Jazz in B&W

February 22, 2008

Watching, and more importantly listening, to the wonderful jazz short Jammin’ The Blues I was struck by how beautifully jazz and black and white photography go together. This1944 film is particularly stylish to look at on top of the sensational jam session it records. It turns out that the film was directed by the Albanian born American photographer Gjon Mili. Mili spent most of his career as a photographer for Life magazine, including taking many cover shots.


Mili was an innovator and had a great ability to capture movement, sometimes enhanced by multiple exposures – a technique he also used in Jammin’ The Blues. The film, which features Lester Young, begins on a top view of Young’s hat. A similar image to one used a few years later by Herman Leonard in his 1948 photograph of Lester Young’s hat.

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I have a number of Herman Leonard’s photographs on my living room wall. Deep blacks, stark shadows, whips of smoke. They fill the room with music – complex , moody jazz.


To me, Herman Leonard is the great jazz photographer. His pictures are all atmosphere and music and of course could only be seen in black and white.

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Compare those photographs of Dizzy, Duke and Billie with the better-known but more formal photographs by William Gottlieb.

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No contest.

Incidentally, although many thousands of Leonard’s photographs were lost in Hurricane Katrina, fortunately for fans of these wonderful photographs, the negatives were saved. setstats


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