Tag Archives: Johnny Hodges

Songs For Strayhorn

Billy Strayhorn 1This year marks the centenary of one of the great unsung heroes of jazz history, a man who was also half (and sometimes, arguably, more than that) of one of the greatest musical partnerships of the 20th Century – and the composer of such classics of the jazz repertoire as Take the A Train and Lush Life. His name was Billy Strayhorn.

In late 1938, this quiet young musician in his rather past-its-best Sunday suit was taken backstage in a Pittsburgh theatre to be introduced to the great jazz bandleader and composer of the day, Duke Ellington. As Ellington rested between performances, relaxing on a reclining chair while his valet tended to his hair, the 23-year-old Strayhorn was ushered in.

Strayhorn, Ellington & Preminger

Strayhorn & Ellington on the set of Anatomy of a Murder for which they wrote the score. Director Otto Preminger looks on.

Ellington may not have bothered to open his eyes to take a look at his guest, but by the end of the short visit, Strayhorn – who dazzled Duke with a series of piano performances of Ellington tunes first as the composer himself would play them, and then in his own arrangements – had been wholeheartedly accepted into the organisation.

So began a three-decade relationship that was one of the most fruitful and – according to those who witnessed it – loving in jazz history. From the outset, the refined and cultured Strayhorn, a dedicated Francophile and follower of fashion – who had never really belonged in the Pittsburgh shack in which he was raised – was not so much Ellington’s right-hand man as his alter ego.

Constantly on the road with his band, Ellington entrusted composing and arranging assignments to Strayhorn, who had absorbed the Ellington orchestra sound and was more than happy to devote himself to keeping it up to date with new music, and keeping the royalties pouring in to the organisation which had many mouths to feed.

Bob Wilber, the 86-year-old American clarinettist and saxophonist (pictured below) who was a member of a celebrated small group put together by Strayhorn in the 1960s, says: “He so completely assimilated Duke’s music that often you couldn’t tell in an arrangement which part was Duke and which part was Billy. He was absolutely indispensable to Duke.”

Strayhorn, who had been a frustrated would-be cosmopolite in Pittsburgh – where his sexuality was never discussed but always assumed as gay – blossomed in Manhattan, living initially with members of Ellington’s entourage in the boss’s Harlem penthouse, and spending his days soaking up all the art and cocktails that he could during his non-writing time. “A miniature, black Noel Coward” was how one friend later described him.

As his biographer David Hajdu writes: “In Pittsburgh, who he was had inhibited Billy Strayhorn from doing what he could do; in New York, what he could do enabled him to be who he was.” And what he was was a young gay man who loved the finer things in life, and was able to set up home with his boyfriend secure in the knowledge that – unlike many employers back then – his sexuality, and his openness about it, would not be an issue with Ellington who treated him as one of the family, possibly even better than he treated his own son, Mercer, who also wrote for the band.

Not only did his association with Ellington provide him with the bon vivant lifestyle he had dreamt of, it also gave him an outlet for his artistry and allowed him to flourish as a composer. He may have been composing and arranging for the Ellington outfit from 1939 – and Bob Wilberhave been the author of Take the A Train, a massive hit which Ellington quickly promoted to the band’s signature tune – but Strayhorn wasn’t credited as composer or arranger for his contribution until the 1950s, after a brief period when he had split from the organisation.

Everyone in the band, however, knew that he was a prolific writer of their music – and he was terrifically well liked and respected. Tommy Smith, the  director of the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra which is performing three concerts this month to celebrate the “Jazz Genius of Billy Strayhorn” – from such “big”, familiar pieces as Isfahan, Chelsea Bridge and Satin Doll to rare, recent rediscoveries – recounts a story told to him by one-time Ellington trombonist Buster Cooper.

“He told me he was once sitting next to Strayhorn on a plane, and Strayhorn had his briefcase out. He opened it and there was some manuscript there, and Buster was really excited because he thought he was going to get to see what Strayhorn was going to write – they were all in awe of him and never sure who had written what. But Billy Strayhorn lifted up the manuscript – and there was a bottle of whisky there. He offered Buster a drink, and put the manuscript away. Buster never got to see what the music was.”

