© - Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
Shelly Manne liked to introduce his band members in this ironic manner: 'On tenor—Richie Kamuca from Philadelphia, PA; on trumpet — Joe Gordon from Boston, Mass.; on bass—Monty Budwig from Pender, Nebraska; our pianist is Victor Feldman from London, England; I'm Shelly Manne from New York City—WE PLAY WEST COAST JAZZ!'
In 1992, Chronicle Books published a coffee table sized book entitled California Cool: West Coast Jazz of the 1950s and 1960s. Edited by Graham Marsh, it is essentially a compilation of the album cover art from the period nicely reproduced in color on thick paper.
The following essays by photographer William Claxton who had a great deal to do with creating the most prominent album cover art “look” of this period, Jazz author and essayist Leonard Feather who was the Jazz Critic for the Los Angeles Times newspaper for many years and Brian Case provide an excellent short summary of the main characteristics of Jazz on the West Coast or - “West Coast Jazz.”
Reasonably priced used and new copies of the book can still be sourced through online booksellers.
At the conclusion of these excerpts you’ll find a newly updated West Coast Jazz video playlist that features 17 different musical groups and selections.
- William Claxton
“The jazz scene on the West Coast of the USA, notably California, in the 1950s was indeed a real and prolific musical happening. Early in 1955 a book of my photographs was published, called Jazz West Coast. It was accompanied by two 12-inch LPs with the same title, and served to sum up what was happening musically at that time. This book was a success, and the media picked up the title and made a great deal of this 'school' of jazz from the West Coast.
The question of geographic limitations and origins of any art form can best be left to the historians and, in this case, the musicologists. In the 30s, 40s and early 50s, jazz compatriots from the East Coast—the Apple, Philly, the Windy City and other points west—had always strayed to the Pacific shores long enough to play a few gigs and to have their pictures taken. In the early 50s a group of young, healthy (well, mostly healthy) arrangers and writers — such as Shorty Rogers, Gerry Mulligan, Bill Holman, Marty Paich, Lennie Niehaus, Jack Montrose and Jimmy Giuffre — and young players — such as Chet Baker, Art Pepper, Bud Shank, Jack Sheldon, Shelly Manne and Bob Brookmeyer— were, indeed, in the right place at the right time. They were musically sophisticated, educated, and sought new ways for jazz expression. Some jazz journalists have implied that this was largely a white musician's movement when, in fact, during this period the black players, who had long been an important force in the Los Angeles jazz scene, were treated as new stars and were now gracing the covers of their own albums. Important names like Benny Carter, Harry 'Sweets' Edison, Chico Hamilton, Gerald Wilson, Buddy Collette, Dexter Gordon, Red Callender, Ray Brown, Hampton Hawes, Wardell Grey and Harold Land were to be seen and heard everywhere during this prolific period.
On the New York scene the photographers and designers were producing album covers with a hard-edged, gutsy look (sweaty musicians in smoke-filled clubs); while out in California, we — myself, along with others, such as the brilliant Bob Guidi of Tri-Arts—were creating album covers with a different look . . . covers that reflected this new, laid-back West Coast sound. We worked for all the major record companies, but the majority of the most amusing covers were for Richard Bock's Pacific Jazz Records, Les Koenig's Contemporary and Good Time Jazz labels, and the Weiss brothers' Fantasy Record sin San Francisco, plus a dozen other neophyte labels that sprang up overnight.
This early 50s recording phenomenon came about for various reasons: the advent of the 33 ⅓ rpm long-playing record, for one thing, which gave us, the graphic designers and photographers of that time, a generous 12x12" format to use as a billboard to display our art and to sell the recording artist. This engineering and commercial event happily coincided with renewed interest in jazz.
By 1955, the rush to produce jazz LPs and their cover art became so frantic (recording day and night), that we had constantly to invent new ways to sell these jazz artists visually.
