Brain Pickings

Rare Photos of Jazz Icons by Herman Leonard

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Last winter, The Jazz Loft Project was one of readers’ favorites — a rare and fascinating look at the secret life of a New York loft, where some of the most iconic jazz musicians of the 1950s came to play at night. This season brings us a greater treasure still: Jazz — a humbly titled yet absolutely amazing retrospective of the work of legendary photographer Herman Leonard, who passed away a few weeks before the book was published. Leonard had been photographing jazz musicians since the 1950s and developed close friendships with greats like Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, which gave him unique access to these innovators and their larger worlds beyond the stage. The book reveals a rare glimpse of the underbelly of a cultural revolution through stunning, luminous never-before-seen images of icons like Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Ella Fitzgerald and more.

Frank Sinatra

Image courtesy of Herman Leonard

Louis Armstrong, Paris, 1960

Image courtesy of Herman Leonard via NPR

Billie Holiday, New York, 1955

Image courtesy of Herman Leonard via NPR

Thelonious Monk, Minton's Playhouse, New York, 1949

Image courtesy of Herman Leonard via NPR

From backstage parties to afterhours sessions to private get-togethers in musicians’ apartments, Jazz is both a bittersweet remembrance of one of the greatest entertainment photographers in history and a remarkable record of an era whose legacy shaped everything from music to pop culture for decades to come.


Percy Heath, Miles Davis and Gerry Mulligan, Newport Jazz Festival, 1955

Image courtesy of Herman Leonard via NPR

Dizzy Gillespie, San Francisco, 1990

Image courtesy of Herman Leonard via NPR

Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, NYC, New York, 1948

Image courtesy of Herman Leonard

Frank Sinatra

Image courtesy of Herman Leonard

Charlie Parker

Image courtesy of Herman Leonard

Lena Horne

Image courtesy of Herman Leonard

Doc Cheatham

Image courtesy of Herman Leonard

Ella Fitzgerald

Image courtesy of Herman Leonard

Duke Ellington

Image courtesy of Herman Leonard

Alongside the images is a fascinating essay contextualizing the stories behind the photographs, as well as an interview with Leonard pulling the curtain on his signature techniques and unique creative vision.

With its vibrant, exhilarating record of live performances and its intimate portraits of musicians’ off-stage personas, Jazz is a priceless timecapsule of the glory days of “the sound of surprise,” a cultural icon in its own right.

via NPR

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