One song which everyone knew was 100% Strayhorn was the evocative ballad Lush Life, the poetic words and haunting music of which he had mostly penned even before he met Ellington. It’s long been a favourite of jazz singers – and its recent performance by Lady Gaga boosted her credibility with the jazz community because it is, as Bob Wilber points out, “a very tricky song”. Indeed, Strayhorn was incensed by both the arrangement and the fluffed lyrics in Nat King Cole’s famous recording of it.

Annie Ross, the British-born jazz singer, met Strayhorn in the early 1950s when they were both living in Paris – the city he had written about in Lush Life. She says: “We hit it off immediately. He liked the way I sang and he taught me Lush Life. He was a gentle soul. They called him the Swee’ Pea precisely because he was so gentle.”

It might also have been something to do with the love of flowers and nature that he inherited from his devoted mother– a love that is obvious from such song titles as Passion Flower, Lotus Blossom and Violet Blue, which were written as features for alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges whose gloriously plaintive sound was the perfect match for Strayhorn’s beautiful but dark-tinged melodies, and sumptuous arrangements.

When, in March 1965, Strayhorn – whose piano playing was usually done in the recording studio or just to entertain friends – was asked to put together a band for a concert featuring his first solo piano performance, Bob Wilber got the call that one might have expected Hodges to get. “I don’t know how he had heard me – whether it was only on record – but he realized that I would be the ideal interpreter for the compositions that he wrote for Johnny Hodges. It was an absolute thrill being called to be in that band – which he named the Riverside Drive Five. I was thrilled to do it.”

One of the tunes performed at the concert and then long forgotten about was Orson – Strayhorn’s portrait of Orson Welles. The music for it was discovered in box stuffed with manuscripts in Strayhorn’s basement long after his death from cancer in 1967. The handwriting on the music helped shed light on Strayhorn’s enormous contribution to the Ellington repertoire and sound, while stacks of his own pieces underlined the fact – long known amongst musicians and Ellington experts – that he had been a brilliant composer in his own right;Billy Strayhorn solo that he alone had composed many of the numbers that had been thought to be collaborations.

Now, in Strayhorn’s centenary year, he will perhaps receive more of the widespread recognition he deserves – and his rarely heard compositions, among them the afore-mentioned Orson, will reach a broader listening public, not least audiences who attend the SNJO’s concerts this month.

* The SNJO (with Brian Kellock on piano) – The Jazz Genius of Billy Strayhorn is at the Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh on February 20, Buccleuch Centre, Langholm on February 21, and at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Glasgow on February 22.

* First published in Scotland on Sunday on February 15

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Ellington’s World Comes to Edinburgh

One of the most prestigious – and ambitious – items in this year’s Edinburgh Jazz Festival programme is a concert by a brand-new, specially-formed band on the penultimate night of the ten-day event. And, bizarrely, we have the Olympics to thank for it ..

Festival producer Roger Spence explains: “The idea is that in the Olympic year, when people are coming from all over the world to London, we thought we could create a concert programme which reflects jazz as an international music. In recent years, we’ve established the Edinburgh Jazz Festival Orchestra – the concept of which is to blend eight Scottish musicians with eight international ones – but with the World Jazz Orchestra, every single member of the band comes from a different country – we have musicians coming from all over the globe.”

Taking this idea and running with it, 100-metre style, Spence realised that there was one obvious body of work from which a programme could be formed for this melting pot band. “We know that jazz is international but we wanted music with a universal appeal and for a big event like this, we had to choose a composer who is regarded by many as the very best – so we chose Duke Ellington. And the wonderful thing about Duke Ellington as far as this project is concerned, is that he wrote music inspired by music and countries all over the world. We can reflect different flavours of world music through the prism of one composer.”

The choice of Duke Ellington led straight back to Scotland and to the jazz festival itself: over recent years, the great, Fife-born baritone saxophonist and one-time member of the Ellington band Joe Temperley (pictured above) has forged a strong relationship with the festival. “He was the obvious choice to lead the World Jazz Orchestra,” explains Spence. Temperley is more familiar than most with the vast Ellington repertoire: not only did he play in the band, following the death of its original baritone saxophonist Harry Carney, but he has also – in the context of his membership of Wynton Marsalis’s acclaimed Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra – played many of the Duke’s seldom-performed suites.

