New Times Los Angeles - Cover Story - February 4 ‑ 10, 1999
“47 years ago [56 as of this writing] L.A. Photographer William Claxton gave the jazz world a new vision. Today, he’s revered, influential – and busier than ever.”
One of the most powerful photographs in the annals of jazz depicts the charismatic alto saxophonist Art Pepper trudging up a long, lonely hill near his house in Echo Park, cradling his saxophone under his arm and holding a lit cigarette. Pepper’s saxophone playing was a thing of beauty, but it was a delicate and precarious beauty, scarred with the pain that would at times send the man himself into tailspins of drugs and thievery. Looking back, four decades later, the picture almost has the quality of prophecy: Pepper, for all his early success and his many heartbreaking solos, never really reached the top of that hill, never stopped laboring, Sisyphus‑like, to outrun his own inner demons.
William Claxton, the tall, mild‑mannered man who shot the image, remembers his meeting with Pepper on that day in 1956; the saxophonist had gotten out of jail the day before and was waiting for his connection. “He looked very healthy, but he was kind of shaky,” the photographer recalls. “He cut his hand opening a can of soup or something.” The shot, Claxton says, was simply common sense.
“I saw this steep hill, and he’d been telling me how hard his life was. He was a very sweet, ‘ingenuous guy. He seemed very naive, like his life had been all uphill.”
The photograph has become the definitive shot of the sensitive and lyrical Pepper and a key image for the glamorous and tragic world of West Coast jazz. But Claxton, unimpressed with his own artistry, never used it as an album jacket or publicity photo. Only years later, ‘in fact, did anyone but Claxton see it. “The one of him walking up the hill I never showed to anybody—that was for me.”
Claxton tells the story sitting in his home on a foggy afternoon. From the high windows of his Spanish bungalow, the cantilevered houses and rough, patchy flora of Benedict Canyon dissolves into a mist below, as if he were musing above the clouds. Staring from the walls, bathed in the room’s natural light, are many of his photographs—depicting such jazz artists as Duke Ellington, Ben Webster, Gerry Mulligan, and Chet Baker. But Claxton did more than shoot striking photographs of great musicians. He created the visual reality of West Coast jazz, a whole new way to picture the art. Even people who have little musical knowledge of “cool jazz”—the mostly white, often mellow‑toned scene that flourished in California in the 1950s—know what it looked like: Blond, high cheek-boned singer/trumpeter Chet Baker in undershirts and Hawaiian prints. Baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan’s sharp suits and redheaded crew‑cut. Dave Brubeck’s round horn‑rimmed glasses and nerdy smile. And Claxton placed these players and their peers in previously unthinkable settings. Instead of laboring in a studio, shrouded in shadow and hidden beneath coiling cigarette smoke, the musicians relaxed outside, blowing saxophones by the beach, riffing on ships, joking in garden groves. “Claxton’s image of Chet Baker was very important in creating the mystique of West Coast jazz,” says Ted Gioia, the school’s leading chronicler. “There’s no parallel in East Coast jazz.” James Gavin, who’s nearing completion of a book on Baker, calls these photos “as important a chronicle of the music as the music itself.”
As the ‘50s waned, the luster of West Coast jazz began to fade and, in an unfortunate consonance, Claxton went on to other things—television directing, Hollywood, fashion, even ads for The Gap that replicated the simple, white‑background style he made famous.
But he never gave up music photography completely, and now he’s nearing the end of five full decades with a camera. He was an exceedingly young man of 24 when he helped found the seminal Pacific Jazz label in 1952; because he’s lived clean and avoided hard drugs, he’s remained in good health while the boys in the band have dropped off. As a result, he’s one of the last survivors of the great West Coast scene. And the last year or so has seen a revival of interest in Claxton’s work and in the era he chronicled.
