Louisiana musicians subject of two exhibits at LSU Museum of Art
Look past Duke Ellington, and you will see yourself watching him as he watches Ella Fitzgerald.
His face is frozen in awe, and it’s likely that yours will be, too.
Herman Leonard captured it all, but one wonders if he planned on capturing the viewer’s presence as it’s reflected in the glass.
Because you’re moving within this frozen moment, a moment Leonard titled “Ella Fitzgerald with Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman and Richard Rodgers at the Downbeat Club — New York City, 1946.”
It’s one of more than 30 prints in the exhibit, An Eye on Jazz: Photographs by Herman Leonard, a show that coincides with the exhibit, Edward Pramuk: Seeing Music, at the LSU Museum of Art.
The shows run through Sunday, July 14, and are part of the Baton Rouge Blues Project, an idea developed by the Alfred C. Glassell Jr. Exhibition Gallery.
Through this project, the gallery has joined with the museum and the Louisiana Art & Science Museum to feature Louisiana music-themed exhibits. The shows also work within the Louisiana Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism’s 2013 spotlight on Louisiana music.
Still, there’s something a little more special behind the LSU Museum of Art’s choice of exhibits. It’s the realization of something only discussed in the past.
Leonard and Pramuk knew each other. The past tense is necessary here, because Leonard died in 2010. He was 87.
He’d lived in New Orleans before that, having moved there to document the city’s jazz scene in photographs. That statement is really too simplistic. For when walking past Leonard’s portrait of Billie Holiday at the exhibit’s entrance, you know exactly who he is. Iconic is an overused word these days, applied even to the mundane. But it’s the only description that can be applied here, because Leonard’s isn’t just any picture of the singing Holiday — it’s the picture.
Her eyes are fixed on something past the nightclub walls, and her hands are poised as if ready to grab it. Leonard took this photo in 1949, simply titling it “Billie Holiday.”
It’s the perfect introduction for Leonard, whose camera captured so many moments in jazz history, many of them featured in this exhibit.
“I describe it this way: Herman’s exhibit is a night on the town,” Pramuk said. “It’s bright lights, big city. My exhibit is an after-hours club. It’s where you can sit down .”
And it comes as a pleasant surprise to Pramuk. He and Leonard talked about one day hanging their work in a two-man show, and though Leonard is not here to see it, the show has finally happened. This is the aforementioned realization of the artists’ discussions.
It was always, “We should do that,” and “One day.”
And now that day has arrived, and while the LSU Museum of Art has divided the work into two exhibitions, it is, indeed, a two-man show.
That point is made with Pramuk’s mixed media painting, “Strange Fruit for Billie Holiday,” juxtaposed opposite Leonard’s photograph at the entrance. The artistic styles and genres are different, yet they come together as in Pramuk’s analogy of a night on the town and an after hours club.
You are the audience. You can see Holiday’s passion in the photograph. You can feel it in the painting.
That is, her passion for music. Pramuk can feel that passion each time he listens to jazz. He spent a lifetime loving the music, but didn’t start incorporating jazz into his paintings until he was in his 50s.
Pramuk is an Akron, Ohio, native. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Kent State University in Kent, Ohio, and his master’s degree from Queens College in New York.
Pramuk spent 35 years teaching painting, drawing, printmaking and design at LSU, where he headed the School of Art’s Painting Area for 15 years. He also pioneered the development of graduate pedagogical studies which prepare students to instruct foundation courses in design and drawing.
Pramuk is probably best known for his abstract work, which is why his mixed media portraits took many of his regular viewers by surprise. They were used to seeing his themes from nature, and they were quite taken by what they perceived as new work.
But it wasn’t new; it was something he’d been working on for quite a while, a medium that paired his art with his love of jazz.
Leonard, meantime, was born in Allentown, Pa., and earned his degree in photography from Ohio University in 1947. He then apprenticed with portraitist Yosuf Karsh, who photographed such public personalities as Albert Einstein, Harry Truman and Martha Graham.
Leonard moved on in 1948, opening a studio in New York’s Greenwich Village. He also worked freelance jobs for magazines, which gave him easy access to such nightclubs as the Royal Roost and Birdland, where he photographed jazz musicians. Of course, Holiday was there, as were Ellington and Fitzgerald. There were plenty of other names, Dexter Gordon, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker among them.
Legends, jazz icons, Leonard knew them all. And through his lens, he not only captured their images but who they were. The point is he was there even during the smallest of performances, but also created intimate portraits when his subjects were singing in front of a roomful of people.
And he developed friendships with them, real-life friendships that could be achieved only face-to-face, unlike those cultivated through the superficiality of modern social media.
Think of how sad it would have been had Leonard been born during a time when people allow their talent to be consumed by the likes of Facebook and Twitter. Then again, his personality was the type that wouldn’t have let that happen. He was the kind of person who had to be there, and he wouldn’t let technicalities stop him.
