Many of the images made by photographer Herman Leonard, who died Aug. 14 at 87, live in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. But even more impressive is their permanence in our collective imagination. "When people think of jazz," Quincy Jones once wrote, "their mental picture is likely one of Herman's."
Leonard, who was as much a fan of jazz as he was its chronicler, began documenting the jazz scene in the late 1940s after moving to New York. His iconic black-and-white, smoke-filled photographs captured the music's larger-than-life stars. Duke Ellington (left), Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis his lens recorded them all. Leonard (right) often said his goal was a "visual diary" of what he heard, and the result is a striking body of work that stands as art in its own right.
His career encompassed a variety of fields, including fashion photography. In 1956 he was Marlon Brando's personal photographer on a trip to the Far East. But Leonard is primarily celebrated for his jazz shots, which he continued to take upon relocating to Paris in the '50s.
His first book, The Eye of Jazz, wasn't published until 1985; the first exhibition of his jazz photographs followed in 1988. Leonard, however, wasn't just about the past. Only last year, he was the official photographer for the Montreal Jazz Festival.
In 1992 Leonard moved to New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz. Thirteen years later, thousands of his prints were destroyed during Hurricane Katrina. Fortunately, those images were preserved on negatives. Many, of course, are forever lodged in our mind's eye.
This text originally appeared in the Aug. 30, 2010 issue of TIME Magazine.
Next Art Linkletter