William Claxton, Art Gallery

Cool Jazz and Hard Bop: Painting and Picturing the Jazz Experience

Chet Baker's 'Ax' and his 1954 Caddy, 1954
William Claxton.

"Photography is jazz for your eyes"-William Claxton

Portraits of jazz artists proliferated in the 1940s with the works of William Gottlieb, Herman Leonard, and Ray Avery. This portraiture symbolized the new emphasis on the solo artist during the decline of the big band/swing era, and also created a new artistic category: jazz photography. Elton Fax discusses this relationship between jazz and photography:

"Jazz, in its most exciting form, is an art of musical improvisation. It is an immediate creation. Photography is likewise immediate...Jazz music emanates from the reality of the musician's life experiences. In photography there is the undeniable reality of the thing from which the lens and the film take their image."

Jazz photographer William Claxton, however, used reality to capture a fantasy. Claxton's work focused primarily on the West Coast Jazz scene as he sought to capture the same "cool" feel as the cool jazz sound itself. In the 1950s, while in college, he helped record producer Richard Bock start the Pacific Jazz record company, for which he shot all the covers. This was near the dawn of the LP, when record covers held vast artistic potential; while scouting for ideas, Claxton created his style. Claxton remarks:

"Most of the jazz photography before me showed sweaty musicians with shiny faces in dark, smoky little bars...That was jazz to most people. But being on the West Coast, I wanted to bring out the fact that musicians here were living in such a health conscious environment. So I purposely put them on the beach or in the mountains or on the road in their convertibles."
Claxton also conveyed their sex appeal. In the above photograph, Chet Baker's "Ax" and his 1954 Caddy, Claxton presents a portrait of the iconic, masculine rebel of the 1950s, riding lone in his Cadillac with only his instrument on the open road. Claxton commented that a jazzman's trumpet is like "an extra appendage", adding to this machismo image of cool.



O'Meally, Robert G., ed. The Jazz Cadence of American Culture. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998. 179.

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