Thursday, November 6, 2014

William Claxton: Eye on Cool

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.



“There’s a lot of young guys shooting pictures, but I can’t think of anyone who really stands out like Claxton,” says Ray Avery, the founder of the Jazz Photography Association’s L.A. branch and a longtime friend and admirer. “I think a lot of us are photographers, but he’s an artist.”


“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. … He did as much as the musicians to create the image of West Coast jazz. “

“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”....”


“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.” 
- Scott Timberg [Emphasis mine]


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.”
- Scott Timberg


“Those who lived in L.A. in the ‘50s often feel a powerful nostalgia for a less crowded, less commercial, less self-conscious city. Jazz fans who remember the music’s great era often have a similar difficulty regarding the present with the same degree of fondness as the past. … Claxton’s style represents a high point ….”
- Scott Timberg


I can’t imagine the world of what Ted Gioia describes in his book title as West Coast Jazz: Modern Jazz in California, 1945-1960 without the photography of William Claxton.


Clax’s photography was on display everywhere from LP covers, to portraits of the Jazz artists that adorned the walls of Jazz clubs to articles that appeared in many of the major periodicals that covered the music during what author Bob Gordon refers to in his book as Jazz On The West Coast.


The closing video montage of Pacific Jazz sampler LP’s contains numerous examples Clax’s work. It would become very influential in helping to market the “West Coast Jazz” style.


“Eye on Cool” was one of the earliest blog features and it was not included in the archives after it first appeared because I was still so new to blogging that I didn’t know how use the archiving feature Thankfully, Blogger.com has since made it an automatic process.

The article that this featured is based on first appeared in The New Times Times on February 4, 1999 and in The Los Angeles Times on February 10, 1999.

Sadly, “Cool” is no longer what it was when William Claxton was doing his primary work in relation to West Coast Jazz. Some of the reasons for this change are explained in the later portions of this interview with Clax.

For more on that story, you might want to check out another of Ted Gioia’s fine books - The Birth [and Death] of the Cool - and our review of it which you can locate by going here.


Lastly, the images that populate this posting have been added and were not part of the original review.


© -  Scott Timberg, New Times/Los Angeles Times Cover Story I February 4th and  10th, 1999 , copyright protected; all rights reserved.


William Claxton: Eye on Cool

by Scott Timberg


“47 years ago [62 as of this re-posting] L.A. Photographer William Claxton gave the jazz world a new vision. Today, he’s revered, influential – and busier than ever.” [Clax died in October, 2008]


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 die-hards.


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 redlining 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 CafĂ©, 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 modernity—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.


“On the basis of record covers, one might wonder whether these musicians ever saw the inside of a studio,” Gioia writes in West Coast Jazz. “If the New York critics wanted to prove that West Coast jazz was all image and no substance, certainly these flighty jackets played right into their hands.”


But while Claxton’s shots documented a life of ease and were often marked by a sense of humor, he rarely delved into the truly cheesy side of cool jazz. He maintained a sophisticated and playful relationship to his subject matter—which was really the mystique of West Coast jazz itself.


“He knew when to parody it, when to play it up, when to play it down,” Gioia says, speaking specifically about a shot in which The Lighthouse All-Stars riff improbably on the Hermosa Beach strand. “When [his shooting] does become hokey, it does so consciously, and there’s an element of selfparody.”
Claxton has shot a few silly or cleverly sexy covers—the Art Pepper/Chet Baker collaboration Playboys, for instance, on which a busty, topless blonde wears puppets on her fists and holds her arms crossed at chest level, or the Jazz West Coast Vol. 3 jacket, which shows a deep-sea diver emerging from the ocean with a trident in one hand a trumpet in the other. But he’s not responsible for the most egregious examples of the form, like the Art Pepper and Friends Surf Ride LP, which shows a shapely, bikiniclad babe balancing atop a surfboard. Even when Claxton did shoot cheesecake,, he had the integrity to credit it to his imaginary alter ego Lou McGilla.


And corny iconography aside, California jazz didn’t deserve the smugness it was greeted with from East Coast critics, who were so unrelenting on their assaults on cool or West Coast jazz that even the musicians who’d helped forge the style were afraid of the label. Sometime Californian Stan Getz, for instance, made a record called East of the Sun, which made his alliances clear. In researching West Coast Jazz, Gioia found that the stigma still cut, even 40 years later. “In interviews for this book,” he writes in the preface, “any inquiry about ‘West Coast jazz’ inevitably resulted in a perceptible rise in tension in the interviewee, followed by vehement denials of any connection with that music, almost to the point of pulling out birth certificates to show out-of-state origins.”


