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Cool guy with a camera

The unobtrusive photographer William Claxton was just as hip as the musicians he helped immortalize.

October 21, 2008|Scott Timberg | Timberg is a Times staff writer.

It's been a tough few weeks for West Coast geniuses. Still reeling from the death of David Foster Wallace, I was startled to see that photographer Bill Claxton passed away on Oct. 11, the day before his 81st birthday.

In the nearly 20 years I've been writing about culture, rarely have I met a guy as unimpeachably cool as Claxton. He didn't do anything as radical as reimagine the literary novel, as Wallace did. But he proved that genuinely talented artists are far more humble and easy to get along with than the larger numbers of hustlers and second-raters. That, I imagine, is because they are both secure and open, from spending time with people who play at their level.

Claxton's most important contribution was, in the words of author Ted Gioia, "creating the mystique of West Coast jazz." At a time when East Coast critics either ignored or condescended to cool jazz, Claxton created a new visual reality recognized even by people with little knowledge of music.

That reality was very different than the way New York jazz was usually represented. "The musicians were always perspiring," Claxton told me once, with a laugh. "I said to myself, 'It's not like that out here.' "

In his shots, "they played at the beach, they wore Hawaiian shirts, there was sunlight everywhere."

A decade ago, when he was having a renaissance, I spent some time with Claxton for a story. Though his fame had mostly come in the 1950s, he was so busy (and fairly absent-minded) that it took me months to get my first interview.

As a teenager, Claxton told me, he had invited Charlie Parker to his parents' house in La Canada after a show on Central Avenue. ("Did you give him something to eat?" his mother asked.)

He talked about discovering Chet Baker's striking looks only in his photographs, after being unimpressed with the trumpeter in person. "It has nothing to do with how beautiful you are," Claxton said. "A lot of it has to do with how you project emotionally. I know it sounds mysterious, but it's true."

Images like Claxton's famous shot of Baker brooding into the top of a piano -- the cover of the "Let's Get Lost" album -- captured not only the musician's offhand, slightly dandified beauty but his unrelieved narcissism. Claxton talked about Baker as being mostly "passive" with men, dependent with women and spoiled rotten with both.

The photographer's own presence was very different. "I'm such an awful tall guy that if they didn't get used to me, I'd be a terrible annoyance," he said of his subjects. "I kind of blend into the background. They think I'm another mike stand."

Claxton described returning to Los Angeles in the 1970s, after living in New York and Europe, and finding the city vastly more aggressive, more selfish, than he remembered.

He talked about how the music industry had changed with the invasion of lawyers, handlers and security goons who made it impossible to spend real time with an artist and improvise a portrait.

In the 1990s, he became a father figure to Benedikt Taschen and hung out at the John Lautner house in which the publisher then lived. There, Claxton would bump into "Billy Wilder, a porn star, a few writers, someone who'd worked with Andy Warhol, saxophonist Benny Carter. After a semiformal dinner, the evening would burst into a dance party. Benedikt would play jazz and dance on the table. Everybody would dance, including his chef."

One of his descriptions struck me as a truism of the artistic process in general. "My technique is no secret," he said. "I try to spend as much time as possible with a person before I shoot them. I usually get to know their fears."

My favorite photo of his is probably of Art Pepper, saxophone slung under his arm, walking up a hill in Echo Park, a West Coast Sisyphus. Claxton told me Pepper had just gotten out of jail the day before and was waiting in Echo Park to score heroin but was jumpy because he'd cut his hand on a soup can.

As with Claxton's shot of John Coltrane earnestly ascending a staircase, the more you know about the men and their music, the more eloquent the photographs are.

Claxton survived an era that all but destroyed Baker, Pepper and others. Some of his most expressive shots have nothing to do with the Cool School: Ornette Coleman looking lanky and awkward on the cover of "The Shape of Jazz to Come," Sonny Rollins in a cowboy hat in "Way Out West," Thelonious Monk on a cable car (Claxton had to take the pianist for a drink in North Beach first) for "Alone in San Francisco."

Claxton, of course, shot much more than jazz. His most famous photograph is likely the one of his wife, Peggy Moffitt, posing in Rudi Gernreich's topless swimsuit. His outside work ranges from the sublime -- killer pictures of Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach for the "Painted From Memory" CD -- to the ridiculous, directing episodes of "Love, American Style."

He was the kind of guy everyone wants to have on their team, so he's likely to be claimed by fashion people, Hollywood types, Steve McQueen obsessives and others.

When I asked him 10 years ago how he thought he would be remembered, he was unambiguous. "I think I'm so deeply rooted in jazz," he said, "that it'll say on my tombstone that I was a jazz photographer."

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