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. —