Consider the dissing an earlier and more genteel version of later rivalries in hiphop. But those who looked down their noses at this music missed some of the most fluent and probing sounds of the decade. And some musicians are even willing to admit as much.


“When I moved from New York to Los Angeles in 1957, I quickly realized the East Coast was extremely conservative,” woodwind player Paul Horn wrote in his autobiography. “California was wide open—an experimental, innovative and exceptionally creative environment. People felt free to try new ideas, anything at all. If it was new and interesting, they went for it.”


Good, bad, or ugly, the heyday of cool jazz didn’t outlast the decade. “It seemed like the scene was folding up,” Claxton says. “What they seemed to be doing, from my point of view, was refining the bop era,” and making “a really cerebral kind of music ... Nothing really new was happening.”


What was happening—free jazz, ushered in by saxophonist Ornette Coleman’s recordings with Don Cherry—was occurring elsewhere. Coleman had spent most of the ‘50s in L.A. as an obscure and at times controversial presence, and made his first recordings in the city. But by the time he asked Claxton to shoot the cover for the epochal The Shape of Jazz to Come, he was on his way to New York, where his reputation took off with the dawning of the 1960s. Indeed, many of the important and innovative black players of the era—Coleman, Dexter Gordon, Charles Mingus—had left California for New York to build national reputations. The best players of the cool scene, instead of leaving the coast, went into internal exile, losing themselves in drugs and crime. Perhaps even worse, some were lost in the no man's land of faceless film and TV studio work. As for Claxton, he toured New Orleans and the Deep South, then left for New York himself.


[In 2005, Taschen published a massive collection of Clax’s photographs from this trip in JazzLife which is also available in a paperback format].


Once in New York, Claxton slowly moved away from jazz, and then photography itself He made a second career as a fashion photographer for German designer Rudi Gernreich. (Claxton’s best-known photo, oddly enough, is not of a jazz player but of Modera model Peggy Moffitt—now the photographer’s wife—in Gernreich’s once scandalous “Topless Swimsuit,” from 1964.) He would eventually return to Los Angeles, and—though he has to be coaxed into such curmudgeonly moments—has since been frustrated with the slow, downhill slide of the city he helped mythologize ‘in the 1950s.

“The taste—the restaurants, the art, the way people dress. I think it’s really ugly,” he says, apologizing for his bitterness. “And the personalities seem to be really aggressive.”


Claxton got a front row seat to L.A.’s decline, in fact, when he and his wife returned to L.A. in 1969 to check on the hillside bungalow they’d bought a few years before. Claxton and Moffitt arrived at the airport just as the corpses at Sharon Tate’s mansion were being discovered.


“And it was like one of those corny scenes in a movie where you turn on the radio and it says, ‘and more about the murders in Benedict Canyon.’ “ Unfazed, they moved back permanently in 1971, and a son arrived in ‘73. “After living in New York and Paris and London, we couldn’t stand living here. Things moved so slowly, you could only make one appointment a day, and you spent all your time in your car.”


By the early 1970s, Claxton had little to do with jazz, less to do with jazz photography. The photographer found work documenting the making of Hollywood films. He would direct commercials, “lots of terrible sitcoms,” and episodes of the ‘70s show Love American Style. As far as jazz was concerned, there was little left to chronicle, especially in L.A.; as Gioia jokes, nearly all of the West Coast players went to the studios, to prison, or to New York. The players who’d once seemed the most promising as musicians and the most beautiful as photography subjects seemed the hardest hit: In 1968, Chet Baker’s teeth had been knocked out by a vengeful drug dealer; by the ‘70s, the wrinkled, often strung-out trumpeter was pumping gas.


Alto saxophonist Art Pepper—whose dashing looks, romantic temperament, and bouts of meanness were similar to Baker’s—went through a similar downward spiral. In the ‘50s, Pepper had managed to move in and out of prison and heroin convictions with his playing unblemished, cutting historic recording sessions during breaks from San Quentin. Nothing seemed to break his stride. Back then, Claxton was amazed when he was discussing prison with Pepper, and the saxophonist described his life there with nostalgia and fondness. “He said, ‘It was a small, confined world, and everything was provided for me. Anything I wanted I got.’ “ And Pepper, the leading white interpreter of what was considered a black man’s art, was a hero to many of the black prisoners.


