One of the Jazz Greats is gone: Herman Leonard March 6, 1923 – August 14, 2010

Photographer Herman Leonard
March 6, 1923 – August 14, 2010


© 2010 Jim McHugh

We are deeply saddened to announce the passing of Herman Leonard yesterday, Saturday, August 14, 2010. Herman was a rare human being, always giving and compassionate. It goes without saying Herman was a great photographer and artist, who loved Jazz music and created a stunning visual collection of the world he loved so much.

We’d like to thank everyone for their love and support of Herman over the years. There is no question that Herman will always be with us…he will never truly be far, as we have his amazing photographs and have all been touched by his beautiful spirit.

Herman was involved in many projects towards the end of his life and he always wanted to do more. And although this can’t help but be a sad day….we have comfort in knowing that his suffering was not prolonged and he was surrounded by family until the end. I believe Herman wouldn’t want anyone to be depressed over his passing…he’d want everyone to live, laugh and experience as much as humanly possible in our precious lifetimes.

In lieu of flowers, Herman’s family has asked that donations be made to The New Orleans Musicians Clinic, an organization close to his heart.

There will be a memorial piece on Herman on ABC’s World News Sunday at 6:30pm this evening.

I invite you to read an eloquent statement on Herman below.

Warm regards,
Geraldine Baum
Herman Leonard Photography, LLC

“Above all, enjoy the music” – Herman Leonard

From the introduction by Reggie Nadelson to the forthcoming book of Herman Leonard’s photography, “JAZZ” to be published by Grove Atlantic (UK) and Bloomsbury Press (US) in November 2010.


© 2010 Jim McHugh

Quincy Jones once said, ‘I used to tell cats that Herman Leonard did with his camera what we did with our instruments. Looking back across his career, I’m even more certain of the comparison: Herman’s camera tells the truth, and makes it swing. Musicians loved to see him around. No surprise; he made us look good.’

With their rich blacks, whites and silvers, the sense of images both fleeting and permanent, Herman Leonard’s photographs look beautiful and astonishing, the way the music was then, and still is; they look, as the great critic Whitney Balliett famously said of jazz itself, ‘Like the sound of surprise.’ 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, something indefinable that is revealed in the photographs: 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.

Herman was in love with his subjects and the musicians knew it. They felt it. They let him in not just because he took wonderful pictures and evolved as a master printmaker, a genius at exquisite detail, of light and shade, but because you couldn’t make these pictures unless you were Herman. They are, in that sense, an act of being Herman Leonard.

Herman Leonard’s photographs have given generations of jazz lovers a way in, as if we’d been there in New York at the Roost or Birdland or later in Paris or San Francisco. I look at them, and I can feel Herman there, the Herman who tells a great joke, and is also deeply humane, a great artist, a profoundly good man. A mensch.

And now Herman is gone. When I got the news that he had died, I looked at his photographs on my wall and I recalled what Tony Bennett said when he heard Frank Sinatra was no longer with us: ‘I don’t have to believe that.’

Reggie Nadelson, 2010



Herman Leonard at his home in Pasadena, CA. May 15, 2010* With Douglas and Francoise Kirkland • All images © 2010 Jim McHugh

We’d like to thank Jim McHugh for allowing us permission to use these photos.

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