In 1948, Herman Leonard learned the art of photography from his professor, master portraitist Yousuf Karsh, in Ottawa. The following year, he spent some time in Montreal… and hasn’t set foot here since! Sixty years after the renowned photographer last crossed our threshold, the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal is thrilled to be inaugurating the new exhibition hall in the Maison du Festival Rio Tinto Alcan with a portfolio of Herman Leonard’s works in September. Moreover, the 86-year-old artist has accepted the Festival’s invitation to visit us this summer, right in the middle of our 30th anniversary festivities, to enrich his portfolio with live shots of some of the great musicians playing this anniversary edition.
As representative of the history of American music as Benny Goodman’s clarinet or Louis Armstrong’s trumpet, Herman Leonard’s snapshots, now displayed in collections, reveal a panorama of the jazz scene from 1940 to 1960. Born in Pennsylvania in 1923, Herman had his eureka moment at 9, watching his brother develop a photographic image in a darkroom. After studies in photography at Ohio University-interrupted by World War II-he moved to Ottawa (all the while frequenting Montreal) and apprenticed under Yousuf Karsh. While studying under the master portraitist, Leonard shot such notable figures as Albert Einstein and Clark Gable. His love for jazz then led him straight to New York, where Broadway, 52nd Street and Harlem would quickly become his stomping grounds. Using his camera as a passkey, he wove through the city’s jazz clubs, reinventing the likes of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday and Duke Ellington through his lens. After a stint as Marlon Brando’s personal photographer, he moved to Paris and worked as a fashion and advertising photographer, and for Playboy Magazine. From there it was on to Ibiza, where he renewed his love affair with jazz, and then New Orleans, where he would become deeply involved in the city’s ’90s jazz scene. Awarded an Honorary Masters of Science in Photography by the Brooks Institute of Photography, Leonard continues to collect awards of excellence for his art (including the Grammy Foundation Grant for Archiving and Preservation in 2008, the Milt Hinton Award for Excellence in Jazz Photography from the Jazz Photographer’s Association in 1999, the Excellence in Photography Award from the Jazz Journalists Association in 2000 and a Lifetime Achievement Award from Downbeat Magazine in 2004) and exhibits his work all over the world. The permanent archives of the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C. hold 130 of his works; Jazz at Lincoln Center, the George Eastman House in Rochester and the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in Los Angeles can boast of pieces in their collections, as can such private collectors as Sir Elton John, Bruce Bernard and His Majesty, King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand.