William Claxton started photography as a hobby. While studying psychology at UCLA, he would frequent local jazz clubs, toting an old fashioned and unwieldy 4 x5 Speed Graphic. His friends laughed at him, but he was becoming known in the community.
One night in 1952, Claxton went to shoot the Gerry Mulligan Quartet with Chet Baker and met Dick Bock, who was recording the show for his new company Pacific Jazz. Bock made Claxton his partner, art director and house photographer.
Record covers in those days afforded vast artistic potential, and Claxton’s photographic style began to evolve. His photographs of jazz performers removed them from smoky clubs and placed them in outdoor California settings. As a photojournalist, Claxton makes musicians comfortable with his presence and then captures their most intimate moments. From Chet Baker to Diana Ross, Claxton discovered the photographic expression of their uniqueness.
Jazz artists had their own way of articulating their appreciation. In 1956, Shorty Rogers wrote and recorded “Clickin’ with Clax,” and Al Cohn followed suit with “Sound Claxton!” And in 1990, saxophonist Dan St. Marseille wrote a tune for Claxton, calling it “Claxography.” Every fan of jazz has come across Claxton’s work. His pictures are legendary. His book, “Jazz Seen,” is a wonderful fusion of jazz and photography. Don Heckman opens this book by stating, “Like Degas, who painted the real life of ballet in the backstage, warm-up poses of dancers, Claxton looks for the heart of jazz by photographing musicians in unguarded, casual moments.”