Heather Pinson: Jazz in Media: Photography as a Cultural Construct

The photograph, as the focus of this presentation, presents a certain image that, if reproduced over and over again in album covers, film, publications, flyers, posters, and other forms, establishes a mental picture in the mind of the viewer. Herman Leonard’s photographs of jazz musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Dexter Gordon, and Louis Armstrong from 1945 to 1959 recall the classic sound of jazz from that era. Through his illustrious black and white prints which affirms jazz’s ‘high art’ status, Leonard’s photographs are the best representation of what is currently understood and marketed as jazz. As Ernst Gombrich says, “Perception always stands in need of universals” thus, Leonard “universalizes” jazz through the artistic production of his photographs. Often in these truncated still lifes, the suffering black American artist becomes the prototypical romantic hero. And according to Cynthia Sesso, Herman Leonard’s licensing manager, his prints of black musicians sell more than those of white musicians. Why is this so? How does one interpret the struggle found in the image of black jazz musicians, and how has this image been tied to mostly American musicians while excluding others especially European musicians? This presentation will explore aspects of resistance interpreted in the jazz photographs of Herman Leonard as a selling point for jazz photography and will examine the role of the “white hipster” in a commercialized society.

Dr. Heather Pinson has degrees in interdisciplinary arts, music, and musicology and publishes predominately on popular music, jazz, aesthetics, and race theory. As the Chair of the Communication Department at Robert Morris University, Heather teaches courses on art and music history and is the author of The Jazz Image: Seeing Music Through Herman Leonard’s Photography released by the University Press of Mississippi. Other publications include articles in Current Musicology, Rock Brands: Selling Sound in a Media Saturated Society, the Encyclopedia of the Blues, and the Encyclopedia of African American Music. In addition to her training as a classical violinist, she performs weekly in both popular and classical music ensembles.