Published: July 18, 2006
The greatest jazz musicians of all time and the jazz scene of the 1940s through the 1960s are the subject of a new exhibition of photography that opens at the Bruce Museum on July 22 and continues through October 22. “Jazz Greats: Herman Leonard Photographs From the Bruce Museum Collection” features the images by a photographer whose passion for jazz drew him to New York City’s swinging clubs of Broadway, 52nd Street and Harlem beginning in the late 1940s.
With the camera as his free ticket, Herman Leonard photographed and developed friendships with many of the luminaries of jazz history, including Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington and Theolonious Monk.
These photographs, all given to the Bruce Museum by Gloria and Fernando Barnuevo in 2004, are now part of the museum’s permanent collection.
Leonard’s background in photography included a year’s apprenticeship in 1947 with the famed portraitist Yousuf Karsh, with whom he gained invaluable experience photographing the likes of Albert Einstein, President Harry S. Truman and Clark Gable. In 1948, Leonard opened a studio in New York City’s Greenwich Village, where he did commercial work for Life, Look, Esquire, Playboy and Cosmopolitan, and made portraits of movie and theater stars. At night, he haunted the jazz nightclubs using a Speed Graphic press camera to produce portraits of the most famous names of jazz as well as those beloved by jazz insiders.
These photographs document an explosive time in the history of jazz. Musicians were traveling not only with the Big Bands throughout the United States but also through Europe. Leonard photographed them all: Charlie Parke in the midst of one of his madcap performances on the saxophone, taken a few years before his untimely death; a radiant Lena Horne; Stan Getz at Birdland; Ella Fitzgerald, the First Lady of Song, at the Downbeat Club; Dinah Washington at the mike at the Newport Jazz Festival; Louis Armstrong and his horn; and many others.
Leonard’s photographic career took many interesting anddiverse turns. In 1956, Marlon Brando chose Leonard as his personalphotographer for a trip to the Far East to research Teahouse ofthe August Moon. Upon returning, Leonard moved to Paris toassume the position as chief photographer for the French musiclabel Barclay Records.
He also worked for many years as the European photographer for Playboy magazine and did reportage as well as fashion and advertising for such firms as Dior, Chanel and Yves St Laurent, among others. In 1980, he moved to the island of Ibiza, Spain, where he spent seven years raising his family. It was there that he rediscovered the forgotten jazz negatives in a box under his bed.
In 1988, his jazz photographs were first shown in London with great success. Since then, Leonard has had more than 85 exhibitions worldwide. The Smithsonian Institution in Washington has honored him by requesting his entire collection for their permanent archives of musical history.
In 1996, President Bill Clinton requested a collection of Herman’s work to present to the King of Thailand, an avid jazz musician, as an official gift from the United States government. In addition, Leonard has produced two books: The Eye of Jazz and Jazz Memories, a personal photographic diary of his early career.
The Bruce Museum is at 1 Museum Drive. For information, www.brucemuseum.org or 203-869-0376.
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