Jazz plays in the background at the Lush Life Gallery on Fillmore Street in San Francisco, but the images in Jazz Giants: The Photography of Herman Leonard, now through May 16, 2010, seem to come with their own soundtrack. Featuring dozens of examples of the great jazz photographer's work, mostly from the 1940s and '50s, the exhibition conjures the sounds of a beer bottle hitting the floor, some old guy in the corner coughing up phlegm and those two women down front who won't stop chattering even though Dexter Gordon has just taken the stage.
The show highlights candid shots and portraits, the two general types of photographs that Leonard has been producing throughout his long and legendary career. For the most part I prefer the candids, like the picture of Sonny Stitt during a 1953 performance in New York City. Stitt is sitting in a chair, sax in his lap, looking incredibly bored while he waits for Dizzy Gillespie to finish a solo. The ennui of the road and repetition of genius on cue is wearying, or so the photograph suggests.
That photograph was taken from the vantage point of the audience, but Leonard had remarkable access to the kings and queens of mid-century American jazz, and he used his privileged vantage point to capture moments that no one else could. An especially revealing shot is the one taken from the stage of the Downbeat Club, where Ella Fitzgerald was performing in 1949. Leonard snapped his shutter from behind the singer looking out into the crowd. Fitzgerald's dark silhouette fills the left third or so of the picture, but his real subject is the royalty at the first table -- a beaming Duke Ellington in pinstripes, an appreciative Richard Rogers to Ellington's left and sitting a seat or two behind them both, a wide-eyed Benny Goodman, the corner of his left lip just curling into a smile.
Ella Fitzgerald, Downbeat Club, New York City, 1949
Less interesting, to me, anyway, are Leonard's posed photographs, which often struggle under their labored composition. In a 1949 portrait of Nat King Cole, the pianist sits at his instrument and smiles sleepily through a fussy framing of upright-bass strings on the left, the head of a D'Angelico guitar above and bongo drums below. Cole appears good natured amid the contrivance, but he doesn't seem to be taking the whole thing very seriously, and neither do we.
Still, sometimes the trouble Leonard must have taken to set up his shots pays off, as in the much simpler 1950 picture of Tony Bennett embracing a Columbia Records microphone. Here, with fewer balls in the air, Leonard's subject is not in competition with his atmospherics, and Bennett's gentle toothy smile convinces us of the authenticity of the moment.
Tony Bennett, Columbia Records Studios, New York City, 1950
The crown jewel of the exhibition is a photograph of pianist Art Tatum taken in 1955. Though a portrait in the formal sense, the photograph has all the hallmarks of a good candid shot, perhaps because the virtually blind pianist was not as preoccupied by the presence of Leonard and his gear as a fully sighted subject might have been.
But give Leonard credit -- he saw something remarkable here and captured it. For this portrait, Leonard shot Tatum from above, accentuating the man's high forehead as well as the fleshy lids that stretched over his near-sightless eyes. We notice both, but it's the master's long, slender fingers, which were known for their blazing speed on the keys, that we are most drawn to. Here, Tatum's fingers are intertwined and perfectly still. Leonard knew photography but he also knew his jazz, which is why he understood that the most remarkable shot you could get of Art Tatum was one that showed his hands at peace.
Art Tatum, Los Angeles, 1955
Jazz Giants: The Photography of Herman Leonard runs through May 16, 2010 at the Lush Life Gallery and in the Koret Heritage Lobby at the Jazz Heritage Center in San Francisco. For more information visit jazzheritagecenter.org.