Jazz Seenby William Claxton
Photographer Bill Claxton has been capturing the jazz scene since he was just a kid back in the late '40s, and over the course of those five decades, he's captured just about all the giants of the art form, from Louis Armstrong to Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk. Jazz Seen collects these memorable images that capture the giants behind the music. In this excerpt from the introduction to the book, Claxton recalls how he came to be captivated by the two disparate art forms of jazz and photography.
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Jazz and Photography. Two seemingly distinct and different arts. The one aural, the other visual. Yet, beneath the superficial distinctions and differences, there are striking similarities. And nowhere are those similarities more clear, more revelatory of the linkages between the two arts than in the extraordinary photography of William Claxton....
"This is where jazz and photography have always come together for me," says Claxton. "They're alike in their improvisation and their spontaneousness. They happen at the same moment that you're hearing something and you're seeing something, and you record it, and it's frozen forever."
The camera has captivated Bill Claxton since he was a tall, lanky college student in Pasadena, California in the late 40s and early 50s. With a mother who was a semi-professional singer and a brother who played boogie-woogie piano, it was understandable that Claxton would be drawn to music. At the age of seven, he put together a scrapbook devoted to Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Cab Calloway, Lena Horne and Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. In his teens, he heard such legendary performers as Fats Waller and Art Tatum.
"One of my dreams at that time," recalls Claxton, "was to have a night club that looked like a set in a Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers movie, where everything is black and white except for the people who are of every color. So I guess I was showing signs even in those days of the things that have come to interest me as an adult."
Claxton studied psychology and art at the University of California, Los Angeles (U.C.L.A.). But, irresistibly drawn to jazz, he showed up at every jazz club he could persuade, bluff or cajole his way into. Initially, he worked with a cumbersome Speed Graphic camera and, even with that not particularly forgiving instrument, managed to produce some of the compelling images in this book.
A youthful encounter with the legendary saxophonist Charlie "Bird" Parker helped solidify Claxton's connection with jazz. He recalls the incident, which took place when he was barely out of his teens, with fondness. "I don't know where I got the nerve," says Claxton. "But when I went to hear him, I asked if he wanted to come out to my house in Pasadena to relax after the show. And I was amazed when he said, 'Okay.' So I guess you can say I was one of the few, if not the only, white kid who ever brought Charlie Parker home to visit."
On a school break, Claxton took a trip to New York with a girlfriend who was a model, and met Richard Avedon. Impressed with Claxton's youthful enthusiasm, Avedon spontaneously gave him one of his old Rolleiflex cameras. The unexpected gift encouraged Claxton's already burgeoning interest in photography and jazz, and his life's career rapidly began to take shape.
"I love the music," he says. "Always have. But I've always been fascinated by the way it's produced, as well, by the way it looks. By the body language and the movements of the musicians as they play, by the way the light strikes their faces."
Like Degas, who painted the real life of ballet in the backstage, warm-up poses of dancers, Claxton looks for the heart of jazz by photographing musicians in unguarded, casual moments.
"That's what's fascinating," he says, "the way they look when they're not playing, in other aspects of their lives -- practicing, rehearsing, smoking, standing around talking, even eating and using dope. I guess you could say I listen with my eyes...."
--Don Heckman Excerpted by permission of Taschen. Copyright c 1999 Benedikt Taschen GmbH, Hohensollernring 53, d-50672 K�ln. Copyright c 1999 for the photographs: William Claxton, Los Angeles
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