For over five decades, American photographer Herman Leonard has been a part of the international jazz community. Too poor to afford the entrance fees to jazz clubs in the late 1940s, Leonard traded prints of the performers for access. The musicians were very pleased with the results; Leonard’s images have appeared on over 200 album covers and he is regarded as the preeminent jazz photographer.
Born in Allentown, Pennsylvania in 1923, Leonard served as a medic in Burma during World War II. After earning his BFA from Ohio University, the only school in the United States that offered a degree in photography, Leonard apprenticed with Yosef Karsh, the famous Canadian portrait photographer. He then moved to New York and opened a portrait studio in Greenwich Village. In addition to photographing the city’s dancers, singers, and actors, Leonard worked for Life, Esquire, Look, Cosmopolitan, andPlayboy. He spent his free time in clubs, documenting the most influential musicians during jazz’s heyday. Making the most of the ambient light in dark and smoky venues, Leonard’s dramatically lit images of Nat King Cole, Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, and Duke Ellington in the 1940s and 50s immortalized both the artists and the rapidly disappearing clubs on 52nd Street. Leonard also captured the dynamic performances of Louis Armstrong, Dinah Washington, and others at the annual Newport Jazz Festival.
Leonard relocated to Paris to work for Barclay Records and then branched off into fashion photography and photojournalism. He and his family moved to Ibiza in 1980. In 1988 Leonard returned to the United States, settling in New Orleans. Hurricane Katrina destroyed the photographer’s studio as well as thousands of prints. Most of his negatives, however, were saved. Leonard now lives in Studio City, California, where he works with musicians and filmmakers.