Herman Leonard, 87

IT’S BEEN a rather rough week. Now, Herman Leonard. A photographer who masterfully conveyed a very particular “jazz mood” like no other. On a trip to London in my early 20s, one of my most important finds was beautiful print of Leonard’s famous shot of Lester Young’s porkpie. The poster, bent and tattered from a long trip, hung in a prominent place on my Echo Park wall for more than a decade — everything else had to sort of work around it.

His work set the mood for the music that lay between those cardboard LP sleeves.He shot jazz’s defining royalty — Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillispie, Dexter Gordon, among them. This dreamy shot of Stan Getz from 1949, depicted the beatific sounds that emanated from the bell of his tenor, instead of all of the other coarse whispering around him. Leonard seemed to be able to find something more complex than the essence of the musician — both that and a sense of the music and milieu that traveled in. Tough for something as abstract and in motion as jazz.

Leonard who had been living in New Orleans since the early 90s, lost his entire archive — more than 8,000 prints — after the flood following Hurricane Katrina. His negatives, thankfully, were all stored at The Ogden Museum of Southern Art and escaped damage.

He’d spent the last few years in Los Angeles. A friend of mine used to see him frequently in a restaurant “over the hill,” enjoying his favorite meal there — the cassoulet — and if you were lucky, he’d tell a story or two, a snapshot from his long life appreciating he finer things.

photos via Morrison Hotel,


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