It almost sounds like the start of a joke: an American photographer and a German academic travel cross-country on a four-month “jazz odyssey.” And yet, three years after Jack Kerouac published On the Road, photographer William Claxton and musicologist Joachim-Ernst Berendt embarked on their own transcontinental road trip in a 1959 Chevy Impala—presumably consuming fewer drugs than Kerouac—to document jazz. That trip became Jazzlife: A Journey for Jazz Across America in 1960, a gorgeous coffee table-sized book published in 1961. It was reissued in 2005 and 2013; both editions sold out, so on September 1, Taschen reissued it for a third time.
Claxton, who died in 2008 at the age of 80, began his career as as a hobbyist who loved taking his camera to clubs. He proceeded to photograph a number of album covers for Pacific Jazz Records in the 1950s. Berendt contacted him for the ambitious photography and research project because, he said, the photographer’s pictures “had soul.” And so they set off on their trip, starting with New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., then traveling down the East Coast. From there, they turned west to New Orleans and Biloxi, Miss., then drove north to St. Louis, Kansas City, Chicago and Detroit. They toured the West Coast with stops in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Las Vegas and, after a few months’ break, reconvened at that year’s Newport Jazz Festival. The entire trip covered 15,000 miles.
“Anybody who’s involved in writing or photographing of music, the first thing that’s going to come across [when reading Jazzlife] is extraordinary envy,” Ireland-based journalist Philip Watson says in a Skype interview. Watson is a lifelong jazz fan who worked with Clax, as Claxton was fondly nicknamed, on a few assignments for British GQ in the 1990s, including a ghostwritten piece about the photographer’s relationship with trumpet player Chet Baker, whom Clax shot extensively.
Watson remembers the photographer as “tall, handsome, lean, very impressive” and youthful, despite being in his sixties at the time. “There was this quietness, this stillness—something very gentle about the way he did [his work],” Watson recalls. Those attributes helped Claxton gain the trust of jazz musicians, as well as Barbra Streisand and Frank Sinatra, who were notoriously untrusting of photographers. Plus, his work for Pacific Jazz Records spoke for itself. “Because of his history,” Watson says, “there was an automatic sense of trust that he would deliver something honest and faithful and probably quite original and creative.”
While Claxton’s photographs are rich and sensitive, his partner’s writing hasn’t aged as well. Berendt, who passed away in 2000 at the age of 77, was a well-respected authority on jazz, having published the widely read Jazz Book in 1952. However, Berendt’s essays are often frustrating reads, undermining the incredible amount of work these musicians applied to their craft, as if simply being black makes them swing (never mind that he spent time with dozens of white musicians from around the country).
Again and again in Jazzlife, Berendt remarks on the “childlike” musicians he encounters on the journey. Of gospel great Mahalia Jackson, he writes, “Mahalia has a strong and authentic naïveté that might seem corny and kitschy if it were not so strong and authentic” because she cites as influences pop singers, as opposed to the more critically-acclaimed musicians like Bessie Smith who Berendt identifies as her foremothers. And yet, in almost the very next breath, he decries “the wild and wicked fanatics” in the South who favored segregation. It’s disappointing to see Berendt quote Dizzy Gillespie saying of blues and jazz, “If a white man were to grow up in this environment, he’d react precisely the same way” only to have the academic wonder “if the rhythm of jazz comes from the Negro—perhaps his heartbeat?”
The book is better enjoyed if one doesn’t pay too much attention to the text, and thankfully, Claxton’s breathtaking photographs emerge as the main attraction of Jazzlife. He shot excited children dancing to a sax solo or looking down a New Orleans street, showing jazz as accessible, joyful, and part of a community’s fabric. Roosevelt Charles, an inmate pictured singing in Louisiana State Penitentiary, gets the same respect from Claxton’s lens as Chet Baker and his band on a sailboat.
Throughout his career, and especially in Jazzlife, Claxton challenged what audiences thought they knew about jazzmen. One standout Jazzlife photo shows Duke Ellington, who was typically shot grinning at a gleaming grand piano, focused and unsmiling as he rehearses on an upright model. Claxton chose to photograph his subjects more often than not on the beach, in a park or on the water, sometimes even without their instruments. “I think Claxton wanted to show the other side of that life,” Watson explains. “A good photograph implies something beyond its frame.” In his photos, Clax got at something more important than the big gigs, but still in the pocket.