By Lenroy James
The black and white images of celebrated musicians coupled with a documentary narrator’s voice floating above the seductive sounds of Jazz music echoing from the speakers of a 27-inch television, one can’t help but take a moment to absorb the sensory offerings of “Jazz: William Claxton.”
On display at the Queens Central Library in Jamaica, the exhibit features a blend of Claxton’s photos with the Ken Burns documentary on the history of jazz.
Making his mark as a self-taught photographer, Claxton uses his love of jazz to create a wonderful collection of photographs documenting the prime era of jazz.
A native of California, Claxton drew his influence from his mother and brother, both active players in the music scene during the early 1940s. His destined sojourn landed him at Pacific Jazz Records, working as the official photographer, and later the choice shooter for other record companies around the country. But amid all the later successes, which included jaunts with motion picture productions and fashion photography, he still insisted on presenting his much loved jazz interpretation.
The exhibition, which has traveled internationally, is in its second week at the library and seeks to share with Jazz aficionados, converts and novices the birth of the celebrated music as well as the distances covered and changes it has undergone to its present status, still considered outside of mainstream American popular music.
The vices common to jazz do not hinder the purity and comprehensive art form of the exhibition that commands about 200 visitors to its portals every day. Captured during the glory days of the music, the more than 80 black and white photographs bring to life a definitive period, 1955-1975, when the music was in its adolescence, and the players and colorful personalities involved may not have been aware that they were charting a path to greatness.
The works are broad and unprejudiced, locking into the lives of street musicians, studio sessions, rare behind-the-scenes moments, live performances, and the scenes of life on the road—reflective truly of musicians. Those moments are intimate yet revealing, and no doubt are cherished as seen through the liveliness in the eyes of the subjects. Though the pictures are for observation, the exhibition is not limited only to stills, but is enhanced with the famous 10-part Ken Burns video documentary shown there as well.
The Burns epic gives an enthralling and historical backdrop of this true American rat form, with each episode capturing detailed information about a particular phase of the music. The episode entitled “Gumbo” reveals the birth of jazz music in New Orleans in the 1890s at the height of the Jim Crow era, featuring such musicians as Jelly Roll Morton and Buddy Bolden. As it progresses we are led through the works of Earl Hines and Artie Shaw, and to the birth of swing music, as it became the symbol of freedom during the heady days of World War II. Experts are also captured in philosophical moods sharing their opinions and experiences of not only the musicians, but also the social changes which might have influenced the sound of jazz. It documents the shift of jazz to Harlem, with luminaries such as Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday, and the rise of the Bebop, changing the sound of jazz.
The final episode, called “A Masterpiece by Midnight,” is an explanation of how rock and roll became the music of choice within a particular era and the impression Miles Davis made by fusing both musical styles.
So far visitors at the library have enjoyed the blend of Claxton’s photos with Burns’ film. Diamond, an 11 year old student of St. Catherine of Sienna, was on his first tour of the gallery and appeared inspired by the faces dating back to the 1950s. “Whew, Mommy look,” he chimed, pointing to a 1960 picture of a plump Meade Lux Lewis, sitting in front of his piano in Los Angeles. His mother, Naomi, quickly hustled over and remarked, “very interesting.”
Other photos which drew Diamond’s fascination included an emotional Mahalia Jackson, the nonchalance of an unknown street musician exhaling a nose-full of white-ashy smoke under hazy eyes, and the raw expressions of Ray Charles.
The traveling exhibit is under the direction Ken Burns and runs until June 2. Admission is free.