One of the first "images" of jazz that influenced me not only as a musician but a budding writer was the infamous one of saxophonist Dexter Gordon surrounded by smoke with a pensive, almost exquisite look on his face. He was lost in a moment of thought or waiting for his turn to solo or possibly staring at a beautiful woman on the other side of the room. This moment immortalized Dexter in the eyes and hearts of people around the world. I suppose most felt what I felt. I knew the second I saw this image, I had to hear his music. Unfortunately I was born in the wrong generation to hear him live, but I sure as hell enjoyed it on vinyl. It was Herman Leonard's images that brought a face to jazz for many throughout the world. Recordings only allowed me to hear the breath and thought flowing through Dexter's horn or the sound of Ella Fitzgerald's voice during a club date.
But thanks to Leonard, so many of us impressionable minds and jazz obsessives now knew the look that was the personality behind Gordon's sultry sound or how Fitzgerald could paint a smile on Duke Ellington's face with her words. The faculty of an eye trained to capture the magnificence of often wordless music in a single moment can transform an imagination and stir a single impression into a completely different ideal, even in eras gone by. Leonard, of course, was the master of seizing the enigma that so many know jazz as and binding it into a strong, provocative, and refined character starring in American culture 101. His lens was not about watching the art pass him by, it was about living with the art and bringing the world to his vision of how Jazz could not only be heard but be seen. His solo work was the visual equivalent of Impressions by Coltrane, or Strayhorn's Lush Life in addition to the innumerable portraits of amazing moments lived out by the mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers who are considered the founders of America's greatest contribution to the world arts community.
In 87 short years Leonard captured over 10,000 moments (8,000 of which were lost to Hurricane Katrina) that defined the art form. From a young in years and wise in experience Nat King Cole to the flirty, dubious and sultry Dexter Gordon to meticulous and often laughing-face Duke Ellington, it was Leonard's eye that brought jazz to a higher level among his contemporaries in modern art. Leonard's photographs have been viewed and loved in halls such as Lincoln Center and the Modern Museum of Art and even on T-shirts sold at jazz festivals and college book stores. I know musicians who have worn their Dexter Gordon shirt until it had holes in both armpits. It's a statement to wear a Leonard great on your chest or to have it donning your walls whether it's in your suburban home or college dorm. His voice and vision best captured the immediacy of jazz. The musicians were lit up with their true colors, honing in on the exact moment they created their art.
Yet Leonard's photos weren't just a black and white portrayal, they were a movement among the dedicated artists to take jazz from the small venues to the ears of the world. Most people are visual creatures and need that image handed to them. I suppose this is why many non-jazz listeners say they don't "understand" jazz and therefore don't listen to it. They just can't visualize the bigger picture. These folks are missing the boat entirely. Jazz is the artistic equivalent to the human race. It is highly dependent on mood, situation, generation, influences personal, environmental and emotional. Shooting a musician holding his horn like a baby and smiling isn't believing that there is anything behind the horn. Engaging the artists in the middle of their ups, their downs, in front of and behind the incredible light that flashes between their brilliant thoughts is a gift. Some might even consider it a necessary accompaniment to the overall vision of each musician's works. Thanks to Leonard, the world has a chance to see where jazz began and where it, sadly, closed in his eyes.
This death is yet another reason why we, as a "newer" and more responsible generation of Americans, should embrace not only our history but also our present day stories and pictures. We should embrace the current greats likeNed Radinsky, Michal Garcia, Adriana Mateo, Frank Stewart and Juan Carlos Hernandez while we still can. They need encouragement to use their art to propel this generation of musicians into the spotlight. This surely isn't a bad thing. They've got the energy to see it through ... they're all young and coming up on the scene but their eyes, whether solo or as a collection, tell a vastly different story of how music is being lived out in today's moments. As to Mr. Leonard, I can only say that you were the sole artist responsible for bringing the jazz world out of the dark and into the light. I am not the only one who noticed, studied and wished for your amazing ability to grace the rest of our days. I can only hope that wherever you are, you are resting in peace and sitting amongst the greats, capturing their moments today.