The life of jazz

William Claxton called photography “jazz for the eyes”. But jazz photographs have to be music to the ears as well. The best pictures of musicians are drenched in the sound of their subjects. Herman Leonard’s pictures make everyone sound the same. Dizzy and Miles, Bud Powell and Tad Dameron: they’re all swathed in the same cool smoke of Leonard’s gaze.

Claxton’s photographs, on the other hand, are imbued with the subjects’ music style and personality. Thelonious Monk looms into focus with the room receding and converging on him as if some lop-sided gravity is at work. As Bill Evans hunches over the keyboard there is so little to be seen — ear, hair, neck, a glimpse of spectacles — that he shouldn’t be recognisable but, like the lightest touch of his fingers on the keys, these few details are enough to identify him immediately and reveal the admonition at the heart of his technique: it takes more strength to caress the keys that to pound them.

Because he was a true improviser, Claxton’s photographs look lucky and inevitable in equal measure. In a famous picture of Kenny Dorham soloing, a plane passes overhead like a note of music floating clear of the trumpet.

Although they are frequently seen performing on small, cramped stages, Claxton’s people are rarely crowded by the picture frame. (In the case of Ray Charles, the tight framing struggles to contain the intensely orchestrated energy of the playing.) Typically, the musicians have room to move, to stretch out.

Continuing the musical parallels, it’s tempting to characterise this light, spacious style as West Coast. Claxton grew up in southern California and is probably best known for his portraits of LA-based musicians such as Art Pepper and Chet Baker. “He loved the camera, gave himself to it,” Claxton said, and his photos made Baker the white poster boy of cool jazz: pouting in the arms of beautiful women, but always with that cowboy thing, the middle-distance look in his eyes. Claxton’s camera was as important as the trumpet in extending Baker’s fame beyond jazz. Bruce Weber’s 1988 documentary, Let’s Get Lost, is about Baker, obviously, but it’s also a filmic love letter from one photographer to another.

From his mangled life, Pepper produced some of the most beautiful music in the history of jazz. A similar transmutation is present in Claxton’s 1956 photographs of him. In his relentless autobiography, Straight Life, Pepper writes that when Claxton arrived to photograph him he “had run out of heroin and was very sick”. By the time Claxton snapped him he was “in agony”, but in the pictures there is only an aesthetic trace of pain. (You can see something similar in the picture of the guy elegantly slouched outside Birdland.) The transformation of suffering into beauty is a romantic commonplace, but Claxton’s unashamed lyricism is one of his — and Pepper’s — strengths.

The off-the-cuff glamour that marks Claxton’s pictures of Pepper and Baker served him even better when he was photographing celebrities. The trademark suggestion of a spontaneously improvised pose is like the equivalent, in a still image, of Steve McQueen’s impassive idea of what constituted acting and action: doing nothing and making the idea of more look histrionic.

A Hollywood celebrity is never not a Hollywood celebrity. In the 1950s, when jazz musicians were not performing, they were often second-class citizens. Outside a relatively small circle of aficionados, they were, more often than not, anonymous black men. Claxton did not just photograph the stars of the jazz firmament. His pictures from New Orleans lovingly document the down-home reality of amateur players and marching bands.

When he did photograph a big name the results convey the strange relationship of familiarity and reverence that exists between musicians and their admirers. Here is Elvin Jones. That’s right, Elvin Jones, Coltrane’s right (and left!) hand man, looking as approachable as anyone in the street, as ordinary as an old sweater. That’s Claxton in a nutshell: everyday greatness and a charged sense of the ordinary in the same instant. —

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Related stories

Don’t Miss: Our weekly round-up of virtual and in-person events

From the virtual Fak’ugesi African Digital Innovation Festival to live theatre back on stage at the Baxter in Cape Town, we’ve got you covered

The Portfolio: Saaiqa

Photographer Saaiqa shares the story of how she captured this picture that reflects both the socioeconomic realities of our country and simple companionship

The Portfolio: George Tatakis

The Greek photographer is on a quest to document traditional costumes around the country

Kamogelo Lebotse: The Portfolio

Photographer Kamogelo Lebotse has been documenting the effects of the national lockdown on the people of Mahikeng

Reframing women in Namibia’s early history of photography

Women photographers, and black African women photographers in particular, are largely absent from early histories of the medium. This is slowly changing

The Portfolio: Jamal Nxedlana

The national lockdown provided photographer Jamal Nxedlana with a chance to push the boundaries of his practice as he transitioned into a new creative cycle

Subscribers only

The shame of 40 000 missing education certificates

Graduates are being left in the lurch by a higher education department that is simply unable to deliver the crucial certificates proving their qualifications - in some cases dating back to 1992

The living nightmare of environmental activists who protest mine expansion

Last week Fikile Ntshangase was gunned down as activists fight mining company Tendele’s expansions. Community members tell the M&G about the ‘kill lists’ and the dread they live with every day

More top stories

Fifteen witnesses for vice-chancellor probe

Sefako Makgatho University vice-chancellor Professor Peter Mbati had interdicted parliament last month from continuing with the inquiry

Constitutional Court ruling on restructuring dispute is good for employers

A judgment from the apex court empowers employers to change their workers’ contracts — without consultation

Audi Q8: Perfectly cool

The Audi Q8 is designed to be the king in the elite SUV class. But is it a victim of its own success?

KZN officials cash in on ‘danger pay for Covid-19’

Leadership failures at Umdoni local municipality in KwaZulu-Natal have caused a ‘very unhappy’ ANC PEC to fire the mayor and chief whip

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday