The Jazz Image – Seeing Music through Herman Leonard’s Photography, by K. Heather Pinson
I have to admit that I have two connections to this book that have drawn me in, captivated and enthralled me: I know the subject, the eminent jazz/photojournalist photographer Herman Leonard (though only slightly,) and possess one of his classic photos – an amazing candid shot of Ella Fitzgerald singing at the Downbeat Club, on 52nd Street in Manhattan, taken in 1949, with Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman and Richard Rodgers seated, enthralled, at a bistro table not ten feet from the great singer; and, I am myself a professional photographer, (in addition to being a composer).
Do these circumstances constrain my objectivity in reviewing this book? On the contrary, they engage my interest and provide a window into the world of bebop, the great musical artists who created it, and how it came to be that Leonard was the right man at the right time to capture and document musical history in the making at a crucial time in post-War America, from 1945-1950, as it – and we – entered the Modern era.
The book documents the rise of bebop as seen through Herman Leonard’s probing lens, which Ms. Pinson deconstructs, through her persuasive powers of analysis, into subject areas that lie beneath the surface image. Successive chapters delve deeply into the social and psychological layers of the photographs: The Jazz Image in Visual Culture, Signs (and symbols) in Jazz Photography and a “Style Portrait” of the (jazz) Avant-Garde. All are elucidating, perceptive, highly analytical and contribute much to our understanding of these musical giants, while miraculously – for a text such as this – neither disturb nor “explain away” their mystique and power to captivate audiences 60 years later with the power of their genius.
Ms. Pinson has accomplished a great deal, providing a keen and perceptive eye into a portal that jazz aficionados, and hopefully, many others seriously interested in mid-20th century American musical culture will read, illuminating that crucial transitional time in our history.
We owe much to Herman Leonard and his confrere photographers for preserving this uniquely American legacy; and Heather Pinson’s book is the perfect accompaniment to an evening spent listening to jazz classics performed by such as Dizzy Gillespie or Dexter Gordon. For serious study of the iconography of jazz – its social importance and deep meaning, The Jazz Image – Seeing Music through Herman Leonard’s Photography will be the go-to book on the subject well into the future. My highest recommendation.
The Jazz Image – Seeing Music through Herman Leonard’s Photography, by K. Heather Pinson. 40 pages; appendices of exhibitions of Herman Leonard’s photography and publications. University Press of Mississippi, 2010, hardbound; ISBN 978-1-60473-494-2.
Is there a more thoughtful, probing, humane and literate performer writing on music today than the great pianist Charles Rosen? His The Classical Style, published in 1971, is a brilliant analysis/survey of the syntactical elements to be found in the masterworks of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. Sonata Forms, published in 1980, is a kind of sequel, detailing the evolution of this archetypical structure, which nearly all the great masters have absorbed and modified in the composition of their sonatas, symphonies, string quartets, et al. 1995 saw the publication of The Romantic Generation, an exegesis on the musical languages of Chopin, Liszt, Schumann and Mendelssohn.
Rosen brings to bear his encyclopedic knowledge of music in many forms (opera, lieder, string chamber music) as well as, of course, his natural territory of piano masterworks, surveying the literature from Haydn to Debussy and Ravel – to the end of functional harmony, in other words, and the point in time where harmony morphs into tone color — the aim being to discover how musical grammar changed with the passage of time and style, from composer to composer, to create a sense of evolving, large scale unity. Rosen’s writing is replete with many musical examples, and reminds me of Donald Tovey’s essays on musical form and the masterworks of the classical era.
Music and Sentiment is a book for deeply engaged, well-read musicians who have a need to know the thought processes that went into creating the classical canon and beyond, and want to explore these mysteries from the vantage point of a first-class pianist well-versed in every style of music, from Bach to Alban Berg and beyond, to Pierre Boulez and Elliott Carter.
The theme is “sentiment” – perhaps best thought of in this case as thoughtful feeling allied to probing the contradictions, in both the poetic and syntactic sense, of how composers often wrote commentary into their music. Rosen has the great gift of elucidating how this happens, and his book is a model of the clarity and concision worthy of the classical music he so loves.
Chapters are: “Pre-Classical sentiment,” “The C minor style,” “Beethoven’s expansion,” “Romantic intensity” and “Obsessions” – this last is concerned with the crisis of tonality around 1900. Rosen lucidly describes the developing language of classical music as it goes beyond the boundaries of the classical style, with its expanding syntax and aesthetic and artistic achievements, via Brahms, into the 20th century, in the music of Puccini, Strauss, Debussy, Ravel, Berg and Stravinsky.
This is a special book, written by a supremely gifted musician for the serious amateur music lover and professional alike to read, put down, re-read, study and return to months or years later. Worthy of an honored place on the musician’s bookshelf, it is a remarkable achievement. I believe it will be looked upon, over time, as a “classic.”
Music and Sentiment, by Charles Rosen. 146 pages. Yale University Press, 2010, hardbound; ISBN 978-0-300-12640-2.
– Steve Dankner