Years later, though, with race relations in the country far different, and an acrid racism coloring Pepper’s worldview, Claxton bumped into Pepper again, and asked him if he still enjoyed Quentin. Now seeming worn with the years and weary from maintaining his tightrope dance, Pepper “looked at me like I was crazy ... He said, ‘The whole world has changed. They don’t know my records. They don’t know who I am.’ He had no reputation in prison.” It didn’t help that Pepper had recorded only sporadically since his great run in the ‘50s. “What had happened,” says Claxton, “was that the whole world had passed him by.” A few years later, Pepper was considering a career in bookkeeping. (He eventually cleaned up and regained his virtuosity.)


It was during the ‘70s, a time so hard on many of his old peers, that Claxton—tired of working on crummy TV shows—decided to get back to what made him. “I just cooled it, stayed at home and played with my son, and thought about photography for a while, which is really where my roots were.” He eventually returned to photography, but not to jazz. Like much of the music’s former audience, he was turned off by where jazz was going—or not going. “Charlie Parker had changed the sound of jazz so much that you couldn’t find a saxophone player who didn’t play like him,” Claxton says with a bitterness that’s uncharacteristic. “That was boring to me the ‘70s.”


By the ‘80s, when Claxton got back into shooting musicians after two decades in movies, fashion, and photojournalism, much had changed. First, there was a blow to Claxton’s creativity. It’s not just Indie rockers and old-school audiophiles who lament the shift from vinyl to compact disc. CDs literally shrunk the space Claxton had to work with. He describes the shift with a characteristic easygoing demeanor—the words “my canvas has been diminished” and a self-deprecating smile—but one look at the typical new jazz, rock, or pop cover and it’s clear how the record cover has declined as a forum for good shooting.


Even worse, shooting a musician had grown to include countless faxes and meetings and a glut of lawyers, art directors, accountants, agents, and various record company weasels.


“I think it was due to the rock guys that made such a huge amount of money,” he says. “There were so many people you had to go through before shooting the picture. They became enormous productions. I say it’s so many people just justifying their jobs. It became hard for me to recreate the spontaneity I used to have—now the person is rolled out onto the stage looking too perfect. And these people standing in the background saying, ‘Can I fix your hair, can I change your shirt?’ “


Lost, too, was Claxton’s ability to spend time with a musician before shooting, to establish his essential rapport. The only time he can work at the same creative level as the old days, he says, is with an unknown or up-and-coming artist. He saw just how deadening the once pleasing process had become while shooting an album for Bruce Springsteen in the early ‘90s. After dealing with “every legal hanger-oner, every record company hanger-oner—it just drove you nuts,” he showed up for the shoot in Hollywood.


“I had to go through two security clearances and a lawyer,” he recalls. “I had to sign an agreement saying I wouldn’t shoot him in the red jacket, only in the blue jacket, something like that.” After a hard day of shooting, Claxton felt good about several “moody, emotional, candid” shots. But the Boss’ lady friend had done a few Polaroid’s and Springsteen chose to use them instead.

Claxton knows the historical reason for this shift but still finds it frustrating. Much of it, he says, goes back to Sinatra, who broke famously with Capitol Records in the early ‘60s, forming Reprise and launching the era of musician-run labels. Musicians began to talk about “complete creative control.” While the phrase sounds high-minded, what it often really means, Claxton says, is that “his three-year-old may pick the cover.”


Claxton’s response, he says, is to shoot what he thinks is good, keep the best of the shots for himself, and let the labels and execs take what they want. “I try to shoot for myself, to trust my own visual instincts,” Claxton says. “So I got some great pictures, and I don’t care if they don’t use them.”


Though he’s associated with the cool school, Claxton’s body of work goes beyond lighthearted shots of California boys in Hawaiian shirts. His most evocative photos peek into a musician’s soul: A photograph of Baker staring down into a piano—a shot that captures his reflection in the instrument’s polished top—conveys the trumpeter’s sullen beauty as well as his unrelieved narcissism. Other shots hint at the distinctive music of a player or singer. Claxton shows hard-bop pianist Horace Silver, muscles tensed, delighting in his own playing in a way that makes his own rhythmically adroit musicianship almost audible.




An overhead closeup of Dizzy Gillespie blowing furiously into his famously bent trumpet reminds us of the slashing angles, wild curves, and cramped musical space that characterize Dizzy’s breed of bebop.


Sometimes Claxton’s photos reveal more than their subjects intended, like his shot of Baker with his girlfriend Lili, in Hollywood in 1955. With Lili engaging the camera in a protective, maternal gaze and Baker averting his eyes boyishly, it deepens our understanding of the trumpeter’s almost pathetic dependence on women to help him through a reckless life.


