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Jazz Giants: Giant steps

Photographer Herman Leonard shows off his jazz portraits

At age 83, Herman Leonard has the kind of steel-trap mind and zest for life that would put most 23-year-olds to shame.

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That enviable energy has him jumping from his seat several times during an interview in Atlanta to illustrate a tale from his wild life's journey. Zelig-like, Leonard has made a variety of exotic scenes and hung with some of the 20th century's most iconic cats.

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As an apprentice for renowned portrait photographer Yousuf Karsh, Leonard spent a young adulthood in the company of people such as Clark Gable, Albert Einstein (his most memorable subject), Martha Graham and Harry S. Truman. In 1956 he worked as Marlon Brando's personal photographer when the actor traveled to the Far East. Later, Leonard was the European photographer for Playboy and in 1980 moved with his family to the überhip, clubby island of Ibiza before finally settling in New Orleans.

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But the work this influential photographer is best known for happened in the late 1940s and '50s in a long-gone milieu of bebopping hipsters and musical iconoclasts. Leonard's images of jazz legends such as Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker shot at venues such as Birdland and the Royal Roost capture the almost religiously sublime, eyes-closed expressions of these jazz babies deep in the throes of musical ecstasy. Leonard turned the world onto this long-gone era of unmatchable glamour and cool.

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Asked what he had in common with his musician subjects, Leonard kids, "Love for girls, money, drugs.

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"No," he then laughs, perhaps only half-joking. "I loved the music."

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Leonard's images are distinguished by backlighting that lends a sharp definition to his subjects and plumes of cigarette smoke for even more cinematic ambience. Often shot from a low angle, Leonard's black-and-white images revere his subjects as nearly godlike, haloed by that signature Leonardesque otherworldly glow.

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In person at Buckhead's Jackson Fine Art, Leonard's Jazz Giants photographs offer a profoundly intimate glimpse of real people now overshadowed by their notoriety as legends. It is possible to discern the texture of the luminous Billie Holiday's skin as she sings, hands frozen in midgesture. In another rapturous image, this time from the fan's point of view, Duke Ellington wears an expression of childlike glee as he sits watching Ella Fitzgerald perform in 1948.

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A slight man dressed in a denim shirt with a gray beard and a camera poking out of his pants pocket, Leonard has a million stories to tell. He recounts them with an infectious energy that melts the decades away as he describes photographing musicians such as the notoriously prickly Miles Davis and a camera-shy Charlie Parker in an era before celebrity was synonymous with photographic overexposure.

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Brimming with his own silver-tongued charisma, Leonard talked his way into the clubs and out of the steep admission fees by trading prints to club owners and musicians.

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"Today, that wouldn't work," he admits, of a fame landscape that has become littered with paparazzi vying for access and stricter controls established over who gets proximity. "I just felt so privileged at being able to have this opportunity. To talk to Billie Holiday in her house and she's wearing an apron."

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Leonard's engaging energy is even more astounding considering recent circumstances in his life. When Hurricane Katrina hit, the New Orleans-based photographer lost 6,000 images in the flood waters, his Lakeview studio, his darkroom and some of his peace of mind. He has since relocated to Los Angeles.

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"I've lived all over the world," he says. "I've never lived anywhere like New Orleans in my life. It was a really unique place, because of the people.

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"That's why New Orleans will never be the same," he laments.

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Leonard's life, it seems, has been graced by being in particularly magical, definitive places – New Orleans, New York's swinging midcentury jazz scene – impossible to ever recapture.

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Except in photographs, where they live forever.



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