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November 29, 2005

Leonard’s A Life in Jazz photographs combine carcinogens and sax appeal

Cool—a word synonymous with jazz—seizes the beat of a generation, the rhythm of a culture. The music resonates even in two dimensions of black and white. Herman Leonard shot what he saw. His photographs captured moments which words could never do justice to. We see Miles; we see Bird and Diz. Don’t forget Ella, Monk, The Duke, and, of course, The Chairman of the Board. These are not simple portraits, but rather windows into incomparable geniuses.

The Catherine Edelman Gallery is showcasing the photography of Herman Leonard in the exhibition A Life With Jazz. The camera was his instrument, and he played it to a tune of light and composition. The pictures are those of a casual yet aware observer. Not once do they fall into the realm of clichés, nor do they intrude on the delicate realism present in each instant.

If these photographs prove anything other than the beauty of jazz, it is most certainly just how cool smoking looks on camera. Sure, smoking kills. (What doesn’t?) But long before that preoccupation, it invoked the mystique and aura surrounding the subject. Smoking may kill the person, but it lets the persona live on. Smoke rises from the face of tenor saxophonist, Dexter Gordon. Johnny Hodges looks off to the side, cigarette in one hand, and sax in the other. Cool is all. Nothing else is needed.

Certainly, carcinogens are not all that color this black and white exhibit. It is an intimate portrayal of Leonard’s two true loves, jazz and photography. Since his 20s, the music had pushed his own art. Now, at 82, this retrospective has given him time to reflect on, but not to stop, his craft. A shot of a shirtless Lenny Kravitz is a part of his 21st century experience. Nevertheless, the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s dominate the exhibit—as they should.

Art Blakey roars as he viciously attacks his drum set. Charlie Parker sits pensively as the band watches and waits. In a 1949 image, he stands next to fellow musical pioneer Dizzy Gillespie. Bird’s calling was always jazz. Louis Armstrong is dog-tired; in front of two bottles of champagne and some wine, the legend wipes his face as if he had just finished an entire set. Count Basie finds time for a Windsor knot. He stands at the end of a hallway, adjusting his tie in a pre-performance ritual. Female singers are a major part of this collection. Ella, Lena Horne, Dinah Washington, and Billie Holiday are seen belting out grand notes to the pleasure of the audience.

Practice, practice, practice—Monk leans over a piano, pen and cigarette in each hand. He writes and perfects what would become another of his brilliantly idiosyncratic compositions. Thelonious Sphere Monk’s life, his personality, shines through these photos. Leonard vividly documented the progression of many musicians over the whole of their career.

Miles at Birdland, ’49. Miles at Montreux, ’91. Many “miles” have since passed, but the trumpeter kept on blowing. His face has become weathered since his days as a Julliard dropout; his limitless talent allowed him to continually reinvent himself. Miles Davis was captured expertly once again by Herman Leonard.

The camera connected Leonard to this century’s musical deities. What started with his brother’s camera soon became a lifelong obsession. He learned on the job, schooled in smoke-filled classrooms. Jazz clubs were Leonard’s paradise, and A Life With Jazz is his journey that bops and moves rhythmically through time. It is a portrait not only of the musicians in the pictures, but of the photographer within and behind the shots. Herman Leonard, defined by the music and sound that is lost in photos. Still, through it all, from it all, Leonard, like his subjects, is undeniably cool.