‘Jazz Portraits’: The history of the genre through Herman Leonard’s lens

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For Digital First Media

A photographer born in nearby Allentown brushed elbows with the greats of jazz. Visitors to the Michener Art Museum in Doylestown can see some of his photos through Oct. 11.
Herman Leonard was born in 1923 in Allentown. He attended Ohio University — the only school that offered a photography degree at the time. He loved jazz and that brought him to New York City where he photographed now legends from that world of music from 1940 to 1960. He wrote books, won awards, and has more than 100 of his original prints in the Smithsonian’s permanent collection. He died in 2010. President Bill Clinton, a fan and amateur saxophonist, has called Herman Leonard “The greatest jazz photographer in the history of the genre.”
Lisa Tremper Hanover, Michener’s Director and CEO, curated the exhibit at the museum. It fit with their mission, and she’s a jazz fan, too.
“I thought it would be good to take images of the real greats in jazz history and marry them with our jazz music series,” she said.

Dr. John — San Francisco, 1991 by Herman Leonard.  @PH Caption:Collection of Kennedy Museum of Art, Ohio University. Photo courtesy of  The James A. Michener Art Museum

Dr. John — San Francisco, 1991 by Herman Leonard.
@PH Caption:Collection of Kennedy Museum of Art, Ohio University. Photo courtesy of The James A. Michener Art Museum

In fact, a concert in the series accompanies the Leonard exhibit. On Sept. 20, audiences can enjoy “The Art of Sarah Vaughan,” one of the jazz greats Leonard photographed. Soprano Beverly Owens and musician Diane Goldsmith will perform a variety of compositions made popular by the singer. Vaughan began her career after winning an amateur contest at Harlem’s Apollo Theater. She performed with Earl Hines and Billy Eckstine before going solo, winning awards, acclaim, and many, many fans.
The Leonard exhibit features 18 images from the collection at Ohio University’s Kennedy Museum. The images are installed in an intimate gallery, “that echoes in a way a speakeasy kind of environment,” Hanover said. “The lights are dim and the smoke is pouring out of people’s cigarettes.”
The exhibition really shows the history of the genre.
“The scope and scale of the imagery covers the classics — Miles Davis, Billie Holliday, Sarah Vaughan, Dizzie Gillespie, Charlie Parker,” she said. “They’re the genesis of the jazz movement and Leonard gained entry to their performances and their lives.”
Leonard also photographed legends Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett and Louis Armstrong. And he captured contemporary masters, like Dr. John and Thelonious Monk.
Some of the exhibit photos show musicians “in the throes of a grand performance,” she said. Others are captured in more personal moments.
“You see the energy, their talent, the emotion of playing and feeling the music,” she said. “The works are really fun.”
Hanover likes that jazz isn’t as structured, and as a curator, she said she can relate.
“You hear combos go off on tangents and let creative juices flow,” she said. “They get into the zone.”
She hopes that viewers will be transformed when they walk into the gallery.
“You’re surrounded by powerful black and white photos — that strips it down to the essence of what the music is and what they can accomplish,” she said. “I think people will leave feeling lots of joy.”


What: “Herman Leonard: Jazz Portraits”
When: Through Oct. 11
Where: James A. Michener Art Museum, 138 S. Pine St., Doylestown.
Admission: $18; seniors $17; students with valid ID $16; children ages 6-18 $8; age 5 and younger free.
Info.: Call (215) 340-9800 or check www.michenermuseum.org.
Special event: “The Art of Sarah Vaughan,” 3-4:30 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 20. $20; student with valid ID $5. Includes Museum admission. Advance registration suggested as seating is limited.

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