Growing up in California, William Claxton spent his time collecting 78’s by Duke Ellington, Lena Horne, Count Basie and Tommy Dorsey. As he pasted their pictures into scrapbooks, Claxton yearned to become a part of their world.
By the time he started photographing musicians himself, he looked for ways to defi ne them as people, not just as performers. He wanted to capture the innate drama in their lives, the fun, the anxiety, the eternal youthfulness. He learned to do all this and more in the 1950’s, when his album covers for Pacific Jazz Recordsd reflected a sound born of beachside jazz clubs and balmy California nights.
Claxton is a photojournalist. He makes his subjects comfortable enough to lower their guard, then freezes their most telling moments. The greatest revelations occur when he takes musicians away from the stage.
He caught a strung-out Art Pepper in the harsh light of day, immediately after the saxophonist had finished a one-year jail term for drug possession; the pain of withdrawal is etched in his handsome face.† The Washington, D.C. sax player and mailman Buck Hill brings his horn along his letter route, lightening the step of some neighborhood kids. After a show at the Brooklyn Paramount, a pensive Sarah Vaughan sits in her gown in a back stairwell of the theater, too tired to paste on
At recording sessions Claxton hangs out with the players fi rst, letting them get used to his presence. Then he goes to work. Recalled the late Shorty Rogers: “you’d fi nish taking a chorus, and you’d open your eyes and the fi rst thing you’d see would be Bill, clicking away.”
Born in Pasadena, California, he began his career as a hobby. While studying psychology at UCLA, he haunted local jazz clubs with his camera: a 4 x 5 Speed Graphic, obsolete even then. “When I worked, “ he says, “holding that big, clunky camera up to shoot with flash bulbs and dangling extension cords, friends would laugh at me and remark that I looked like a crime photographer: a young, tall and skinny WeeGee.”