“Early in 1959 I received a telephone call from Germany. The person introduced himself as Joachim-Ernst Berendt, a musciologist living in Baden-Baden. In very good English, he explained that he was coming to America to do a study of ‘America’s great art—jazz.’ He went on to say that he needed a photographer to work with him—a photographer who liked and understood jazz. He had seen a great deal of my work published in European magazines and on record covers and thought that I would be the perfect choice to work with him—‘because your pictures have soul,’” William Claxton recounts in the foreword to Jazz Life: A Journey for Jazz Across America in 1960 (Taschen), a 600-page compendium that takes us on a fantastic voyage through one of the country’s most indelible and evocative arts.
The book, which was first published by Burda Verlag in the spring of 1961, is organized by the locations that Claxton and Berendt traveled across America in search of the artists—both famous and unknown—who had birthed a form of art entirely their own. From New Orleans, Memphis, and Chicago to St. Louis, Kansas City, and New York, the two came to know the landscape of the art, a landscape that was as American as sweet potato pie. This was America, black America, as it was being lived by artists who had dedicated their lives to their art, their craft, and their instruments.
Claxton’s foreword provides us with insights into his experience, a firsthand account of the journey that lead to the creation of these images, which were created to give deeper context into the world of jazz itself. Claxton and Berendt set out in a rented 1959 Chevrolet Impala, and together the two criss-crossed the country seeking communion with those for whom art was life and life was art, but without the usual pretenses that come from the commodification of the form. As pianist and composer Bobby Timmons explained, “You can’t take something like soul and package it attractively and sell it and say, this is soul and that’s not. You also can’t just decide that now you’re going to play ‘soulfully.’ The only thing you can decide is to be a musician. Then if you have ‘soul’ it will come out. It will just happen. And if the people listening have ‘soul’ too, they’ll recognize it.”
In that same way, the idea of ‘soul’ applies to photography; the artist picks up the camera and through the connection between his eyes, mind, and hand, all the world s/he shall see, capture, and recreate in a series of still images that are at once ephemeral, at once eternal, drawn on a single breath. Claxton’s gift was his ability to reinterpret the vibrations of sound, the dynamism of live music, and the energetic forces of the body as the tools of performance into a single image. He translated not only three dimension into two, but he transformed the sense of sound into the sense of sight; no small feat that he proves is a gift that comes from his sensitivity to the people and the art in all corners of America.
Claxton’s photographs are about the energies, the vibrations, and frequencies that travel soundwaves from the musician to the audience, affecting the body, spirit, and heart with a relentless need to express, to evoke, to connect through non-verbal understanding. The body responds in ways the tongue never could. We see this response in the images Claxton shot, the expression on the faces, the movements of the arms and legs, the torsos and heads. We feel as much as we can hear the beat, though not a sound is made as pages after page we our eyes seep through a period in American life that has come and gone, that was not only a high point of art but a testament of the people themselves.
Jazz Life: A Journey for Jazz Across America in 1960 reminds us of a time and a place, of an America at the brink of a new dawn, a new day. The issue of race is central to the form and to its expression, to the way in which artists and musicians operated in a country during the era of Jim Crow, as all of these photographs were taken before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed. With that in mind, we may reflect upon a way of life in this country that is in the very near past, a way of life that had become so deeply ingrained in public consciousness that by many when the strictures of segregation were made illegal, its legacy was immediately repressed. Shining bright under that light, these musicians are more than artists; they are heroic figures that used their instruments to express, to connect, and to begin to heal wounds as old as America itself.
Jazz is considered America’s greatest art form for any number of reasons, but perhaps most evidenced by Claxton’s photographs, it is because it came from the people all across the land and as it gained momentum it drew all kinds of folk together in the celebration of beauty and soul, of life and of art, of a way of being that is transcendent. Jazz is the spark of the divine, the fire that we never forget, and it is here, in Claxton’s photographs, that we are reminded of an America that we shall not soon forget.