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“As I look back to the photo that Jean-Pierre captured of Sassy [Sarah Vaughan] and me sitting on the floor at my home in Paris while listening to songs on my record player, I am reminded of all the people, stories, and even the songs we were listening to at that moment. For a picture to have the ability to clearly bring back such memories and emotions is a powerful tool.”
- Quincy Jones
“In my days as a young student, I noticed a photographer under the light of his flash, coming and going around the jazz players, shooting during concerts at the jazz clubs. I didn't know, however, that his name was Jean-Pierre Leioir, and that some time later he would also focus his attention on me. Eventually, I gained some recognition as a jazz player, and with the passing of the years, friendship arose between us under the light of his camera thanks to the quality of his portraits, which always bloomed with life, action and music.”
- Michel Legrand
“I first met Jean-Pierre Leloir at Club Saint Germain des Pres in the '50s. He went there often because, at that time, I think he was primarily interested in jazz musicians. At least that's what it looked like to me. Saint-Germain was at the peak of its popularity then. It was always full of peculiar characters, and Leloir was in the neighborhood almost every night. During that period, Leloir was one of the very few photographers interested in the musicians, and he was certainly the only one who knew us by name. His manners and behavior always seemed very professional, highly precise and meticulous, and it was apparent that he loved what he was doing and admired his chosen models.”
- Martial Solal
“His photographs of jazz legends in particular bristle with a sense of mutual respect. When they knew the camera was there, one can tell they also had a sense of the man who was behind it. When the photographs were shot candidly, Leloir framed the musicians in a manner that honored and celebrated their stature.”
- Ashley Kahn
I’ve commented many times before on this page about the affinity between Jazz in performance and photography.
Each time I purchase a book of Jazz photographs this natural liking of one for the other is brought home to me once again.
What is also reinforced by the process of viewing a folio of a Jazz photographer’s work is the powerful truth contained in this axiom by Aristotle:
“We are all different with regard to those things we have in common.”
Put another way, while all Jazz photographers have the camera in common, the manner in which they go about employing it is different, at times, startlingly so.
A case in point are the photographs in Marion Leloir Jazz Images by Jean-Pierre Leloir, with assistance from Gerardo Cañellas and Jordi Soley [Elemental Music 2016].
Because he lived and worked in Paris, Jean-Pierre had to wait for Jazz to come to him, initially when American musicians arrived as guests to perform in concerts and clubs and then later when many of them came to Paris to live as expatriots.
But when he did encounter the music and its makers, Jean-Pierre was ready and made the most of it, perhaps, because as Michel Legrand explains “Jean-Pierre himself was a musician, but his choice of instrument was a camera, which he never put away.”
The following excerpt from the Quincy Jones Introduction to Jazz Images by Jean-Pierre Leloir provides a glimpse into the quality that made Jean-Pierre unique as a Jazz Lensman:
“We do not take pictures for the sake of having the image last, but we take them to retain the stories that are paired with them -and that is exactly what I find so captivating about Jean Pierre Leloir's work. He was not just a photographer; instead, he was a preserver of history. As a result, this book holds hundreds of stories that shine a light onto the lives of those who live in these pages.
Leloir had a unique ability to preserve an entire atmosphere and its surrounding emotions between the four corners of a picture, but beyond his talent as a photographer, he presented himself not as paparazzi, but a friend. He and my other brother Herman Leonard were two of a kind; they had the same passion for photography and an endless supply of vision.”
For my taste, what I find so striking about Leloir’s work are the expanded close-ups that fill the entire page with a face, a face that’s beautifully texture by the use of light the reveals all of its contours giving the portrait a three-dimensional quality. These portraits look as though the essence of the person is diffused into the photograph.
As his daughter Marion comments in her Foreword:
“… [His] photos tell stories about jazz, almost allowing us to hear the music. The portraits of the artists with their audience invite us into the intimacy of that moment, reflecting the alchemy between music and light my father embodied.”
Perhaps a fuller expression of Leloir’s accomplishments as a Jazz photographer is contained in the following
PREFACE by Ashley Kahn
“Jean-Pierre Leloir appears in the 2001 documentary The Miles Davis Story -sharp tie, round glasses, and distinctive, thick moustache: a professor of some sort. He's onscreen only briefly, speaking English with a musical Parisian accent, describing how the European experience for black American musicians was one of uncommon freedom, especially in France.
It's a funny moment: the interviewer tries to guide him into using the word "respect" but Leloir is already focused on the idea of "freedom" - the freedom to be and do as one pleases, musically or recreationally, without fear. "Yes, freedom, respect," he says, waving his hand, clearly preferring to say it in his own way. "They were accepted as musicians but they were free."
Both men are correct of course -American jazzmen of color did and still do flock to Europe for all these reasons, to create music that is appreciated, and to engage with life free from the restrictions and the racial shadows back home. But I love how in those few seconds Leloir's inner nature cannot help but reveal itself: he was strong-willed and stubbornly independent. He was fiercely dedicated to an ideal of creative and individual expression. He saw the world as right and wrong, and marked the line between the two with clarity and an upright chin.
There's no doubt that artists, cultural leaders and politicians recognized this in Leloir. His photographs of jazz legends in particular bristle with a sense of mutual respect. When they knew the camera was there, one can tell they also had a sense of the man who was behind it. When the photographs were shot candidly, Leloir framed the musicians in a manner that honored and celebrated their stature.
I met and communicated with Leloir a number of times to see how I might include his photographs in books or documentaries. When I could, I traveled to Paris to meet and negotiate with him face to face. "I cannot see this project happening without your images," I said the first time we met. I was sincere but he didn't want to hear that. He did not trust accolades. We would first nail down the terms of the agreement, then he would allow me a look at his contact sheets - amazing photographs that held so much history, and the promise of maybe a backstory.
I remember standing with Leloir in his office near La Bourse, looking over photos taken in concert at L'Olympia in 1960 - rare images of John Coltrane on his last tour with Miles Davis. I asked him what he remembered of the music, of the crowd's reaction. He looked at one photo and thought. "I remember I had trouble getting the angle right," he said. "I needed to get around some other photographers who were crowding that part of the stage. But see, I got it..."
To Leloir, in the end, his craft was his priority, and his intentions are here for the eye to see and the heart to feel. To him, words were all too often superfluous. Did he respect, revere these giants of jazz? Do we even need to ask? The photographs Leloir took have helped canonize (no pun intended) his subjects, but of course he never saw it that way. To him they were all giants already.”