In another lifetime I photographed a lot of music, especially jazz music, and recently two or three deaths have reminded me of that time. Musician Abbey Lincoln passed away this month. As did photographer Herman Leonard. Leonard set in stone, so to speak, (or set in silver halide) an imagery of jazz from the 40s on that still lingers today. Personally, I think that imagery is perhaps too "set in stone" – that's not to question the quality or deserved reputation of the photos, just that, in part because of the influence of that quality, jazz maintained an imagery of smoke and light that became perhaps too rigid. (Herman it seems acknowledged this himself, quoted as he is saying, "That smoke was part of the atmosphere and dramatised the photographs a lot, maybe over-stylised them a bit.") That said, there's no denying the glow of his photos. So established as to seem a memory of the music itself.
And his love of his subject. I was once backstage as Miles Davis was due to go on. He had the star treatment to head toward the stage, yet Herman stuck out a hand in a "hello" greeting which Miles warmly returned physically and in conversation. Hard to imagine, perhaps, another photographer whom Miles would acknowledge just before starting a gig.
Then this week, I belatedly learned of the death of admired and accomplished British trumpet player Harry Beckett, who died in July aged 75 (or 86, if you believe The Independent). When I first became interested in jazz back in the mid-eighties, as the young Jazz Warriors set themselves up in London, Harry Beckett was in the line-up as an "elder statesman" – someone who had paid their dues and was now acknowledged as both an influence and a contemporary co-player. (Then in his mid-fifties to the multiple mid-twenties players of the Warriors – he's playing and appears in this video of the band.) He seemed everywhere, from with the Warriors through Dudu Pukwana, from Chris McGregor through Charles Mingus, from Claude Deppa through Django Bates – a British jazz player from the Caribbean, at home with all jazz players from whichever continent, island or era. Although I didn't see him play that much, his is a name I'll associate with that part of my life, and one definition of the dedicated life of a musician.
Do all smokey jazz images owe something to Herman Leonard? My photo of Evan Lurie from the 80s