Blue period: Herman Leonard’s portraits of the biggest stars in jazz

The late photographer Herman Leonard captured the greats of the jazz era like no other, recalls his friend Reggie Nadelson
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Late one night in 1949, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and the rest of the quintet had just finished their last set at the Royal Roost club on 47th and Broadway in New York. With them that night, as on many others, was Herman Leonard, a young photographer. They liked the unassuming white kid, a skinny, handsome young guy with a pencil moustache, who seemed able to catch the music itself in the pictures he made, with a couple of small spotlights and his trusty Speed Graphic camera.

"It was my project to make a visual diary of what I heard," Herman Leonard told me. "To make people see the way the music sounded. I wanted to do with light what artists do with a line sketch: show the whole character. I had two lights; it was all I could afford."

Over the years, Leonard, who died in August, took photographs of all the jazz greats in New York clubs like the Roost and Birdland. Bebop was being born and Leonard found a way to capture the look.

"I used to tell cats that Herman Leonard did with his camera what we did with our instruments," says Quincy Jones. "Herman's camera tells the truth, and makes it swing. Musicians loved to see him around. No surprise – he made us look good."

Tony Bennett agrees: "He's a painter with his camera. Look at the ray of light on Duke Ellington that shows his spirituality; look at how he put Art Tatum's hands, the greatest pianist ever, who was blind, in the foreground; Chet Baker, handsome as Montgomery Clift; Count Basie playing baseball in Central Park. Herman's photos made a documentary of that era."

The photographs are often so immediate that they're like frames from a movie. In one, Ella Fitzgerald sings to an audience at a club. First, you see the audience, and then you realise that at the table in front are Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman. Look carefully at the photograph of Erroll Garner, and from the background emerge those wannabe hip young guys, suits and skinny ties, who frequented the jazz clubs of the 1940s and 1950s. At Brasserie Lipp in Paris in 1958, you see Johnny Hodges seated in a booth watching coolly while a French waiter serves him, pouring a glass of wine. Hodges is black; the waiter is white. Many of Herman Leonard's photographs tell a complicated story; sometimes you have to look two or three or 10 times to see it all.

Herman Leonard caught the musicians in performance, but also at ease, or at home, or backstage, as if a friend had dropped by: Louis Armstrong with a sandwich and a bottle of champagne, or Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, sharing a cigarette by the piano. Herman's images seem imbued with the friendship and collaboration that is the essence of jazz.

The special quality of the photographs is in the iconic beauty of the pictures, the way Leonard made up the language of jazz photography, the fact that when people

think jazz, as often as not, they see his pictures. There's something else: Herman really knew his subjects; they were his friends, they gave him access. The photographs – Billie Holiday just released from jail, Frank Sinatra, melancholy in a recording session – show an intimacy and trust and a kind of love for the man on the other side of the camera who always told the truth.

The majority of Leonard's great jazz photos were taken in the 1940s and 1950s, but he photographed some of the musicians over a lifetime. There are pictures of Dizzy Gillespie, a young man kidding around with his band, and pictures of the venerable master on the set of Sesame Street. Herman photographed Miles Davis from 1947 until Miles's death in 1991. Nobody got that much of Miles; most people hardly got anything at all.

I remember a night with Herman we spent at Snug Harbor, a New Orleans club, listening to Ellis Marsalis. In his seventies, Marsalis bounds on to the stage to join his trio. He and Leonard exchange a little comradely banter.

Leonard circles the bandstand with his digital camera, moving and swaying with the music so that he seems almost to be a fourth member of the band.

Back in his seat, he is utterly absorbed in the music, head bowed, eyes shut, smiling and nodding with the beat. Herman Leonard is in his element.

"How do you get your energy, baby?" Herman calls out to his friend Ellis.

Marsalis yells back, "From you, baby".

'JAZZ by Herman Leonard' will be published this Thursday by Atlantic Books, priced £45