And key excerpts from one such suite are at the heart of next Saturday’s concert. Along with such exotic pieces as the Far East Suite and the Latin-American Suite, the orchestra will play some of Ellington’s landmark Black, Brown and Beige, which was performed for the first time by the Ellington band for its Carnegie Hall debut in 1943. This historic concert in aid of Russian War Relief was sold out (3000 seats) days beforehand but the demand for tickets remained so intense that a further 200 people were seated on the stage.

For Ellington aficionados, the 47-minute tone poem, which fused jazz, blues, spirituals and Spanish influences, and reflected the Afro-American experience from the arrival of the first wave of slaves off boats in 1619, was a thrill to hear – though the critics were not as quick to embrace this, the jazz composer’s first, full-blown suite. Jazz critics worried that he was forsaking jazz (though he had written a number of extended compositions before, including Symphony in Black which had similar themes), while the classical world was dismissive of his aspirations as a “serious” composer.

Indeed, Ellington – who later said: “We stopped using the word jazz in 1943; that was the point when we didn’t believe in categories” – never performed it again in its entirety in concert though he recorded numerous versions of it. Some parts of it – notably the magnificent spiritual Come Sunday, written for the alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges and performed by him at Carnegie Hall almost before the ink had dried on the arrangements – have taken on a life of their own. On the Ellington orchestra’s 1958 recording of Black, Brown and Beige, Come Sunday was sung by Mahalia Jackson. Since then, vocalists as diverse as jazz singer Lee Wiley and soul singer Gladys Knight have performed it – and in Edinburgh next week, it will be sung by Cecile McLorin Salvant, whom Temperley recommended for the job.

For the octogenarian musician, it’s a joy to be able to bring this music to an Edinburgh audience. “I love Black, Brown and Beige,” he says. “It’s one of my very favourite Ellington suites. I’m particularly fond of the version with Ben Webster where he plays the solo on The Blues. We’ll be doing that piece in Edinburgh, with the Danish tenor saxophonist Jesper Thilo following in the footsteps of Webster, Al Sears and Paul Gonsalves.”

Of course, Black, Brown and Beige – as with all of Ellington’s work – was written specifically for the musicians in his band at the time; for their individual and combined sounds. Temperley says: “The secret of Ellington’s success was the ‘Ellingtonians’ – Harry Carney, Ben Webster, Cootie Williams, Johnny Hodges etc. He wrote for them. It was like a Shakespeare company. It was more than a band; it was a collection of individuals that came together and were marshalled together in an unusual way – those different voicings he used, like two trombones and a baritone.. He did not have those in mind harmonically; he was thinking of the personalities of the musicians who’d be playing.”

Given this, is it more of a challenge to play Ellington’s music; do you approach it differently? “I would say so. If you play a Basie arrangement, it’s pretty straight-ahead. With Ellington, you have to bear in mind the people who went before, and not try to impersonate them. Of course you’re influenced by them, but you shouldn’t try to sound like them.” A tall order – but Temperley and his international team will no doubt have earned their gold medals by the time they’ve completed their Ellington marathon.

* The World Jazz Orchestra plays at the Festival Theatre on Saturday, July 28. For more information visit www.edinburghjazzfestival.com

First published in The Scotsman, Thursday July 19, 2012

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CD Recommendations: November 2011

Houston Person: Moment to Moment (HighNote) 

As anyone who’s heard the seventysomething American saxophonist Houston Person perform knows, he plays with an authority, a bluesiness and a robustness which mark him out as belonging to the Gene Ammons/Illinois Jacquet school of tenor sax. Those qualities, plus his lyricism and graceful handling of ballads, shine through on this CD which teams him with boppish trumpeter Terell Stafford plus quartet. Highlights include Billy Joel’s Just the Way You Are, Johnny Green’s I Cover the Waterfront, plus the bossa E Nada Mais.

Coleman Hawkins: Today and Now/Desafinado (Impulse)

To mark the 50th anniversary of Impulse! Records, a new series of two-album CDs is being launched. This double bill of 1963 LPs by the saxophone giant Coleman Hawkins is superb. Playing as beautifully as ever in the last decade of his life (and accompanied on both albums by a rhythm section led by pianist Tommy Flanagan), the Hawk is in raunchy form on the uptempo numbers on the first album, notably the sensational opener Go L’il Liza, and manages to make the bossa nova his own on a string of tracks associated with Stan Getz. The absolute stand-out, however, is the sublime Love Song (AKA My Love and I) from the movie Apache.

