Herman Leonard: The Rhythm of Old New York @Robert Mann

JTF (just the facts): A total of 24 black-and-white gelatin silver prints. All of the photographs are published in editions of 30 or 50 and either as 16×20 inches (or the reverse) except for a single print at 20×24 inches. The earliest is dated 1948, the latest 1956. None is vintage. The show also includes 1 vitrine with various album covers, letters, and contact sheets. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Herman Leonard’s portraits of jazz musicians from the late ‘40s–early ‘50s are steeped in the cocktails-and-cigarettes glamour of postwar Manhattan nightlife. Players and listeners alike in this show are smartly turned out. The men wear white shirts, ties, and jackets with handkerchiefs in the top pocket. It was the unquestioned dress code of the era, whether going to an after-hours club or boarding a train at Pennsylvania Station, that you should try not to look like a poor slob even if that’s what you were.

The velvety shadows of Leonard’s black-and-white photography enhanced the seductive appeal of these dashing characters. He apprenticed with Yousuf Karsh and shared his teacher’s penchant for Rembrandt lighting and hero worship. Just as Karsh had aggrandized Winston Churchill in 1941 as a British bulldog, so did Leonard portray jazz and popular musicians as giants of style and sophistication. In his eyes, black entertainers (Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat “King” Cole) were members of an artistic elite and as deserving of celebrity treatment as white ones (Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Buddy Rich.)

The ‘40s was the decade in jazz when small combos replaced 16-18 piece swing orchestras. Audiences were expected to sit in respectful silence rather than twirl each other around the dance floor. Leonard’s photos capture this transition toward a more intimate relationship between performer and audience. In a performance shot from 1948, a backlit Ella sings into a Shure stand-up microphone at the Downbeat Club, while Duke sits at a round front table, hands folded beneath the chin of his beaming face, and an impressed Benny Goodman listens not far behind him.

New York’s jazz scene was spread around Manhattan in these years. Harlem had its thriving music spots, most notably Minton’s Playhouse and Monroe’s Uptown House. Bebop had incubated there in the early ‘40s. Greenwich Village, where Leonard opened a studio in 1948, had Café Society and the Village Vanguard. But by 1950 a photographer could hear and see almost everyone of note along one midtown block. Jazz of every style percolated up to the street from a string of basement clubs on 52nd St. between 5th and 6th Aves —Jimmy Ryan’s, the Three Deuces, the Royal Roost, the Famous Door, the Onyx Club, and Kelly’s Stables. Birdland was just around the corner on Broadway.

Leonard arrived in the city soon after the beboppers and hard boppers—Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Sonny Stitt, Fats Navarro, Sarah Vaughn—were becoming headliners in midtown. When he photographed them in ensembles or posed them as individuals in his studio, the ultimate aim was that they would choose his portrait of them to illustrate an LP.  Occasionally, a performer’s idiosyncrasies might be referenced in a still-life. In one example here, Lester Young’s signature porkpie hat hangs on a music stand next to a burning non-filter cigarette perched on the lip of an empty Coke bottle. (The 1948 image was the cover of the 1956 album Lester’s Here.)

The 4×5 Speed Graphic was Leonard’s preferred camera, as it was Weegee’s. Picture editors appreciated the punchy impact it could deliver on the page. The sumptuousness of nocturnal black-and-white photography during this period, coupled with the seedy urbanity of tabloid newspaper and detective magazines, contributed to the cinematography of film noir and has inspired numerous artists down to the present, mainly in fashion and advertizing but its persistent enchantment can also be seen in Stan Douglas’s Midcentury Studio series.

As a freelancer, Leonard had to hustle to pay his studio costs and his competition was formidable. Francis Wolff, co-founder of Blue Note Records, made portraits in a similar mode at the jazz sessions that he helped to oversee. So there was no breaking into that label’s market. Gjon Mili and Ted Williams could rely on the support of the Time-Life magazines to publish their images from the scene. Unlike some photographers in other cities, such as Frank Kuchirchuk, who set up his own lighting rigs in Lindsay’s Sky Bar in Cleveland to capture performances of musicians passing through town in the ‘50s, Leonard often worked with the uneven conditions found in these clubs. His chief rival in New York during these years was William Gottlieb; the two sometimes appeared together in issues of Downbeat.

Although none of these photographers stood on an equal footing with the people they photographed, as did bassist Milt Hinton whose small-camera snapshots of his fellow musicians are uniquely affectionate, Leonard became friends with many of the players here, including Holiday, Parker, and Gillespie. (This gallery selection doesn’t include any of these faux-behind-the-scenes glimpses of the stars at home.)

Fully a third of the musicians here are wreathed in cigarette smoke, a cliché of the period. (The ban on tobacco in post-Bloomberg NYC has deprived contemporary photographers of a handy atmospheric effect. Boxing photographers today at Madison Square Garden have the same complaint.) Less stylized than his nightclub shots or his studio portraits are the sidelong photographs Leonard took as a bystander. There is a lovely close-up of Miles Davis’ long fingers on his trumpet during a 1953 performance. At a Mercury recording session from that same year, a diminutive, 29 year-old Sarah Vaughn sits shoeless on a stool as she rehearses “It Shouldn’t Happen to a Dream” by herself.

Leonard watched as the white jazz musicians of West Coast cool made inroads into the fashion scene, where New York’s black musicians were not as welcome. His highly studied portraits of Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker from the mid-50s no doubt influenced the swooning portraits of these icons by William Claxton.

Leonard is in no danger of being forgotten. If anything, the pace of books and exhibitions featuring his jazz portraits seems to have increased since his death in 2004. Recognition in tasteful gallery shows like this one must offer some consolation to his estate for the crushing destruction of some 8,000 vintage prints in New Orleans from Hurricane Katrina. As long as jazz has an audience and a past that the young want to visit, so will Leonard’s photographs serve as a vital record of a time when New York’s musicians were making the hippest sounds on the planet.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show generally range in price from $3000 to $13000. A print of Ella Fitzgerald at the Downbeat Club in 1948 is priced at $30000 because of its scarcity. Leonard’s prints are only intermittently available at auction, with recent prices (for mostly later prints) ranging from roughly $1000 to $5000.

Read more about: Herman Leonard, Robert Mann Gallery

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