'Jazz Life': Images of a Golden Era of Music Photographer William Claxton began making a name for himself in the 1950s, taking photos of some of the world's top jazz artists. Then got the opportunity of a lifetime — he was commissioned to document the American jazz scene at a moment when the genre was at its height.
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'Jazz Life': Images of a Golden Era of Music

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'Jazz Life': Images of a Golden Era of Music

'Jazz Life': Images of a Golden Era of Music

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ED GORDON, host:

I'm Ed Gordon, and this is NEWS AND NOTES.

Consider this next story a kind of teaser for our Web site at npr.org. It's about photography. Photographers capture moments in time that would otherwise never be seen again. That's the contribution William Claxton made in 1960 when he spent a year shooting the world of jazz. Reporter Tony Cox has the story.

TONY COX reporting:

1960 is widely regarded as a stellar year for jazz music, a crossroads between the old and the new, when every style of music, from Dixieland to free jazz, could still be heard live in some of the most historic jazz venues.

That year, William Claxton was a young photographer commissioned to document the world of jazz in America. He crossed the country of photographing mostly black people in the act of making music: from the primal slave songs of rural gospel choirs to the sophisticated sounds of New York bebop and beyond.

It's now all documented in a massive 669-page book of photographs. Claxton calls it Jazz Life. But no tour of black music could be complete without a trip to New Orleans.

Mr. WILLIAM CLAXTON (Photographer, Author, Jazz Life): Boy, that was the greatest sight I've ever seen.

COX: Claxton is now 79, and his eyes light up when he talks about his experience in the Crescent City.

Mr. CLAXTON: And New Orleans was still quite gorgeous then. Hadn't had Katrina wipe it out. So the pictures you see in here of New Orleans will never be seen again because New Orleans doesn't look the same.

COX: Why don't we go through the book. Let's just open it since we have it here on the table. Now, as I look at some of these pictures from New Orleans back in the day, most of the pictures are of the Eureka Brass Band - like this one. Talk about that.

Mr. CLAXTON: We covered every brass band that was there.

COX: You must have gone to a lot of funerals. There's a lot of funeral pictures in here.

Mr. CLAXTON: It wasn't too much - two big funerals.

COX: What was it about New Orleans that stood out for you, pictorially? And what caught your eye, your photographer's eye?

Mr. CLAXTON: Well, (unintelligible) funerals, the whole procedure of funeral is if a lodge member or a member of a brass band or a city official died, they had a celebration ritual they would do. They would have the services at the church or the mortuary, then they would - the marching bands would come out and lead a march with a coffin behind it and people following behind it. Any people, street people. And go to the cemetery, have the burial and all the ritual there. And in the moment they got outside of the cemetery gates, they would let loose with the Saints Go Marching On and sort of release the dead person into heaven. And then it became a party.

(Soundbite of music)

COX: Is that what this photograph here on page 185 is like?

Mr. CLAXTON: Yeah. (Unintelligible) of these young people dancing in the street were after a funeral, and they'd go downtown and have a big party. And these young tough guys, they couldn't play musical instruments, but could wave their Mardi Gras parasols and umbrellas and dress up kind of funny. They'd dance because that was their form of expression, and they were called second-liners.

So every time you hear the term second liners, you know it's these young fellows who would trail a band, marching band.

(Soundbite of music)

COX: William Claxton says he loves his job because he's sometimes able to reveal the hidden side of his subjects, like Miles Davis.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. CLAXTON: Just the sweetest, funniest guy…

COX: Miles Davis.

Mr. CLAXTON: Miles Davis.

COX: Sweet guy?

Mr. CLAXTON: Yeah, absolutely. He had not been spoiled yet by anything.

COX: You know, this would be one of the few pictures that are out in public of Miles Davis with a smile on his face.

Mr. CLAXTON: I just had a recent exhibition in Milan, Italy and we had this picture of Miles smiling. And so many of the Europeans come up to me and said that can't be Miles. We never see Miles smile. And they were kind of angry that he was smiling.

I never was around him when he was in his later moody, I guess, ugly periods. I missed that. Maybe one performance I saw him in New York where he played with his back to the audience, which is unfortunate.

(Soundbite of music)

COX: This is Art Pepper, page 359.

Mr. CLAXTON: Yeah. With his alto sax.

COX: Here's what caught me about this picture, and I want you to talk about it if you can. He is walking up one of the steepest streets in the city.

Mr. CLAXTON: Well, I wanted to meet him. He had just gotten out of prison on dope charges. And he was a hot jazz musician. Art Pepper was - played brilliant alto saxophone. And he had just gotten out of prison, and I had met him in a little cottage at the top of a real steep hill.

And Art was a terrible mess. He was all neat and clean and (unintelligible). (Unintelligible) he'd cut his hand opening a can of Coca-Cola because he was shaking. I got to tell you, man, I'm waiting for my connection. This is the day after he gets out of prison.

COX: This picture is the day after he got out of prison?

Mr. CLAXTON: Yeah. He was waiting for his connection to arrive, so he says, I'm really nervous. And I saw this steep street, and I thought, why don't you just walk up this steep hill. To me, it was like a metaphor for his life. It's just like his life has always been uphill. He had a terrible life, and here he was waiting for his connection (unintelligible).

So he's walking up on one more hill, and that's what it meant to me.

COX: Well, it comes through. It definitely comes through.

Mr. CLAXTON: Thank you. Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

GORDON: That was reporter Tony Cox talking with photographer William Claxton. Claxton's book, Jazz Life, contains more than 600 pages of photographs shot in 1960. Later this year Claxton will release a book of photos he shot in New Orleans 46 years ago.

There's an extended version of this interview, along with music and photos at our Web site, npr.org.

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