Claxton’s tools were unusual. He often used a Rolleiflex, a large-format camera that captures more information than a normal 35 mm, and has both a square field  the shape of a record jacket—and a very quiet shutter, which doesn’t interrupt a musician’s playing. And after he met Richard Avedon during a New York trip in the late ‘40s, Claxton also relied on natural light whenever possible. But as sophisticated as Claxton’s artistry, much of his success comes from such simple virtues as the power of persuasion. When trying to get Thelonious Monk to pose on a cable car for the 1959 Alone in San Francisco session, Claxton had to convince the notoriously individualistic pianist that the shot wouldn’t look corny.


“I don’t want to have some postcard record cover,” he recalls Monk saying. Claxton told Monk that he knew a bar in North Beach that served “champagne cocktails.” (“I didn’t even know what they were,” admits Claxton. “It sounded exotic.”)


The two ducked into the first bar they came to in North Beach, and after a few champagne cocktails, Monk was happy to pose wherever Claxton wanted. On the way back from the bar, they passed an abandoned Elk’s Lodge with antique chandeliers and a battered old piano; Claxton got a shot of Monk with both.


Many of Claxton’s most legendary shots were taken in this sort of casual, spontaneous manner. His celebrated cover for Sonny Rollins’ Way Out West LP plays on the incongruity of Rollins as the ultimate New Yorker, adrift in the sunbaked West. Accordmig to Claxton, the creative negotiations with Rollins, arguably the leading jazz saxophonist at the time, were slightly less complicated than deciding where to stop for lunch: “Sonny said, ‘I’ve never been to the West before, so let’s do something Western.’ And I said, ‘Do you want to wear a cowboy hat?’ So I went to a place called Western Costumers on Melrose, and rented him a 10-gallon hat and a holster and gun, and a steer’s skull.” The ensuing cover shows Rollins in the Mohave desert, grinning sardonically and leaning back like a gunslinger. 

Claxton tries to see a player perform so he can “listen with his eyes”—and to see how a player moves, gestures, catches the light.[Emphasis mine.]


“My technique is no secret—I try to spend as much time as possible with a person before I shoot them. I usually get to know their fears. Some people are afraid of being photographed.” It’s also important to allow people to get accustomed to his physical presence. “I’m such an awful tall guy that if they didn’t get used to me I’d be a terrible annoyance. I kind of blend into the background. They think I’m another mike stand.”


Unlike a lot of photographers, says veteran cool jazz saxophonist Bud Shank, Claxton understands musicians and their rhythms. “What we’re doing takes enormous concentration, and anything that breaks that concentration is bad.” Shank and Claxton’s connection goes back to the 1950s, when both drove Jaguars; the former still uses Claxton as his photographer whenever possible, including the shots for a recent record on a Japanese label. “These Japanese photographers were all over the place—they made me nervous! They didn’t know when to shoot and when to stay away. But I’m very relaxed around Claxton. You don’t even know he’s there—and the guy’s six-foot-six.”
“Bill has a real flair for putting people at ease,” says Gavin. “You can tell that when you sit with him for five minutes.”


“I got a reputation for taking really difficult people and getting along with them,” Claxton says. “Nobody wanted to shoot Sinatra because he was a headache. Nobody wanted to shoot Streisand because she was a headache. People trust me, because they know I won’t do them in. I think it was because of my personality. Some people said it was too sweet or too gentle.” He laughs. “But for me it works.”


Perhaps now more than ever. Those who lived in L.A. in the ‘50s often feel a powerful nostalgia for a less crowded, less commercial, less self-conscious city. Jazz fans who remember the music’s great era often have a similar difficulty regarding the present with the same degree of fondness as the past. Perhaps because Claxton’s style represents a high point from which jazz photography has fallen, and because even those not young enough to remember the time and place respond to its crisp, simple style, Claxton has more work than he can handle these days. (“I’m sort of enjoying a renaissance in the last couple years,” he says.) He’s begun to shoot jazz again, too. His upcoming book of jazz photographs falls off steeply at 1960, but picks up in the last few years with young players like Jacky Terrasson and Stephen Scott.


“There’s a lot of young guys shooting pictures, but I can’t think of anyone who really stands out like Claxton,” says Ray Avery, the founder of the Jazz Photography Association’s L.A. branch and a longtime friend and admirer. “I think a lot of us are photographers, but he’s an artist.”

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