The Lyman Allyn Art Museum (Conn.) presents Herman Leonard: Jazz Memories, an exhibition that will feature thirty photographs from Leonard’s Jazz Memories series, displayed together for the first time since they came to the Museum in 1998. The exhibition will be on view from January 22 through May 29, 2016.
Among the greatest of all jazz photographers, Herman Leonard created iconic portraits that shaped the image of jazz music and its identity in the American psyche. In the late 1940’s, both jazz music and the country were on the brink of tumultuous change. In the recession that followed World War II, the swinging sound of big bands gave way to smaller ensemble groups and the modernist innovations of bebop. Newly arrived in New York City, photographer and jazz fan Herman Leonard spent his nights in the smoky clubs of 52nd Street, Broadway and Harlem. Trading publicity shots for cover admission fees, he got a front row seat to the finest musicians of the age – Ellington, Gillespie, Parker and Holiday, among others.
Jazz, American’s most original musical form, born at the intersection of southern spirituals and the blues, had always spoken to music lovers across racial divides in spite of the discrimination faced by its most talented creators. Images of these musicians, including Leonard’s, appearing in popular magazines and the broader culture, helped establish the innovations of African American jazz musicians as works of genius.
Herman Leonard (1923-2010) was proficient with a camera from an early age. Leonard studied photography at Ohio University in Athens until he was drafted in 1942. For two years he trekked the Burma Road from Assam to Mandalay, photographing his travels and developing the negatives on moonless nights using his helmet as a chemical bath.
Completing his degree after the war, Leonard apprenticed with famed portraitist Yousuf Karsh, helping him photograph such famous figures as Albert Einstein, President Harry Truman and General Dwight Eisenhower.
Leonard opened his first studio in Greenwich Village, shooting actors’ portraits and commercial magazine assignments. At night, he haunted small jazz clubs, trading publicity shots for entrance fees. The photos he created became iconic representations of the most revered jazz musicians of the time, some of whom became personal friends. Soon he was shooting album covers and publicity photos for major record labels.
In the 1980’s, Leonard unearthed his old jazz negatives for an exhibition at a small London gallery. The exhibition was an unprecedented success and led to numerous shows in the U.S., Europe and Asia, as well as the publication of two volumes, L’oeil du Jazz (The Eye of Jazz) in 1989, followed by Jazz Memories in 1995.
After his New Orleans home was destroyed in Hurricane Katrina, Leonard established a new studio in California, where he continued to work until his death in 2010.
Check the museum website at www.lymanallyn.org and Facebook page for updates and additional programming.