Get more Mail & Guardian
Subscribe or Login

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

Thanks for enjoying the Mail & Guardian, we’re proud of our 36 year history, throughout which we have delivered to readers the most important, unbiased stories in South Africa. Good journalism costs, though, and right from our very first edition we’ve relied on reader subscriptions to protect our independence.

Digital subscribers get access to all of our award-winning journalism, including premium features, as well as exclusive events, newsletters, webinars and the cryptic crossword. Click here to find out how to join them.

Related stories


If you’re reading this, you clearly have great taste

If you haven’t already, you can subscribe to the Mail & Guardian for less than the cost of a cup of coffee a week, and get more great reads.

Already a subscriber? Sign in here


Subscribers only

Life Esidimeni inquest postponed until August 30

The lawyer for the bereaved families argued that Dr Makgabo Manamela’s requests for postponements have a negative impact on the families of the deceased who seek closure

RECAP: Mbeki tells ANC that land without compensation goes against...

‘This would be a very serious disincentive to investment,’ says Thabo Mbeki in a document arguing that the ANC should not proceed with the Constitutional amendment of section 25

More top stories

How to apply for the Covid-19 R350 grant

Asylum seekers with valid permits and caregivers will now also be allowed to apply for the reinstituted social relief of distress grant

IEC publishes 27 October election date as required by law,...

A report by former deputy chief justice Dikgang Moseneke opens the possibility of a postponement

Serame Taukobong appointed as Telkom’s chief executive designate

The telecommunication group’s current chief executive, Sipho Maseko, will step down at the end of June 2022

Zambia should commit to tackling toxic lead mine’s legacy

Residents of Kabwe have been poisoned for decades and now UN experts have called for an urgent clean-up

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…