I’m not sure how many of you may have been aware of the recent passing of the legendary jazz photographer William Claxton. It was widely reported in most of the reputable press along with generous pieces in the likes of Time and Newsweek.
I mention it simply in the hope that those of you who may not be familiar with this remarkable man might wish to become acquainted with his work.
Serious jazz fans have revered him for years almost to the point where his camera has attained the photographic equivalent to the tenor and soprano saxophones of John Coltrane or Chet Baker’s trumpet. In fact it is widely acknowledged that Chet Baker would not have achieved world fame had it not been for Claxton’s iconic pictures of the young trumpeter moody and James Dean like gazing into the shining surface of a piano.
Countless times I’ve picked up an old jazz CD or the sleeve of a vintage vinyl album only to stumble across Bills name as the credited photographer. Believe it or not I did it a couple of weeks ago and it was the rear sleeve photo of Sinatra’s “In The Wee Small Hours” It doesn’t get hipper than that!
It was my distinct pleasure and great honor to get to know Bill and his charming wife Peggy Moffitt (herself an iconic legend of sixties modeling) in the last several years of his life. He was and remains in my memory everything I’d imagine he would be, charming, dapper and the possessor of great humility and encyclopedic knowledge in regards to jazz history. Naturally I was drawn to his wisdom and good taste and through a series of long leisurely lunches I would tap this fountain of anecdotes, recommendations and lusty tales. All of this was delivered with a soft lyrical voice and a twinkle in his eye as tales of Miles, Bird, Pepper and Baker were relayed to remain a personal memory.
What’s my favorite Claxton image? It has to be a strung out Art Pepper the day after he’d been released from prison walking up Fargo Street, the steepest hill in Los Angeles. His sax is under one arm and a cigarette is in his hand. Inexplicably he still looks the personification of fifties hip-cat cool. It’s an amazing image and one I hope to one day own.
If you fall in love with his work as I did so many years ago do yourself a favor and save your change for the gigantic “Jazz Life”. It’s the size of a paving stone and probably weighs about fifteen pounds but it’s definitive and extraordinary.
I will miss him.
For more information Google William Claxton