In 1998, Blue Note—which owns the Pacific Jazz catalog—reissued 16 titles by artists like Baker, Mulligan, Jack Sheldon, and Bud Shank, most with suitably cool covers by Claxton. The University of California has reissued Ted Gioia’s crucial history of the era, West Coast Jazz, with a section of Claxton photos. In a sign of the photographer’s ability to reach beyond the insular and often backward‑looking world of jazz enthusiasts, he’s been increasingly enlisted by rock artists—among them Elvis Costello, who recently asked Claxton to shoot the cover for his celebrated Burt Bacharach collaboration , Painted From Memory. And the Fahey/Klein Gallery on La Brea will host a show of Claxton’s work next month, timed to precede the publication of Jazz Seen—Claxton’s collected jazz shots—by the German publisher Taschen.
The result is that Claxton’s profile is suddenly as high as it’s been since the height of Pacific Jazz. Or at least his public profile—despite his fame, little is known about Claxton the man, even by jazz diehards.
Gregarious, warm, slightly absentminded, and sometimes politely mischievous, Claxton projects both rumpled ease and a slightly formal Old World politeness. He calls himself “a hippie, relaxed type,” though he’s using the term hippie in its short‑haired 1950s and not its ‘60s psychedelic sense. While Claxton has made a living shooting some of the most beautiful and meticulously dressed people on the planet, he carries himself casually and unselfconsciously; he favors heavy work shirts with square pockets, as if he were a village electrician. He projects little ego; some describe him as the kind of artist who “disappears into his work.” And so, as wide as he’s ranged—from photojournalism to fashion to movie sets—Claxton knows exactly how he’ll be remembered: “I think I’m so deeply rooted in jazz,” he says in his slightly hoarse voice that recalls worn leather, “that it’ll say on my tombstone that I was a jazz photographer.”
Pacific Jazz trumpeter Jack Sheldon, who Claxton captured in the glare of a car’s headlight in the 1950s, is more succinct: “To me, he’s just like one of the cats.”
As a kid, Claxton loved listening to swing—Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw. He dreamed of opening an art deco club—all checkerboard and palm fronds in black and white, with the people providing the only color. And he loved photography; not only the gritty journalistic dispatches of Robert Capa and W. Eugene Smith but the clean, airy fashion photography of Irving Penn and Richard Avedon that he found in his sister’s copies of Harper’s Bazaar.
Claxton’s first in‑person experience with jazz was as a teenager, driving from La Canada to clubs on Glendale’s Brand Avenue. By the time he began college, still living at home, he would borrow his father’s Packard and drive with a girlfriend from his leafy, white neighborhood in the hills above Pasadena to the jazz clubs that lined L.A.’s Central Avenue. Claxton was so tall that bouncers assumed he was of age, and he would slip into Jack’s Basket, Brother’s, the California Club and the other clubs on Central—many of them “homes, behind the stores on Central Avenue”—that offered camaraderie, jazz dancing, and, of course, music. They opened after midnight and served booze in coffee cups. Despite the mostly male performers, he remembers the scene as a matriarchy, with church‑bred women, many of them transplanted Southerners,, running the show. Claxton, in fact, was struck by Central’s formality. “I was treated very well, even when I was the only white in the place,” he recalls. “Everybody wore ties and jackets, no matter what they did, and everyone was taught to be courteous. No one was revolutionary; there weren’t any Farrakhans around. But I also noticed that the big hotels would not let the black musicians in. The racism was quiet.”
Claxton went there to hear what he calls “my heroes”; one night, when his parents were gone for the weekend, he invited the great Charlie Parker to his house in La Canada after a show. (“Did you give him something to eat?” his mother asked when told of the visit.) This was not the behavior of your typical San Gabriel Valley teenager; it was hard even to get word of the jazz scene out there. The Los Angeles Times and other mainstream papers chronicled Central sporadically or not at all, and the black papers were little better. When the Times turned its attention to Central, it often described the district’s happenings with both enthusiasm and condescension.
“It was a kind of daring thing to do that nobody else was doing,” Claxton recalls. “We were really out of place.” The only other whites he saw were musicians and movie stars, and his friends knew little about his nocturnal excursions. “We didn’t really brag about it,” he says. “It was our own private, little world.”