Warren Vache: Ballads and Other Cautionary Tales (Arbors Records) Few artists are brave enough to make an album entirely composed of ballads, but with American cornettist Warren Vache – one of the greats at wearing his heart on his musical sleeve – it’s a long overdue and natural decision. The 12 tracks featured here show that ballads come in many forms – sexy, bluesy and playful among them. Vache is at the top of his game these days, and is surrounded here by the best, including pianists Tardo Hammer and Richard Wyands, and special guests John Allred (trombone) and Houston Person (tenor sax).

Johnny Hodges: Second Set – Three Classic Albums Plus (Avid Jazz) Attention Johnny “Rabbit” Hodges fans! Devotees of the slinkiest, sexiest alto saxophonist of them all should note that this double CD includes a Rabbit rarity: his 1958 strings album, Johnny Hodges Plays the Prettiest Gershwin, hitherto very difficult to come by. You may already have the other three albums (from the early 1950s) but the strings is a must; Hodges’s exquisite, swoonsome sax beautifully complemented by the Stuttgart Light Orchestra playing Russ Garcia’s elegant arrangements.

Scott Hamilton Scandinavian Five: Live at Nefertiti (Stunt Records)

Tenor sax king Scott Hamilton shows that he reigns supreme on this Swedish-made album (and DVD), recorded in a Gothenburg jazz club with a band comprising members from Sweden and Denmark. Devotees of Hamilton’s rich, full-bodied sax sound and swinging style may not find it as essential a buy as his recent duo CD with Rossano Sportiello but it’s a great find all the same, with Hamilton demonstrating how thrilling a live player he is, and that, when it comes to ballads, few can touch him.

Ornette Coleman: Something Else!!!! (OJC Remasters) The pioneering alto saxophonist’s first recording session (from 1958) is, perhaps surprisingly for someone whose name connotes far-out, avant-garde jazz, extremely accessible – and very much in the bop idiom. Accompanied by a quartet featuring Don Cherry on trumpet and the hard-swinging Walter Norris on piano, Coleman powers his way through nine of his own compositions, showcasing his squawky yet appealing sound and conversational style in the process. Highlights include the immensely catchy The Blessing, Sphinx and the opening track, Invisible, which launched Coleman on unsuspecting listeners for the first time.

The Rossano Sportiello Trio: Lucky to Be Me (Arbors Records) 

The wonderful Italian-born, New York-based pianist Rossano Sportiello is the darling of the mainstream jazz scene these days – and this trio album shows why. He has a similar lightness and delicacy of touch as the late John Bunch, as well as a comparable combination of lyricism, swing and whimsical humour. This CD, on which he’s accompanied by Frank Tate (bass) and Dennis Mackrel (drums), is a hugely enjoyable, classy affair.


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CD Recommendations: July 2011

Ben Webster & Johnny Hodges: The Complete 1960 Sextet Jazz Cellar Recordings (Solar Records) Released for the first time in its complete form, this is a historic encounter between two of the greatest exponents of the saxophone in jazz: tenor man Webster and altoist Hodges. It does not disappoint; in fact, it’s an absolute treasure, a must for fans of Hodges’s sinewy sound and/or Webster’s breathy tenor – and anyone who loves funky, blues-infused jazz. The dream team is swingingly accompanied by a quartet featuring Lou Levy (piano) and Herb Ellis (guitar), and this 17-track CD also includes five rare octet outings from 1961. Blues’ll Blow Your Fuse, Ifida and The Mooche-like I’d Be There (surely a tribute to their Ellingtonian background?) are among the many stand-outs.. Frankly, I’ve been playing this obsessively since before I even got my own copy (I had already worn out my dad’s) – and I’m hoping that that great tenor-alto duo of our time, Ken Peplowski and Alan Barnes, unearth some of these brilliant tunes for their next joint outing..

Carol Kidd & Nigel Clark: Tell Me Once Again (Linn Records)

Vested interest declaration time: I wrote the liner notes for this, the first duo CD by the peerless Scots vocalist Kidd and her wonderful guitarist Clark. Their duets have long been highlights of Kidd’s concerts, and this collection of 12 songs shows why. This is musical storytelling at its best, and a superb example of the scope within the duo format: along with several exquisite ballads, the songs range from R ‘n’ B – You Don’t Know Me – to a bossa nova version of Stevie Wonder’s Moon Blue. There’s a lovely arc to this highly personal album which culminates, fittingly, with The End of a Love Affair.

