Night Lights Classic Jazz

Jazz Photographer William Claxton Passes Away

William ClaxtonWilliam Claxton, whose photos of jazz artists became iconic talismans of the music they played, passed away on Saturday at the age of 80. Along with Blue Note co-owner and in-house photographer Francis Wolff, Claxton helped define the look of post-World War II modern jazz; Wolff’s dark interior portraits of (usually) East Coast artists appearing deep in creative thought, frequently with cigarettes in hand, are often contrasted with Claxton’s outside shots of West Coast musicians looking relaxed and playful in California settings. Claxton’s photos of the young Chet Baker are perhaps his most noted, striking in their cool, muted power, and highly influential upon some fashion advertising campaigns of the 1980s and 90s. (Claxton remarked in a 1999 profile that the trumpeter taught him the meaning of the word “photogenic.”) Yet there was a darkness to the West Coast scene as well, which Claxton hinted at in his portrait of a strung-out Art Pepper, saxophone in hand, climbing a steep uphill street.

william claxton 2Claxton, who seems to have been genuinely liked and respected by nearly all who knew him, even inspired some musical tributes from some of his subjects, including Shorty Rogers (“Clickin’ With Clax”) and Al Cohn (“Sound Claxton”). Sadly, he had been scheduled as the official photographer for a shoot of jazz musicians at UCLA today (which also would have been his 81st birthday.) The best overview of his jazz photography is the book Jazz Seen, while Ted Gioia’s West Coast Jazz includes a sheath of Claxton photos and a context for how the photographer influenced the music’s image. While Claxton’s work ranged well beyond this realm, delving into fashion and celebrities, he acknowledged that it was his jazz portraits for which he’d be remembered best. “I think I’m so deeply rooted in jazz,” he told Scott Timberg in 1999, “that it’ll say on my tombstone that I was a jazz photographer.”

UPDATE: a tribute from Claxton friend Doug Ramsey, and an obituary from the Los Angeles Times.

David Brent Johnson

Born in Indianapolis, Indiana, David Brent Johnson moved to Bloomington in 1991. He is an alumnus of Indiana University, and began working with WFIU in 2002. Currently, David serves as jazz producer and systems coordinator at the station. His interests include literature, history, music, writing, and movies.

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  • Bill Forbes

    One of the greatest creators of the visual image of jazz. I first became aware of Claxton’s work in 1959 when I borrowed a book of his photographs, together with one on abstract expressionist painting, from the American Information Service Library here in Manchester UK, which at the time was eager to sell US culture to European youth. In my case, they were very successful!

  • http://windowsinternetexplorer PETER G W YOUNG

    I live in ENGLAND UK and have loved Jazz for years and find your radio station one of the best Jazz internet you could listen to’ keep up the good work putting it out .thanks Basin st Pete

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