Photographer William Claxton (1927 to 2008) was born in Pasadena, California. When he was only 12 years old he regularly took the bus to downtown Los Angeles with his Brownie box camera to attend jazz performances. He wore his father’s suit to avoid questions about his age. Some years later, when shooting the Gerry Mulligan Quartet with a Rolleiflex in 1952 at the Haig Club, he met the founder of Pacific Jazz records who appointed him on the spot as art director and house photographer for the label. Claxton was 25 years old. For the next five years he photographed and designed innumerable album covers for Pacific Jazz and in the process established the visual identity of the West Coast jazz movement. Claxton was particularly well known for his photographs of Chet Baker after meeting him in 1952. His ensuing photographs made Baker into the genre’s poster boy.
He broke away from the Herman Leonard style of nostalgic b&w jazz photography which was invariably shot in dark, smokey nightclubs. Instead, Claxton increasingly chose to show musicians in broad daylight
Claxton’s work regularly appeared in magazines such as Life, Paris Match and Vogue. His photographs were considered unusual at the time because he broke away from the Herman Leonard style of nostalgic b&w jazz photography which was invariably shot in dark, smokey nightclubs. Instead, Claxton increasingly chose to show musicians in broad daylight. It should be said that he didn’t eschew darkness entirely in his work – just take a look at Claxton’s portraits of Bill Evans at his most intense crouched over the piano.
The book’s author, Jordi Soley, has sifted photos from Claxton’s huge catalogue to compile a collection of images in which the artists are captured in mostly spontaneous situations outside the stage environment. The book contains more than 150 of these photos, in colour and b&w, including those of Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Charles Mingus, Cannonball Adderley, Thelonious Monk, Peggy Lee, Ornette Coleman, Dinah Washington, Art Blakey, Wes Montgomery, Clifford Brown, Charlie Byrd, Lee Morgan, Dave Brubeck, Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis, Ray Charles, Anita O’Day, John Coltrane, Stan Getz and Antonio Carlos Jobim amongst many others. All the pictures are from the 50s to the early 60s and were taken coast to coast by Claxton in Chicago, New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Hollywood and Los Angeles. Many are full page.
Amongst the images that catch your eye you can see Donald Byrd practising his trumpet inside a busy New York subway carriage; Dinah Washington rehearsing provocatively for one of her shows; Cannonball Adderley grinning on the sidewalk outside the Apollo Theatre in Harlem with local kids larking about behind him; Chet Baker casually leaning out from the rigging on his sailboat with one hand whilst blowing a trumpet with the other; Elvin Jones jovially smoking with friends outside Birdland and Art Pepper with a sax under his arm climbing alone up a steep and dusty Los Angeles street. All the photos in the book are captioned. Claxton provides information about the backgrounds to most of the pictures but the text is relatively brief.
The book has an introduction by Howard Mandel who aptly pinpoints Claxton as “giving us the gift of these artists up close and memorable”. There is a preface by jazz journalist Pascal Anquetil and an index of the musicians portrayed. The book will be of considerable interest to those interested in jazz photography but it will also appeal to those who are curious to see the faces behind the music of this iconic period in settings beyond the fanfare of public performance.
Jazz Images by William Claxton: By Jordi Soley. Elemental Music Records, hb, 164pp, 150 photographs, 290 x 290 mm. £35. ISBN 9788409-038893