Capturing in image the essence of jazz and its musicians

Special to The Times

IT'S easy to see why jazz musicians were so taken by Herman Leonard's photographs. "Jazz Giants," the exhibition of his works running through Jan. 13 at the Fahey/Klein Gallery, includes images of the most famous names in jazz, from Louis Armstrong to Miles Davis, depicted in ways that touch the impact of their art and the essence of their personas.

A shot of Duke Ellington at the piano is illuminated by two celestial beams of light descending from above; a pork-pie hat perched on an open saxophone case and a smoking cigarette on a Coke bottle suggest, without actually revealing, the presence of Lester Young; Charlie Parker, eyes closed, is caught in mid-solo, a Bird in free-flight; Frank Sinatra is seen in performance, from the rear, as he gestures, cigarette in hand, to the indistinguishable gray mass of his audience.

The atmospheric impact of the photos is enhanced by the 40-by-32-inch size of most of the prints. But what is most remarkable is that Leonard meticulously planned his shots -- often via carefully positioned backlighting, strobes and smoke -- to create that impact, successfully capturing the most spontaneous and improvisational of all the arts.

Leonard, 83, suffered a crushing loss last year from Hurricane Katrina, losing his house in New Orleans, studio, darkroom and more than 6,000 photographs. But he continues to work and exhibit. His entire "Images of Jazz" series is housed in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.

-- Don Heckman

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