Saxophonist and former President Bill Clinton once called Herman Leonard “the greatest jazz photographer in the history of the genre,” when his Presidential Library held a show of Leonard’s work in 2013. This month, the Smithsonian Institution hosts an exhibition of Leonard’s photographs drawn from their extensive holdings. “In the Groove: Jazz Portraits by Herman Leonard,” which opened last week at the National Portrait Gallery and runs until Feb. 20, 2017, is drawn from a 30-print portfolio that includes some of Leonard’s most iconic images. Made between 1948 and 1960, they depict vocalists and instrumentalists working in styles ranging from Dixieland and bepop to cool jazz, from Sarah Vaughan and Louis Armstrong to Quincy Jones and Frank Sinatra.
Leonard began his career as an apprentice to portrait photographer Yousuf Karsh, and opened a studio in Greenwich Village in 1948. For close to a decade he photographed musicians at work, making images that appeared on album covers and in magazines such as DownBeat and Metronome. In 1956 he traveled around Asia as a personal photographer for Marlon Brando, and afterwards moved to Paris, where he photographed the jazz scene before turning to fashion and advertising work in the 1960s and 70s. In the 1980s, he returned to his jazz negatives, publishing books and making prints that have appeared in numerous shows and served as a visual record of the art form. “Thanks to these remarkable photographs, we have front-row seats to a golden era in American jazz,” says the show’s curator Ann Shumard, senior curator of photographs at the National Portrait Gallery.