Thanks to a neighborhood friend who had introduced him to photography, Claxton’s visits to hear Dexter Gordon, Billy Strayhorn, Slim Gaillard, and Benny Carter on Central often became impromptu photo sessions. “I liked the way the musicians looked, their body language; the instruments were beautiful, the way they caught the light ... I thought it was a great combination of sound and visuals.”
Not long after Claxton began attending, though, Central started to fade. According to Central Avenue Sounds, last year’s informative oral history, the loss of defense jobs after World War II put much of the audience out of work; police harassed and arrested interracial couples and white women; and R&B supplanted jazz as the music of choice for black Angelenos. As with Harlem, one reason for Central’s demise was a relaxing of the strict segregation and red‑lining that had made Central a high‑concentration black neighborhood; many blacks started settling along Western or Crenshaw.
But as Central’s audience dispersed with the dawn of the 1950s, a new chapter of L.A. jazz began, one that resembled Central only vaguely. Made up mostly of white musicians too excited by the flashes of bebop and modernism to remain in big bands, this gang collected around clubs like the Haig, a bungalow near Wilshire’s Ambassador Hotel, and the Lighthouse Café, a boisterous, Polynesian‑decorated place not far from the Hermosa Beach surf. Though these clubs were mostly white, Claxton often saw the black celebrities of the day—Lena Home, Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, Cab Calloway—checking out the new sound.
While Central’s musicians were dedicated to modemity—which by the late‑‘40s meant manic, harmonically knotty, small‑group bebop—many of these white players were more melodic, emulating the pleading tones and smooth lines of tenor saxophonist Lester Young. Some players came out of the New Orleans revival that had thrived among white Angelenos during Central’s heyday. Others had been involved in a strange experiment led by an East Coaster: Baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan and alto saxist Lee Konitz had taken part in Miles Davis’ Birth of the Cool chamber‑jazz sessions in 1949, in which French horns, tubas, and saxophones strove for a kind of smooth, introspective pan‑European harmony. Still others, like trumpeter Chet Baker, an Okie who had recently gone AWOL from the army and settled in the South Bay, had played with Charlie Parker, the greatest of all modernists, during Bird’s rare West Coast appearance.
And it was this world that Bill Claxton walked into one night in 1952, now a kid striving to close out a degree at UCLA. Claxton had tried all kinds of things that hadn’t worked out. He’d spent a summer working in a Kodak lab, an experience he compares to Charlie Chaplin struggling with the conveyor belt in Modern Times. His academic work in psychology was supposed to lead him to the source of creativity and the artistic temperament, but never did he think he’d ever make a living as a photographer.
Claxton went to hear Mulligan’s controversial “piano‑less quartet” and got the musician’s permission to photograph. Claxton was drawn to this group for the same reasons as many Southland music fans: By dropping the piano out of the band, Mulligan had created a new kind of harmonic freedom, and his soulful, almost drowsy baritone playing made him the instrument’s undisputed leader. While he was shooting, a young man named Richard Bock approached him and said he’d just started a new record company called Pacific Jazz. Bock wanted to know if he could use Claxton’s photos for an album cover. The label had at this point released exactly zero records.
As Claxton developed his prints a day or two later, it was Mulligan’s trumpeter, Chet Baker, that kept drawing his eye. Face to face, Baker had seemed distinctive looking but comical, too: “A ‘50s pompadour, pale white skin, a tooth missing—he looked like an angelic prizefighter. A sweet, pretty, rough guy.” In pictures, though, he had a power over the camera that Claxton couldn’t have predicted on first meeting. Baker, he says, taught him what the word “photogenic” really meant.
“As a photographer I meet a lot of good‑looking guys, and great‑looking girls, and take pictures of them. And the pictures are not very good. It has nothing to do with how beautiful you are. A lot of it has to do with how you project emotionally. I know it sounds mysterious, but it’s true.”
