On the walls of Georgetown's Govinda Gallery, legendary jazz trumpeter Chet Baker is exploring the nuances of "My Funny Valentine." The gallery is exhibiting several black-and-white portraits of Baker, mostly from the '50s, when his rugged beauty was mesmerizing and his troubled soul was still intact.
William Claxton, who took those pictures, sits back in the gallery and remembers hearing Baker's sweet song before almost anyone else--late at night in the front seat of Baker's Cadillac as the two traveled along California's coastline from gig to gig in the early '50s. The photographer was shooting for small jazz magazines, for himself and, as it turned out, for posterity.
"We both shared a passion for American popular song, and we'd sing 'em at each other all night," says Claxton, whose classic jazz photos have just been published in a coffee-table collection, "Jazz Seen." Many of them are on display at Govinda through Aug. 7.
According to Dan Morgenstern, director of the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University, there are three giants of jazz photography--Claxton, William Gottlieb and Herman Leonard. Each one of them, says Morgenstern, had a distinctive style and was associated with a particular place and time.
"Bill Claxton's the West Coast guy, and his documentation of the jazz scene there is very important," Morgenstern says. "He really is the chronicler of everything going on out there in the late '40s and '50s, a time when people like Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday couldn't play in New York." Because of various drug arrests, Parker, Holiday and other important artists were not permitted to perform in New York, but they could play in California, he explains. "Los Angeles was the jazz capital of America and Claxton was right in the middle of it all with his camera."
Claxton, now 69, grew up in Pasadena surrounded by song--his mother sang semiprofessionally, his older brother played boogie-woogie piano--and he put together his first musical scrapbook at age 7. As a teenager, Claxton started fooling around with a bulky Speed Graphic camera. Later he got his first top-of-the-line camera from an unexpected benefactor.
In 1949, Claxton flew to New York during a school break to visit a girlfriend who was modeling for photographer Richard Avedon. While waiting for her at the studio, Claxton noticed six Rolleiflex cameras lined up on a bench. After the session, he introduced himself to Avedon and ogled the Rolleiflexes.
"I said, 'Someday, I'm going to own one.' "
"And when Avedon asked, 'Are you a photographer?' and I said yes, he said, 'Here!' "
And handed Claxton one of the Rolleiflexes, which then sold for $500. "One of those nice moments," Claxton says 50 years later.
Avedon's generosity enabled the 20-year-old UCLA art and psychology major to continue shooting jazz musicians.
"I loved the music," says Claxton. "Jazz is such a wonderful form of expression--and I loved the way jazz musicians looked. They have such a wonderful quality about them--the word is dignity. And later, when I got to know them, I got to love their personalities."
One of the first artists Claxton shot with his new camera was Charlie "Bird" Parker. Claxton invited the legendary bebop saxophonist back to his parents' home for breakfast after a very late night gig. "He always loved to eat," Claxton says with a laugh. Then, more seriously, "I worshiped Charlie Parker--he was a genius."
By 1952, Claxton had landed a position that provided both access and a paycheck. As photographer and art director for a new West Coast label, Pacific Jazz, he shot more than 200 covers and publicity shots, as well as assignments for various jazz magazines.
Along the way, Claxton's images suggested a West Coast jazz aesthetic quite distinct from its East Coast counterpart: Where Blue Note and other New York labels favored dark, shadowy nightclub or recording studio shots, Claxton posed his musicians on sunny beaches, riding on carousels, emerging from the ocean cradling a trumpet.
Claxton's covers were so popular that he started doing them for other labels as well. And he began branching out, doing fashion and celebrity photos for such magazines as Life, Time, Vogue and Harper's Bazaar.
"It helped that I had a 'soft,' not 'aggressive' personality," says Claxton, who earned a reputation for getting along with a lot of difficult people. "So whenever it was a difficult assignment--Streisand, Sinatra, George C. Scott, Anita O'Day--they'd say, 'Get Clax, he can do it.' "
Claxton's most difficult subject?
"Ella never minded being photographed when she was performing, because she could ignore you," Claxton explains. "But she didn't want to pose."
Artists featured in both the book and the Govinda show include Duke Ellington ("so much fun, so likable, so smart"), Dizzy Gillespie ("he always managed to enjoy it") and Joe Williams. "I saw him just a few months before he died, and he was still such a fabulous guy and such a great singer," says Claxton.
Like so many of the musicians he shot over the years, Claxton found the jazz life difficult to sustain. "I never really made a comfortable living," he says. Several times he abandoned music altogether to work as an art director or to film TV commercials. In the '70s, he directed many episodes of "Love American Style" ("I never understood sitcom behavior or thinking, much less the lighting") as well as action series like "Starsky and Hutch" and "Hart to Hart" ("a dreadful experience").
Claxton's photos from the '50s and '60s, classic images of musicians both famous and obscure, threatened to recede from public consciousness. Then, in 1984, the photographer got a phone call from Jack Woody of Twelvetrees Press, a small art publisher best known for collections of photos by Robert Mapplethorpe and Bruce Weber.
The subsequent collection--"Jazz"--went through three printings and kick-started a new wave of art books devoted to photographs from the golden age of jazz by such other masters of the art as William Gottlieb and Herman Leonard. Gottlieb, Leonard and Claxton were co-featured in a 1998 Berlin retrospective titled "The Ultimate Jazz Trio."
The success of "Jazz" also reestablished Claxton as one of the nation's premier photographers.
"I started getting all these phone calls--'We remember you, you're still alive!'--and labels started calling me to do covers, as did magazines like GQ and Interview. All that put me back in the light again and since then I've been very, very busy," says a beaming Claxton.
"I'm really grateful to have these pictures sort of come alive again," he says of his classic work. "I had a minor success way back in those days; now I've got success in my old age. I feel very happy about that."
And so in the '80s and '90s, Claxton found himself revisiting old subjects like Sonny Rollins, looking as royal in 1997 as he did in 1957 ("a tribal leader--he walks with dignity, talks with dignity"), and shooting new generations of jazz musicians: Cassandra Wilson. Ravi Coltrane. Don Byron. Brad Meldhau. Wynton Marsalis holding a bouquet of his favorite trumpets.
The names have changed, but the essentials haven't, Claxton says. "It's the way they look, the way they catch the light with their instruments.
"And their music, of course."