The sheer volume of work produced created a problem of just what to do next with any one of these blossoming young jazz musicians. I would shoot Shorty Rogers in a space helmet, then the following week i'd shoot him up high in his kid's tree house; then atop the windy Hollywood hills with his quintet, when the title of the album became Wherever the Five Winds Blow. Indeed, the photograph of a group would often determine the title of the album: Chet Baker and his quartet perched on a beautiful yacht became Chet Baker and Crew; visiting Easterner, Sonny Rollins, wanted to wear a cowboy hat on his cover, so I took him to the Mojave Desert, added a six-shooter and created Sonny Rollins Way Out West; I put Howard Rumsey's Lighthouse All Stars on the Santa Monica Beach, piano and all; for a Jazz West Coast anthology for Pacific Jazz, I had a diver in his black wetsuit clutching a bright, shiny trumpet as he sprang from the salty, foaming Pacific Ocean; for The Poll Winners Ride Again I put Barney Kessel, Shelly Manne and Ray Brown on a merry-go-round. The ideas went on and on ... new juxtapositions of palm trees, sunshine and sandy beaches with jazzmen. All in all we had fun while creating a cool look . . . California Cool.”
CLICKIN' WITH CLAX
- Leonard Feather
“The term 'the art of jazz photography' is a misnomer; a better phrase would be 'photography devoted to jazz musicians, by photographers who love and understand jazz'. That, of course, is one of several ways in which one can characterize the work of William Claxton.
Born in Southern California, with a mother who was a semi-professional singer and an elder brother who played boogie-woogie piano, William was seven when, fascinated by a musical short featuring Cab Calloway and Lena Home, he assembled a scrapbook devoted to them. While in his early teens, he was exposed to live jazz on a memorable scale, hearing Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson, Art Tatum and Fats Waller in a single matinee at the Streets of Paris in Hollywood.
Later idols were Billie Holiday and Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy and Bird, Bud Powell, and the name bands of the 1940s. Meanwhile, a teenage neighbourhood friend, Richard Lang, had turned him on to photography.
While photographing the Gerry Mulligan Quartet at the Haig club on Wilshire Boulevard, Claxton met Richard Bock of the newly formed Pacific Jazz Records. His photographs on the record covers became almost as important as the music inside. Claxton became an integral part of that organization and was soon shooting for almost every important record company in the country. His record cover art has won many awards. His ubiquitous appearance at recording sessions and his easy rapport with the musicians led Shorty Rogers to dedicate a tune to him, 'Clickin' With Clax'.
Over the years, Claxton's work expanded beyond jazz. On an assignment for a major magazine he met a young actress, Peggy Moffitt. He suggested that she became a fashion model. She did, indeed, become a very successful model and also became Mrs William Claxton. She went to work for fashion designer Rudi Gernreich, and Claxton photographed most of his collections on Peggy, including the notorious Topless Swimsuit. Rudi, Peggy and Clax became a formidable threesome and produced some memorable work in the 60s and 70s.
For a while, Claxton was largely removed from jazz; instead of musicians, his close friends and subjects were film stars. He worked mainly doing special photography on motion picture sets for the major magazines and continued his fashion photography with Peggy and Rudi Gernreich. The latter part of the 6Os was spent living in Paris and London.
By that time, though, he had accumulated a veritable gold mine of jazz photographs, representing every era from New Orleans origins (shot on location) to post-bebop days.
During his early years as a jazz photographologist, Claxton had some memorable encounters. 'In June of 1952,' he recalls, 'I was still very green and naive; I was shooting with a big old 4x5 Speed Graphic with film plates and flash bulbs — I hadn't yet discovered the technique of available light. At this time I had a chance to shoot Bird at the Tiffany Club on Seventh Street. I hung out with him till the place closed,then brought him and his young fans to my parents' home in Pasadena. Bird was delightful; he entertained us and played for us. I improvised a studio in my bedroom and posed him with his fans in a formal portrait. It's pretty good for a kid photographer. I've never seen Bird look happier.'
Like a very few other jazz experts, Claxton has an eye for more than the obvious picture presented by his subjects. Often, along with the settings in which he showed them, they became metaphors for the Zeitgeist, for a whole era of musical evolution.”
