Jazz in Black and White: Herman Leonard irradiates the swing era in photo

Put on your flashiest suit, shine up your pointiest shoes, and spark up a Lucky Strike ’cause we’re about to go back to a time when cats played the murky clubs on piano, drums and horns among an opaque cloud of smoke. Offsetting the omnipresence of pain during the 1940s and the US involvement in WWII, music gave people hope for brighter days and a quick end to Hitler’s fascist regime. Digging deep inside their souls, artists devised a musical language called jazz based on the principles of swing and improvisation. Now samples of their tunes appear on hip hop and pop records as well as on commercials.

Caught in an abstract reality of smoke, light and music, greats like Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, and Duke Ellington have been immortalized in black and white photographs by renowned photographer Herman Leonard, currently on view at the Barbara Gillman Gallery

The space provides an intimate introduction to these nocturnal images frozen in time by Leonard’s lens. With its cleverly claustrophobic and enormously effective set-up- a small staircase with each of the pictures adorning the wall-you’re forced to take in the most intimate aspects of each shot.

As each of his subjects are in some way cloaked in mystery by the darkness of the room around them, light and shadow play an integral part in Leonard’s photography. The figures appear idolized and surreal in their poses but never devoid of raw human emotion, whether your looking at Frank Sinatra’s legendary smile exuding genuine delight or Billie Holiday’s face as she sings so passionately into the microphone.

In the ’40s, the correlation between cigarettes and lung cancer was hardly in public knowledge. Everyone smoked back then to soothe their nerves and the bright texture of this smoke is evident in many of Leonard’s photos. An especially poignant picture features an illuminated Billie Holiday set against a darkened background. She moans sensually into a microphone as smoke twists elegantly over her left shoulder. Her hands reach forward slightly, almost grasping the mic pole but stopping short with fingers curled and ready. Her face is wrenched with so much emotion that you can almost imagine her channeling the intense pain of her life by belting out “Strange Fruit” as you inspect the photo.

Another look into Leonard’s artistry of the camera is one shot from 1948 of Dexter Gordon at the Royal Roost in New York City. Sitting with legs crossed, his cigarette, mostly ash and almost smoked to the filter, dangles from his left hand resting gently on the sax in his lap. His head is tilted slightly back as smoke unfurls from his mouth across to the other side of the room.

Herman Leonard has captured the part of jazz that people often talk about when speaking of the beginning of an era in musical recreation. He has caught each emotion of both the artist and the era and turned them into photos that affect not only the senses, but the soul of the musician in each of us as well.

Images of Jazz is on view at the Barbara Gillman Gallery, 5582 NE Fourth Ct. #5, Miami. Call 305-759-9155 for an appointment.

Chris Howard can be reached at BBHMM3234@aol.com.