Jazzlife: William Claxton's adventures in American jazz
6 September 2016
Jazzlife, photographer William Claxton's 1960 snapshot of 'America's greatest artform', came together on an extended road trip recording the scene in the towns, cities and countryside of the US. ALLAN CAMPBELL introduces a new edition of the classic book alongside a selection of images. Get in the mood with recordings and programmes focusing on Ornette Coleman, Art Pepper, Dinah Washington, Stan Getz and other musicians featured in Claxton's work.
It’s a quote which haunts the late photographer William Claxton. But it’s a good one. “Photography is jazz for the eyes”. The Californian’s passion for the music was inextricably bound up with his photography, first finding professional expression in the early Fifties as art director for Dick Bock’s Pacific Jazz label, where he would famously frame a handsome young trumpeter called Chet Baker.
Over the next decade Claxton would photograph most of the jazz musicians who mattered, often for album covers for companies such as Contemporary, Atlantic and, most notably, Blue Note.
All I ask you to do is to listen with your eyesWilliam Claxton
Years later, when Claxton would find himself increasingly engrossed in the world of fashion and Hollywood (his volume on Steve McQueen and his fast cars is still a classic) it seemed that one of his most extraordinary early projects might simply fade into memory.
In 1960, along with Joachim E. Berendt (“Joe”) a musicologist and writer from Baden Baden, who came armed with a cheque book and a Nagra tape recorder, Claxton set about zig zagging across the US for weeks in a rented 1959 Chevrolet Impala on a remarkable jazz adventure. Published a year later under the title Jazzlife, the book offered an unrepeatable snapshot of every aspect of what Joe called “America’s most important artform”.
From New Orleans brass bands to Baptist gospel choirs and anonymous street players; from rural bluesmen in penitentiaries to legendary musicians, all expressions of the jazz life are seemingly here – in luminous black and white and vibrant colour.
The volume has dipped in and out of print ever since but this latest edition is probably the most impressive version yet – featuring no less than 600 large format pages.
Claxton’s request was simple; “All I ask you to do is to listen with your eyes".
The new edition of Jazzlife is published by Taschen.
Jazz Library: Clifford Brown died in a car crash at 25, robbing the jazz world of one of its most talented and original trumpeters. Author Tom Perchard joins Alyn Shipton to pick the highlights of Clifford Brown's recordings.
Jazz Library: Dinah Washington was only 39 when she died of an accidental overdose of barbiturates in 1963. Yet in her short life she was one of the most successful of all jazz singers, also crossing into blues and pop territory.