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JAZZ : Chet and Clax Together Again : Chet Baker's flame burned brightly in the '50s. William Claxton photographed it--incandescently.

March 05, 1995|Don Heckman | Don Heckman is The Times' jazz writer

The image in the tray drifted up slowly in the dark room--a youthful-looking Gerry Mulligan, his lanky body leaning back to balance his cumbersome baritone saxophone, his jazz quartet in action.

But there was something else. As the picture gradually coalesced through the liquid, photographer William Claxton leaned down to look more closely.

"It was Chet Baker's face," he recalls, shaking his head in wonder even now, more than 40 years after he first watched the emerging photograph. "I knew he was playing trumpet with Mulligan, of course, but I wasn't really familiar with him, and I thought he was just another of Gerry's sidemen. But when the image came up through the development fluid, it was Chet's face that popped out--pale, a little wistful, but absolutely gripping. I thought, 'God, whoever he is, he's fantastic looking.'

"That's when I first discovered what the word photogenic meant," continues Claxton. "And I knew it was something unusual. I'd taken pictures of beautiful girls and good-looking guys and they'd come out OK, good pictures. But occasionally I'd take a picture of what seemed to be a plain-looking girl or an ordinary-looking guy, and, wow, their faces would just pop out on film. Well, that's what Chet had." The 1951 photograph was the start of a remarkable relationship, an artist/subject association that continued for the next five or six years, as Claxton chronicled Baker's rise to fame as one the most visible jazz musicians of the decade.

Baker exploded into the public consciousness in the early '50s almost as quickly as his image emerged in that first Claxton photograph. His lyrical, melodic but insistently swinging trumpet solos with the Mulligan Quartet helped establish cool, West Coast jazz as the pre-Presley music of youth. And his boyish good looks and guileless, understated vocals made him an overnight romantic icon. For a few enchanted years in the mid-'50s, Baker rode a crest of popularity, dominating the jazz charts while epitomizing, for many non-jazz fans, the very vision of the hip young jazzman.

Claxton's photographs, preserved on album covers and publicity stills, were powerful tools in the establishment of the Baker persona. They also helped establish Claxton as one of the preeminent visual chroniclers of jazz.

Many of Claxton's Baker photographs, as well as a selection of his images of other jazz and blues performers, are included in "Photography: Jazz for the Eye" at the California Heritage Museum in Santa Monica. The exhibit, which opened in January, has just been extended through April 2.

A larger set of Baker photographs is included in "Young Chet," recently published in Europe and Britain by Schirmer Art Books. (It is available locally at Book Soup, 8818 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood.) A softcover version of the collection is scheduled for publication later this year in combination with the release by Blue Note Records of a set of previously unissued Baker recordings--also entitled "Young Chet"--from the late '50s.

"I actually got the idea for the book a couple of years ago," recalls Claxton, "when I read somewhere that Chet is supposed to have had more records released than almost any jazz artist in the world--something like 180. When I heard that I thought, 'That is just amazing. I've got all these pictures of Chet Baker from his very early years, when I first met him. And I remembered the film that Bruce Weber did about him ("Let's Get Lost," released in 1989, the year after Baker died at the age of 59 from injuries received in a still-unexplained fall from an Amsterdam hotel window). It was a film about old Chet, this terribly ravaged guy. And I thought, 'I should really do a book about his young, formative period, when he recorded his best things, and played his best, and looked his best.' "

The images are arresting. Baker came from James Dean's generation. They were born only a year apart, Baker in 1929, Dean in 1930. And like Dean, Baker had the irresistible appeal of the handsome young rebel on the loose. But Dean was stopped in his prime, killed in a car crash in September, 1955, at the age of 24, his image frozen forever in its youthful blend of innocence and audacity. Baker lived on, the sweet sullenness of his 20s giving way to the destructiveness of decades of drug use.

But, despite occasional glories in his later years, Baker's career, like Dean's, was a shooting-star that tracked quickly, spectacularly, across the entertainment world. Claxton's photographs of young Chet capture the high points of that episode, reminding us--sometimes in stark black-and-white images, sometimes in pure color--of the Dean associations, of the star-crossed early career of an artist who never quite became what he might have been. (Photographs of Baker in his final years--not taken by Claxton--reveal a almost frighteningly ravaged face, the clean musculature of his youth replaced by hollow cheeks, false teeth and the dead eyes of a lifelong drug abuser.)

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