Leonard was using glass negatives when he began perusing nightclubs in 1948. This limited the number of shots he could take, so Leonard increased the plates’ sensibility by exposing them to mercury vapor.
“And he was able to create a strobing effect that captured his subjects,” Natalie Mault said. “Jazz clubs were dimly lit, filled with shadows. The system he developed was able to capture the musicians in time. He captured them from the perspective of the audience and from behind the scenes.”
Mault is the museum’s curator but credits assistant curator Lauren Barnett with this exhibit’s installation.
“She did all of the research for this show, and she did a wonderful job,” Mault said.
So, Barnett’s research resulted in the stories on the museum’s labels, the ones that tell how Leonard’s friendship with Quincy Jones enabled him to capture that picture of Frank Sinatra from behind as he performed at the Red Cross benefit in Monte Carlo in 1958.
And the story of how he chose to snap the photo in a meditative moment instead of on stage in Paris in 1960.
And how, when Leonard moved to New Orleans in the early 1990s, he saw an entire story play out in trumpeter Doc Cheatham’s hand.
Cheatham was born in New Orleans and moved to Chicago in 1926 to work alongside Armstrong. His career thrived, even at the end of his life in 1997.
Leonard snapped his photo two years before Cheatham’s death.
“Herman Leonard focused on his aged and skilled hands that produced the lyrical sounds on his instrument,” the museum label states.
And there you are, as in the scene of Ellington in awe of Fitzgerald, reflected in the scene. You weren’t there then, but you’re here now. Leonard has made this possible.
As has Pramuk.
Now, his Doc Cheatham story isn’t told through museum labels but conversation. He, too, once met Cheatham. The trumpeter came to LSU as a guest of Bill Grimes, the LSU School of Music’s E.D. White Professor of Jazz Studies.
Grimes invited Pramuk to meet Cheatham, and Pramuk sketched Cheatham as he played.
“He signed the picture,” Pramuk said.
He has so many other stories, like the time he met Thelonius Monk in a Greenwich Village nightclub. Pramuk was in graduate school at the time, and Monk commented on Pramuk’s artistic abilities.
“He said he wished he could be an artist but could only play music,” Pramuk said. “I said, ‘No, you don’t understand. It’s the other way around.’”
Pramuk tried his hand at music by studying piano.
“But I failed miserably,” he said.
He found musical too mechanical. Playing it wasn’t the same as painting it, where he could express everything he was seeing, feeling.
Take, for instance, his Billie Holiday piece. Pramuk created it specifically for this show.
“Pramuk’s discovery of Holiday’s recording of ‘Strange Fruit’ inspired a realization that jazz, as Pramuk states, ‘was not merely entertainment music,’” the museum’s exhibit brochure states. “The song, ‘Strange Fruit,’ protests the lynching of blacks in the South, a dark and troublesome topic that Pramuk expounds upon with a tree trunk and a sallow moon.”
“I heard ‘Strange Fruit’ express a dark message about protest and cruel deaths,” Pramuk states in the brochure. “The simplicity of the arrangements and her poignant delivery of the lyrics that describes the lynching of blacks shocked me then and still disturbs me to this day ... I make no attempt to illustrate the lyrics but use Holiday’s anguished portrait to focus on a composition of shadowed forms.”
Pramuk’s other mixed media portraits hang on a wall opposite that of his Holiday piece. Each portrait is small and features a Polaroid shot of the featured musician taken from a video.
In other words, Pramuk snapped Polaroid shots while watching videos of the performers. He mixed elements of history, music and even art history into each of the portraits.
“When I walked into the gallery, I had to sit down,” Pramuk said. “I looked into the Herman Leonard exhibit, and it was all brightly lit. Mine was dimly lit, and I was so impressed as to how the curators of this show understood that. I was so happy to see this.”
Pramuk met Leonard after the photographer moved to New Orleans. He invited Leonard to exhibit his work at LSU, and the photographer obliged. He also visited Leonard’s studio in the photographer’s three-story home on Ponchartrain Avenue.
“He printed all of his own photographs,” Pramuk said. “He didn’t farm them out.”
Each of the titles is handwritten below the photos, followed by Leonard’s signature. The 36 photos in this show are the property of A Gallery for Fine Art in New Orleans. Leonard was inspired to move the city after exhibiting at that gallery.
He lived in New Orleans until Hurricane Katrina destroyed his house in 2005. His negatives were stored at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art during the storm, but the prints inside the house were destroyed.
So, Leonard ended up being one of New Orleans’ many displaced. He moved to Los Angeles and lived there until his death. But his work lives, forever frozen in moments of time. And there you are in the midst of it, your reflection floating among the audience.
And stirring in the emotion of Pramuk’s after-hours club.