- Brian Case
“Listening to veteran tenorman Teddy Edwards' reminiscences of the West Coast can make your mouth water. 'Everybody was in town because the war was in the Pacific. Soldiers, sailors, whole families had moved to the West. Los Angeles was a 24-hour town during that period. I'm sure that the 40s was the most productive period in American history in the arts and everything else. Everything was in full production, employment was at its highest peak, everything was in motion -and money was almost running down the street to meet you. Nobody thought about the war hitting America. The whole thing was alive and in motion.' In the war years the population of LA quadrupled, and Central Avenue became the Harlem of the West Coast, with clubs like Jack's Basket, Cafe Society, Casablanca and the Jungle Room, in the words of Hampton Hawes, 'jumping in to the sunrise'.
In 1945 Diz and Bird made the scene at Billy Berg's, bringing Bebop to the Coast. Few jazzmen linked with the region were born there. Out-of-town big band musicians on Blue Goose buses saw the palm trees and failed to climb back aboard. Teddy Edwards had been with the Ernie Fields Orchestra. 'We played there and then went on. The bus broke down above Cheyenne, Wyoming, and all you could see was snow. I thought, you can have all this stuff. I'm going back to California.' Tenorman Brew Moore made it in a go!-man-go! trip that allegedly inspired Jack Kerouac's On the Road. 'Billy Faier had a 1949 Buick and somebody wanted him to drive it out to California so he rode through Washington Square shouting, "Anyone for the Coast?" And I was just sitting there on a bench and there wasn't shit shaking in New York so I said, Hell, yes.' But the migrant who put the West Coast Sound on the map travelled by thumb, packing a baritone saxophone and a case full of arrangements.
Crew-cut Gerry Mulligan was responsible for some of the arrangements on the highly influential 'Birth of the Cool' album by Miles Davis, and when he formed his pianoless quartet with Chet Baker in 1952, the music shared that velvet melancholy elegance at low decibel levels. Weatherless, neatly contrapuntal, the sounds from The Haig were afar cry from the blowing sessions and cutting contests between Dexter Gordon and Wardell Cray on Central Avenue. A Time magazine article on the group set the seal upon the white West Coast sound, encouraging a rash of topographicality among record producers, after which many blazing black musicians suddenly experienced 'the LA slows'. The greatest musician in California, Art Pepper, was white and didn't feel right: 'I wanted to be a black because I felt such an affinity for the music.' Shorty Rogers, along with Mulligan, the linchpin in the West Coast movement, viewed his band, The Giants, as an update on Count Basie and the Kansas City Seven. But the copy-writers had taken over and a half-truth was born: West Coast cool, East Coast hot.
If California had the weather, it also had the film studios which provided steady work for schooled ex-big band players tired of the road. Some, like the talented Lennie Niehaus, quit the scene and wound up working for Clint Eastwood, but for many jazzmen, playing film scores by Henry Mancini or Elmer Bernstein didn't burst the spirit's slumber. Bud Shank, whose flute was always in demand for deathbed scenes, teamed with Laurindo Almeida off the lot to experiment with bossa nova. 'Was I on "The Last Detail"?' said the late Shelly Manne. 'I can't remember. Probably was. I was doing two or three a week, and I didn't always see the title. Often it hadn't got one.' He lived for the after-hours gigs, for blowing at Howard Rumsey's Lighthouse and the Blackhawk, and finally founded his own club, Shelly's Manne Hole.
Contemporary and Pacific album covers emphasized fun and sunshine in primary colours. The West Coast looked like a theme park. Visiting Brooklynite Sonny Rollins, kitted out as a gunslinger in a stetson and posing by a cactus for Contemporary's 'Way Out West', was embarrassed for decades about it until he learned that the sight of a black cowboy so influenced Courtney Pine, then a black Londoner at school, that he took up the tenor.
The long-playing record fed an expanding market, and sales techniques came up with stereotypical images for the hi-fi. Finally, the whole West Coast thing was oversold, and a reaction set in which was unfair too. Good music was playing on both coasts, often, since travel is an economic necessity, by the same cats. Dexter Gordon, born there, played everywhere. The West had its legends: Pepper, Mister Chet, the preternaturally on-it drummer, Frank Butler, Sonny Criss, who gave Bird a run for his money, and not forgetting the forever tantalizing promise of trumpet player Dupree Bolton, jailed forever. Ironically enough, it was Contemporary which first put Ornette Coleman, a Texan revolutionary whose music split both coasts, on to the market.”