When Jazz Was King: The Photographs of Herman Leonard at the National Portrait Gallery

Photo: Duke Ellington by Herman Leonard. Gelatin silver print, 1958.

In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit and laid to waste so many lives in the city of New Orleans. The home and studio of photographer Herman Leonard (1923–2010) was destroyed when the 17th Canal Levee broke near his home. The storm claimed 8,000 silver gelatin prints Leonard had made; fortunately, Herman’s crew had gathered the negatives and placed them in the care of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art. But Leonard’s time in New Orleans had come to a close after nearly a quarter of a century on the local jazz and blues scene. Leonard relocated to Studio City, California, where he spent his final years re-establishing his business.

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And what a business it was. Leonard recounted his early years in an interview with JazzWax, recalling, “I opened my first studio on Sullivan Street in New York’s Greenwich Village in 1948. I worked free-lance for magazines and spent my spare time at places like the Royal Roost and Birdland. I did this because I loved the music. I couldn’t wait to be with Lester Young at a club and hear him and photograph him playing his music. I hoped that on film I could preserve what I heard. It didn’t hurt that I got into the clubs for free. My photographs helped publicize the clubs, so owners let me in.”

Billie Holiday by Herman Leonard. Gelatin silver print, 1949

Billie Holiday by Herman Leonard. Gelatin silver print, 1949

This is where it all began. Leonard was in the thick of it, hitting up the clubs, photographing the legends in their prime as no one had ever done, capturing golden age of the jazz world on film. Just imagine it: Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Lena Horne, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Sarah Vaughan—he list goes on. Leonard observed, “I saw photographing jazz artists as a visual diary of what I was hearing. I wanted to preserve the mood and atmosphere as much as possible. My goal was to capture these artists at the height of their finest creative moments.”

He did just this, in no small measure of the word. In celebration, the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C., presents Into the Groove: Jazz Portraits by Herman Leonard, on view now through February 20, 2017. The 28 photographs featured here were selected from a limited-edition, 30-print portfolio made by Leonard in 1998. The portfolio features photographs shot between 1948 and 1960, showcasing the most iconic portraits of jazz vocalists and musicians across the scene, from Dixieland and swing to bebop and jazz.

Charlie Parker by Herman Leonard. Gelatin silver print, 1949

Charlie Parker by Herman Leonard. Gelatin silver print, 1949

The beauty of a Herman Leonard photograph is how cool everyone looks, how they deftly combine a sense of artistry, beauty, grace, and finesse, bringing to mind the words of Nina Simone who observed, “Jazz is a white term to define black people. My music is black classical music.”

Leonard’s photographs illustrate Simone’s words perfectly. His extraordinary sensitivity to the nightclub environment enabled him to translate the experience flawlessly, like an alchemist transforming three dimensions into two while simultaneously muting what you came to hear. For all the words a photograph speaks, it never utters a word, let along sings a song or plays a lick of music.

Sarah Vaughan by Herman Leonard. Gelatin silver print, 1949

Sarah Vaughan by Herman Leonard. Gelatin silver print, 1949

Yet somehow it doesn’t matter in the least. Gazing upon a Leonard photograph, in the silence you can hear the rhythms syncopate, the crests rise and swell, the horns blare, the drums beat. The photograph brings it life, once again, like a show where the crowd is shouting, “Encore! Encore!” until they play another song.

All photos: National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution © Herman Leonard Photography, LLC.


Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.