“In 1948, fresh from a valuable year-long apprenticeship with master portraitist Yousuf Karsh, photographer Herman Leonard (1923–2010) opened his first studio in New York City’s Greenwich Village. His timing could not have been better, at least as far as jazz was concerned. The swing era, with its big bands and full orchestrations, was giving way to small ensembles experimenting with bebop and cool jazz. Now, instead of dancing to the music, patrons sat and listened as groundbreaking musicians like Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Max Roach created musical “conversations” through inspired improvisation. Leonard’s own infatuation with the genre led him to haunt the city’s smoky clubs and crowded nightspots. There, armed with his bulky Speed Graphic camera, he recorded evocative images that captured the very essence of a live jazz performance. Before long, his extraordinary photographs were finding their way to album covers and the pages of DownBeat and Metronome magazines.
The New York chapter of Leonard’s career came to a close in 1956, when he moved to Paris. In the years that followed, he built a successful career as a commercial photographer, specializing in editorial work and advertising. Leonard did not revisit his jazz negatives until the 1980s, when the publication of a book of his portraits introduced a new generation to his iconic photographs of the legends of jazz.” — Introductory Wall Text
“Thanks to these remarkable photographs, we have front-row seats to a golden era in American jazz,” said Ann Shumard, senior curator of photographs at the National Portrait Gallery and exhibition curator. “They transport us to the intimate, smoke-filled nightspots where Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker and Buddy Rich performed groundbreaking music.”
Images courtesy National Portrait Gallery.