Cal Tjader-Stan Getz Sextet (OJC Remasters )

Stan Getz’s playing is like a cool summer breeze, and this lovely 1958 album is as fresh and lovely-sounding as his more famous, subsequent, bossa nova LPs. He and vibes player Tjader have a great rapport, and, accompanied by a quartet that includes pianist Vince Guaraldi, work their way through a delicious mix of standards and Tjader-penned tunes, with Guaraldi’s joyful Ginza Samba a rousing opener. A gem.

Scott Hamilton & Rossano Sportiello: Midnight at Nola’s Penthouse (Arbors Records)

In recent years, the American tenor sax great Scott Hamilton and the nimble-fingered Italian pianist Rossano Sportiello have increasingly sought out each other’s musical company, and their affinity is evident on all ten tracks included here. The phrase “less is more” could have been coined for this supremely tasteful double act: Sportiello’s delicate touch and Hamilton’s soulful, breathy sax were made for each other, and the choices of off-the-beaten-track tunes – among them such ballads as the beautifully spare Wonder Why, A Garden in the Rain and In the Middle of a Kiss – are spot-on.

Karen Sharp: Spirit (Trio Records) 
Baritone saxophonist Karen Sharp graduated from the Humphrey Lyttelton band and is now established as an in-demand solo star, who fits perfectly into mainstream and contemporary line-ups. This quartet CD, which features her Tokyo Trio colleague Nikki Iles on piano, veers more towards the contemporary and features mainly jazz compositions written by pianists as well as some familiar movie/musical numbers. A terrific introduction to Sharp’s authoritative, always-swinging baritone sax style.

Warren Vache, Alan Barnes and the Woodville All-Stars: The London Session (Woodville Records) Having written the liner notes, I’ve been living with this CD for months – and I’m still finding more things to love about it. Cornettist Vache and multi-instrumentalist Barnes may have worked together many times but this album is as exciting as they come: it features them getting their teeth into some imaginative arrangements in a septet setting. Their delight in each other’s company is evident throughout, and both are at the top of their game, notably when tearing up such storming numbers as Molasses.

Various: First Impulse – The Creed Taylor Collection 50th Anniversary (Verve) To mark the 50th anniversary of the iconic jazz label Impulse!, founded by producer Creed Taylor, an impressive, four-disc (but LP size) box set has been released comprising all six of the albums that Taylor himself produced – plus some previously unissued rehearsals by John Coltrane. It’s a great collection, with classic recordings from Ray Charles (Genius + Soul = Jazz), Gil Evans (Out of the Cool), Oliver Nelson (Blues and The Abstract Truth), Coltrane (Africa/Brass) and Kai Winding (The Great Kai and The Incredible Kai Winding Trombones).

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CD Recommendations

Scott Hamilton & Alan Barnes: Hi-Ya (Woodville Records)

What a superb album this is. The second horn-to-horn encounter between saxophonists Scott Hamilton and Alan Barnes on the Woodville label, it finds both musicians on top form on a selection of mostly Johnny Hodges tunes. Every track’s a winner but among the highlights are Hamilton’s rich, laidback tenor solo on First Klass, which contrasts beautifully with Barnes’s alto; their thrilling musical tug-of-war on The Jeep is Jumping; David Newton’s funky, understated piano solo on the lovely Broadway Babe, and Barnes’s powerhouse performance on June’s Jumpin’.

The Warren Vache-John Allred Quintet: Top Shelf (Arbors Records)

I must confess to being familiar with the music on this CD before it was released: I wrote the liner notes earlier this year. And was thrilled to do so, as this is a first-rate album which showcases American cornet star and his co-leader, trombonist John Allred – musical partners who couldn’t be better matched. Both players distill influences from the classic, swing and bop eras and, in each other’s company, revel in a rare chance to flex their bop muscles on tunes by the likes of Blue Mitchell (a particular favourite of both) and Cannonball Adderley.

Nat “King” Cole: The Forgotten 1949 Carnegie Hall Concert (Hep  Records)

A Carnegie Hall concert headlined by Nat “King” Cole and his Trio and Woody Herman and his Thundering Herd took place in November 1949, but until very recently, it was assumed that there was no recording of it. Then the Cole set was discovered – and it’s presented here (on the Edinburgh-based label, Hep) for the first time. Cole’s trios were among the greatest in jazz – and the most influential – and in 1949 he was at the peak of his powers. His playing is terrific, the band is really cooking, and his singing is a joy..

