The Associated Press reported that Jazz scene photographer Herman
Leonard, famous for his smoky, backlighted black-and-white photos of
such greats as Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Louis
Armstrong, Miles Davis and Frank Sinatra, has died. He was 87.
Leonard, who moved to Los Angeles after Hurricane Katrina flooded his New Orleans home and destroyed thousands of his prints, died Saturday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, family spokeswoman Geraldine Baum said on his website. The cause of death wasn’t disclosed.
Leonard was considered one of the great mid-century jazz scene photographers. He started in the late 1940s and left a rich chronicle of a musical era with photos taken in New York, Paris and London through the 1960s.
He recently had an exhibition at Fahey/Klein Gallery, Los Angeles with fellow music photographers William Claxton (1927-2008) and Jim Marshall who passed away a week prior to the opening reception in March.
He was studying photography at Ohio University when he was called to duty in the U.S. Army during World War II. He returned to college and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1947.
He moved to New York the following year, after an apprenticeship with
famed portrait photographer Yousuf Karsh taking pictures of Albert
Einstein, Martha Graham and other cultural icons.
He then became immersed in the jazz scene, making deals with club owners to photograph rehearsals and giving them photos for their marquees.
Using a large 4-by-5 Speed Graphic camera, he shot Art Tatum, Dizzy Gillespie, Sarah Vaughan and countless other jazz greats in the smoky haze of jazz clubs. In 1956, he was Marlon Brando’s personal photographer on a trip to the Far East.
While his prints were lost in the New Orleans hurricane, his 60,000 negatives were safe, having been sent before Katrina to the Ogden Museum. His return to New Orleans was chronicled in the 2006 BBC/Sundance documentary “Saving Jazz.”
In 2008, he was the first photographer to be granted a Grammy
Foundation Grant for Preservation and Archiving, enabling him to
digitize, catalog and preserve his collection of nearly 60,000 jazz
Last year, Leonard was the official photographer for the Montreal Jazz Festival, photographing legends such as Tony Bennett and Dave Brubeck. The Smithsonian has more than 130 Leonard photographs in its permanent collection.