Jazz scene photographer Herman Leonard, famous for his smoky, backlighted black-and-white photos of such greats as Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis and Frank Sinatra, has died. He was 87.
Leonard, who moved to Los Angeles after Hurricane Katrina flooded his New Orleans home and destroyed thousands of his prints, died Saturday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, family spokeswoman Geraldine Baum said on his website. The cause of death wasn’t disclosed.
Leonard was considered one of the great mid-century jazz scene photographers. He started in the late 1940s and left a rich chronicle of a musical era with photos taken in New York, Paris and London through the 1960s.
The Smithsonian has more than 130 Leonard photographs in its permanent collection.
He was studying photography at Ohio University when he was called to duty in the U.S. Army during World War II. He returned to college and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1947.
He moved to New York the following year, after an apprenticeship with famed portrait photographer Yousuf Karsh taking pictures of Albert Einstein, Martha Graham and other cultural icons.
He then became immersed in the jazz scene, making deals with club owners to photograph rehearsals and giving them photos for their marquees.
Using a large 4-by-5 Speed Graphic camera, he shot Art Tatum, Dizzy Gillespie, Sarah Vaughan and countless other jazz greats in the smoky haze of jazz clubs. In 1956, he was Marlon Brando’s personal photographer on a trip to the Far East.
While his prints were lost in the New Orleans hurricane, his 60,000 negatives were safe, having been sent before Katrina to the Ogden Museum. His return to New Orleans was chronicled in the 2006 BBC/Sundance documentary “Saving Jazz.”
In 2008, he was the first photographer to be granted a Grammy Foundation Grant for Preservation and Archiving, enabling him to digitize, catalog and preserve his collection of nearly 60,000 jazz negatives.
Last year, Leonard was the official photographer for the Montreal Jazz Festival, photographing legends such as Tony Bennett and Dave Brubeck.
Leonard is survived by children Valerie, Shana, Michael and David; and six grandchildren.