Evan Christopher’s Django a la Creole: Finesse (lejazzetal/Fremeaux & Associes)

This sublime CD is one of my favourites of the year so far – and I love it even more now than when I initially reviewed it in July. What makes this Django outfit stand out from the many others on the scene is its Creole twist: Evan Christopher’s sweet and swinging Sidney Bechet-inspired playing blends stylishly with the familiar Reinhardt sound (of two guitars plus bass). Among the numerous highlights of this uplifting album are Bechet’s Passaporto ao Paraiso, Hoagy Carmichael’s Jubilee and two numbers associated with the trumpeter Rex Stewart, who, of course, recorded with Monsieur Reinhardt in the 1930s.

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Herman Leonard

The great photographer Herman Leonard died on August 14. Here’s a piece I wrote about him, when I did a phone interview with him in 2005 on the occasion of the publication of his book Jazz, Giants, and Journeys – The Photography of Herman Leonard (Scala). He was a delightful and very gracious man.

He may have lived in seven different countries, worked with the world’s most beautiful models and photographed far-flung places and people, but the constant throughout the long career of photographer Herman Leonard has been his passion for jazz. His portraits of such jazz greats as Billie Holiday and Duke Ellington are regarded as the definitive images of these stars, and his archive is a veritable Who’s Who of jazz history.

Now, at the age of 83, Leonard’s work is being celebrated in a new book, Jazz, Giants, and Journeys – The Photography of Herman Leonard. It very nearly didn’t happen, though: 10,000 of his prints were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, and it was only because Leonard took the precaution of storing his negatives in a vault in a New Orleans museum that this unique archive survives.

For Leonard, the music came second only to the pictures: his first love was undoubtedly photography. The chatty octogenarian chortles as he recalls how his passion was initially stirred. “My older brother was interested in photography and had taken some figure studies of his wife which I came across in the tray in his little darkroom. I was eight or nine years old and had never even imagined anything like these pictures! The only nude women I’d seen were Greek statues. But I saw his photos and I thought – this is the way I gotta go…”

When Leonard set up his first studio in New York’s Greenwich Village in 1948, he was a fully-fledged jazz fan. Luckily for him, it was at a time when the scene was thriving – though there was, as he points out, “no living to be made in jazz photography.” By day, Leonard worked for magazines and shot advertising campaigns, but at night he was to be found on 52nd Street, the birthplace of bebop. “I loved the music and became enchanted with the whole atmosphere of the nightclubs,” he says. “I wanted to make a visual diary of these musical moments, just strictly for my own self.”

Leonard would trade his photos for admission into the clubs, and soon became a fixture in front of the bandstands in the Royal Roost, the Downbeat and Birdland. “I was very fortunate. The club owners let me come in in the afternoon to set my lights up.” His unforgettable, black and white photographs of the young turks of the scene – Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Dexter Gordon etc – are thrillingly evocative and undoubtedly helped jazz earn its “cool” status. Leonard was the same age as many of the musicians he was photographing, and he quickly became “one of the guys”.

Among his early work, one of his best-known photographs was a still life of the melancholy tenor saxophonist Lester Young’s sax case and iconic pork pie hat, surrounded by the swirls of cigarette smoke which were ubiquitous in Leonard’s club pictures. It’s one of Leonard’s favourite photos, because it sums up the character, and yet – incredibly – it was completely un-posed.

Another of Leonard’s early sessions was with the singer who was Young’s musical soulmate – Billie Holiday. He recalls it vividly. “The first time I worked with her was 1949 and she had just come out of jail. She was healthy and rested and off the drugs. She was charming, she was welcoming. I was with a reporter, and when we got to her modest Harlem apartment, she was wearing an apron and she’d been cooking a steak for her dog.

“The last time I photographed her was at a recording session for Norman Granz in ’55. When she walked in, she looked so terrible – haggard and drawn, just horrible – that I turned to Norman and said: ‘I can’t shoot this. You can’t use these pictures on your cover.’ He said: ‘You get your ass out there and shoot. You may not have another chance.’ Which turned out to be the case.

