William 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.
Claxton, 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.”