Smoke Gets In Your Eyes


by Herman Leonard
(Bloomsbury USA)

Herman Leonard soaked his film in chemicals before he headed out to capture jazz players, so its emulsion would be able to capture low light images. That's the left brain.

Smoke from cigarettes explodes, curls, whispers, hisses, and punctuates jazz giants from Duke to Billie to Louie to Miles -- a literal expression of a cliche, "cooking," that instead of making the image smaller, enlarges it. That's the right brain.

The new collection of magisterial black-and-white portraits of jazz musicians, Jazz, is an object of rare beauty. But it is much more than that. It is the Yin to the recorded Yang. It is the missing visual piece to the audio puzzle that is a recording by Ellington or Monk.

Now here is where I make a confession. I am the completely wrong person to review this book. Every photograph I fell into as I flipped through the enormous, beautifully printed pages of this book struck up a stream of sounds. The plinking of Monk's piano, Sonny Rollins as he barks and soars and claws his way to the top of one chorus, only to rappel himself even higher as the chords wind back around to the beginning for another round. Basie's band tearing it up, Lester leaping in. Brubeck, and lo and behold, Desmond, doing their college-friendly quantum mechanic routine on swinging blues.

My internal juke box was cranking. It was a multi-media delight.

But what about you, average reader, if you don't know your Ella from your Anita? Will this book leave you flat? Or, even worse, will it be an exercise in retro style? "Look at the funky glasses on George Shearing!? "See how cool and angular Chet Baker looks!"

No. And here is where the real genius of Leonard, who passed away earlier this year, here is where his genius lies. He won't let you fetishize these people. He won't let you turn them into Mad Men nostalgia trips, with styles soon to be available at Urban Outfitters. Leonard probes the complexity of the personalities that made up art in the moment, who worked insane hours and lived a true topsy-turvy life, creating art with a capital a out of pop songs and booze and racism and -- life.

These are special people who are living a special way. It just happens to be expressed in Jazz at a certain time and in a certain place.

So, at the end of the day, every image in this remarkable book is about you -- but a better version of you. The best version of you. But, still, for best effect it wouldn't hurt to open a bottle of nice wine, put on, say, The Atomic Basie, and light up a Lucky while you flip through it.

If you know what I'm saying? - Ken Krimstein Ken.jpg

Mr. Krimstein is a writer, cartoonist, father, and grump who lives in New York City. So there.