The recording of that show was soon put together as a Pacific Jazz record called The Gerry Mulligan Quartet. Baker and Mulligan’s melodic, open, airy, delicately arranged sound—miles away from the bluesy, often thunderous bebop that was thriving in New York—helped define an emerging West Coast sound, and Pacific Jazz soon became synonymous with it. And since this batch of musicians toured less frequently than their New York peers—some of the best West Coast players never even graced New York’s clubs during cool’s heyday—and since jazz rarely got much exposure on television, it was Claxton’s photos that spread the word to the rest of the country. As Ted Gioia puts it, “He did as much as the musicians to create the image of West Coast jazz. “
When Claxton began shooting, there was already an established school of jazz photography, dominated by photos of New York musicians in darkened studios or clubs, brooding behind cigarette smoke. Claxton was familiar with the work of such Gotham shooters as William Gottlieb and Herman Leonard, who had memorialized the great New York musicians, aloof in the shadows or hard at work.
“The musicians were always perspiring,” Claxton says with a gentle laugh. “I said to myself, ‘It’s not like that out here.’ “ It was a jazz subculture, after all, as different from the East Coast jazz scene as L.A.’s sprawl was from New York’s skyline. “They played at the beach. They wore Hawaiian shirts, there was sunlight everywhere.”
Among other things, it was a jazz world that drew far less critical attention and praise than the East Coast’s and, perhaps because of this, was less self‑serious. It was a world in which, as Claxton delights in pointing out, “even the junkies were into health food.” So instead of entombing them in the studio, Claxton put players in boats, on beaches, on streets, on cable cars. He wondered, “’Wouldn’t it be great to see musicians in totally different, incongruous settings? And the musicians loved it ... I shot them up in trees, in the backs of convertibles.”
“His pictures are just like the sounds of cool,” says author Gavin. “The music is about order, but also about beauty; soft sounds and round comers, and Bill’s aesthetic is all about people looking cool and beautiful.”
The clubs ‘in those days were filled with great, innovative players, among them horn player Jimmy Giuffre, pianist Hampton Hawes, drummer Shelly Manne. To the general public, the best known was Baker, who was as popular for his winsome singing voice as his crisp, detached trumpet playing. Though Claxton has created the image by which the world knows the trumpeter, he feels little warmth for the man himself, judging him “a tough person to get along with.” Though his most distinguishing characteristic was his sullen, passive withdrawal, Baker was also, according to Claxton, “absolutely spoiled rotten. He was the only child of poor dust‑bowl parents, but they gave him everything he wanted.” The two would sometimes, in Claxton’s phrase, “smoke grass” and talk records. Both loved fast cars; Claxton fancied sports cars, Baker went for Lincolns and Cadillacs.
“I think our closest bond was that we both liked pretty songs, and I introduced him to a lot of standards by Rogers and Hart or Gershwin that he didn’t know.” Baker, of course, was hungry for this kind of cultural education; his Okie parents had offered him little exposure to the genteel, necktie‑wearing world of Tin Pan Alley pop. (“Oklahoma is a cultural wasteland,” Baker recounted in a 1988 interview. “I mean those people listen to the most terrible kind of music in the world—hillbilly, rockabilly, and all that crap.”) Among the tunes to which Claxton introduced the trumpeter was “Deep in a Dream,” which a wrinkled Baker recites to the camera in the aptly titled documentary Let’s Get Lost.
“With guys,” Claxton says, “his relationships were pretty passive—except when he turned around to do exactly what he wanted.”
Whatever his personality flaws, Baker’s playing skills—when he wasn’t strung out and had all his teeth—are rarely disputed. Yet despite such talented players, the new West Coast cool was greeted with condescension from critics, most of them headquartered then, as now, in New York or Chicago. New York jazz writers often characterized the scene as driven by gimmicks, not bluesy enough, not black enough (ironic, since nearly all these critics were white), a conspiracy of Hollywood marketing, and generally too soft or “cool.” The historian Joe Goldberg, for instance, in his otherwise exemplary Jazz Masters of the Fifties refers to “the West Coast jazz fiasco” and assumes the reader shares his assessment of the music’s “sterility.” But it may have been the success of Claxton’s covers in creating the music’s image that caused West Coast jazz to be taken less seriously.
... to be continued in Part 2