“I have a lot of pictures from that session that I’ll never show anybody because she just looks awful, and that isn’t the way I was brought up in photography. My mentor, Yousuf Karsh, told me:  ‘Herman, always tell the truth but in terms of beauty’. I loved Billie so much that I wouldn’t dare show these very sad pictures. But I did manage to get four or five images at that last session that I do show.”

One of these is of her shoes. “I particularly like that shot. You know, she had a tragic life – always being taken advantage of and abused by the men and so on. She lived her life in chains, and here she is in a pair of shoes with chains around her ankles. That to me is symbolic.”

Another favourite subject and singer was Ella Fitzgerald, whom Leonard photographed in the States and in Paris, where he lived for over a decade from 1956. Fitzgerald came to Paris with the producer and impresario Norman Granz (who owned Verve Records).

Leonard has very fond memories of Granz. “Norman did so much for jazz and so much for the musicians. He always did everything first class. He flew them first class, he put them in first class hotels – everything. There were occasions when he would come with black musicians and they wouldn’t be accepted, and Norman would say: ‘Either you keep us together – you don’t segregate us – or we won’t do the gig.’ ”

Just as Leonard was in the right place at the right time being in New York as bop blossomed, so he was perfectly placed in Paris for catching up with the superstars of jazz when they flew in for concerts. As often as not, it was with Leonard that they hung out at the Club St Germain after their show, or at the cosmopolitan Brasserie Lipp when they needed a late supper. The amenable photographer recalls snapping the majestic alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges there – “a sweet man” – and taking advantage of the kitchen’s late opening to dine on pastrami and coleslaw with him and other hungry American musicians.

One of Leonard’s favourite stars was Louis Armstrong. “Louis was fabulous. He was a show. He was always gagging around, having fun – just like the personality you see in his films. That’s why there’s one particular picture that I have of him which is out of the ordinary. He looks melancholy, but he was actually just thoughtful in that picture. He was backstage, and I was behind some curtains. I looked through and saw him sitting there like that so I poked my camera through and took a shot. He heard the click and he looked over at me and winked. I like that shot because it shows a different aspect of Louis.”

So who was the biggest thrill to meet? Leonard becomes very thoughtful, and his assistant suggests some names. Miles? “No, with Miles, I gravitated into his acquaintance gradually.” Louis? “No, because Louis was so open. I think it was Duke Ellington – wow, that was the biggest thrill: I was in the presence of the Duke, the elegant Ellington. He was a masterful guy and he was extremely sweet to me and accommodating. I was most impressed by that. He was hounded by everybody and you know when you hang around these big stars and you see what they have to go through, you can understand that they back away.

“For instance, I’m also, happily, a very close friend of Tony Bennett’s. I’m hanging out with him, we’re walking down the street, he has no entourage, nothing like that and people come up to him, and he stops and smiles and .. I say: ‘Doesn’t this all kind of bother you after a while?’ He says: ‘Look, these people are wonderful.. ‘ and he goes on like that. Ellington was like that too. A gentleman, a total, total gentleman.”

One of Leonard’s very favourite pictures is a rear view of Frank Sinatra. “I like it because it’s undeniably Sinatra – the body language, the feel of the smoke from the cigarette, and the simplicity of the picture. There’s nothing complicated about it, but to me it tells the story of Sinatra.

“In fact, I was taken out to his domain in Palm Springs by Quincy Jones one day, years ago. I had brought that particular print with me. I showed it to him and he hesitated and said: ‘Monte Carlo, 1958’. My jaw fell to the floor. At that point, somebody called him and he walked away. I turned to Quincy, and said: ‘How did he do that?’ . He said: ‘I don’t know, this guy is weird’. That’s a true story. He was wonderful. He was probably the one musician that I was in awe of. I didn’t engage him in long conversations as I would with the others. I just stood back there and watched and listened because I loved what he did. Sinatra was, to me, the greatest singer of all time.”

So, any regrets? Didn’t the camera sometimes get in the way of enjoying the music? “Absolutely,” nods Leonard. “People ask me: ‘What were they playing when you took that picture?’ I have no idea. I was thinking about the focusing and the angle and the exposure and all that kind of thing. I missed a lot of music because I was concentrating on the shot. But I don’t feel I missed out on the experience. The thrill of being there was enough for me.”

* Visit www.bbc.co.uk for a lovely tribute to Herman Leonard, with pictures and music.

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