photography.
In the 1980s, he moved from Paris to the island of Ibiza, and began putting together a book based on his jazz negatives. In 1985, he released his first book, The Eye of Jazz, and in 1988, he put together a hugely successful exhibit of his photographs in London.
In 1992, Leonard moved to New Orleans and immersed himself in the city’s lively jazz scene while continuing to do solo shows around the world. He released his second book, Jazz Memories, in 1995, an acclaimed work that earned him accolades.
Bennett was quoted by Leonard’s publicist paying tribute to the legacy the photographer has left.
“Herman is my favourite artist of any technique. He’s a painter with his camera, and he makes it look so effortless. His timing is as great as any Charlie Parker solo or Lester Young or Count Basie beat,” the singer said.
A 1947 portrait of Herman Leonard by Yousuf Karsh. (Herman Leonard Estate)In 2005, Leonard’s home and studio in New Orleans were severely damaged in Hurricane Katrina and his archive of over 8,000 prints was lost. Fortunately, his negatives were saved as they were housed at The Ogden Museum of Southern Art.
Leonard, then 82, relocated to Los Angeles and began to rebuild his life and business there, a struggle that was captured in the 2006 documentary Saving Jazz.
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.
He remained active into 2010, photographing Lenny Kravitz this January during a studio session in the Bahamas. In November, his final book, Jazz, will be released.
R.I.P. and may his soul rest in peace…