Truth in Terms of Beauty

Professor Robert O’Meally of Columbia University presented on what jazz photographer Herman Leonard’s art can teach us about community and seeing individuals in the best light.

PROVO, Utah (March 3, 2016)—The author Ralph Ellison said, “Art gives you images you can live in terms of.” According to Robert O’Meally, examining the photography of Herman Leonard offers us lessons on seeing those around us in the best possible light, giving us art we can live in terms of.

robert o'meally

Robert O’Meally is a professor at Columbia University, and a founder of the Center for Jazz Studies there.

O’Meally, Zora Neale Hurston Professor of English and Comparative Literature and founder of the Center for Jazz Studies at Columbia University, lectured at BYU on how the iconic jazz photographer strove to put his subjects in their best possible light. The lecture was given in conjunction with the Museum of Art’s exhibit entitled Music of Freedom: Jazz Through the Lens of Herman Leonard, and sponsored in part by Jazz-Blues for the Humanities, a research group in the Humanities Center at BYU.

Though O’Meally focused on Leonard’s photography, he also expanded his talk to include jazz in general and other artists in a variety of mediums that had an influence on or were influenced by Leonard. O’Meally invited his audience to explore “what jazz and jazz photography mean at their most profound.” Through jazz, O’Meally sees the potential for something that goes beyond art.

“It seems to me important to talk about jazz in a way that’s more serious than we usually do. Not as an entertainment only, and not as a good time in music only and not only . . . as democracy in action . . . but I think we can ask ourselves what the function of art is,” O’Meally said. “What does it teach us about how we see one another and how we act towards one another?”

One of the crucial components of playing jazz music, O’Meally explained, is being so connected to one another that the ensemble breaths and is “vibrating as one body,” celebrating a “sense of community and collaboration at the same time it is insistent on individualism.” He explained that this sense of community mixed with the emphasis on the individual is seen in Leonard’s photographs of jazz greats such as Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Billie Holiday and Dexter Gordon. Through photographs that captured precise moments of ecstasy, collaboration, quiet thoughtfulness and a range of emotions and attitudes, Leonard recorded what jazz and bebop looked like, visually preserving the complexities of what went into the music.

“He knew he was witnessing history. . . . He wanted to remember where he’d been. He wanted to try to, as he said at one point, write with light; to use the literal meaning of the word photograph and to make music with light. To not just to show you what the music and the music spaces looked. How did the music look itself? . . . Across these various lines of race and religion, he sees the genius in people without qualification,” O’Meally said of the various Leonard photographs he presented to his audience, pointing out the particulars in each that set them apart from other photographers of the genre and time. “There appears an insistence in seeing people to be as beautiful as they could possibly seem and a beautiful sense of collaboration and love.”

That collaboration and love are what O’Meally sees as the purpose of art. “I think one thing that art can offer is what we do want. What are we striving for? What are we dreaming of, when we think of something better than what we’ve got right now? Not just tearing things down,” O’Meally said. He quoted Leonard’s mantra: always tell the truth in terms of beauty. O’Meally then offered questions for his audience to ask themselves to achieve this mantra. “How can we treat one another so well that we make them better than they might have been? That we not only bring our best selves, but we’re encouraging them to see themselves, to see the beauty inside of people when they might not see it for themselves.”

So what, then, does O’Meally think Herman Leonard’s jazz photography and jazz itself can teach us? O’Meally cites lessons from Leonard as great humility, kindness, and seeing the best in people. His takeaways from jazz include a sense of a caring community that accepts diverse voices. “That’s part of what jazz offers, a sense of community that welcomes differences, everyone is part of the family. [It] insists on individuality and insists too that we breathe together to be one family.”

Alison Siggard (English Education ’17)

Alison covers the Humanities Center for the College of Humanities. She is a senior studying English teaching with a minor in music.