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

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.)

"I was amazed that Chet lived as long as he did," says Claxton. "And I think it was because he was an athlete when he was young, and he had a basically healthy body.

"And I also think it was because he was very self-centered. Very quiet, but very self-centered. It isn't that he was rude, he just simply always did what he wanted to do. When he was rehearsing with musicians, if nobody was stronger than he was, and they agreed to do something, he'd say 'OK' and then he'd proceed to just do his own thing."

At best, Claxton and Baker were an odd couple. Claxton was the Pasadena-born offspring of an upper middle-class family--a tall, shy, jazz-loving UCLA student whose first real camera, a Rolleiflex, was given to him by famed fashion photographer Richard Avedon. ("I met him," says Claxton, "when I was visiting a girlfriend who was a model in New York. I hung around Avedon's studio marveling at his cameras until he finally just gave me one of his old ones. And I used it for years.") Baker, born in Oklahoma, moved to Glendale with his family at the age of 11 when his father was trying to find work in the aircraft plants. Drafted into the Army in 1946, he played with service bands before studying music at El Camino College and then re-enlisting for another two years.

"But as connected as we were through the photographs," says Claxton, "Chet and I were only close in the sense that we liked each other's work. We might have a hamburger together after a gig, or go to his apartment or hotel room to chat. But we didn't hang out. In fact, I don't think he ever hung out with another man. He was always with some girl . . . . Or he was in trouble heading out the back door as the husband came in. He was always in trouble.

"He did have one soft side," continues Claxton. "He loved lyrics. I remember sitting with him sometimes; he might be smoking a joint--he never drank very much more than an occasional beer--and he would start reciting the lyrics of a song, like poetry. And that love for lyrics turned out to be one of the odd ways we connected. I traveled in different circles, and I heard different music--cabaret, musical theater--and I'd often suggest a tune I'd heard from Mabel Mercer or Bobby Short, a tune he'd never heard of. And Chet did a few of them, Matt Dennis' 'Everything Happens to Me,' Rodgers & Hart's 'You're Nearer,' tunes like that."

C laxton's book recaptures both the youthful elan and the un dercurrent of pretty-boy self-centeredness of Baker in the '50s. But there were some fans--especially in Europe, where the trumpeter spent much of his time after the '60s--who disagree with Claxton's belief that Baker did his best work in his youth.

During a book-signing tour in Paris, one fan angrily asked Claxton, "How can you say in your book that Chet was at his best when he was young? He played great when he was older living in Paris, too!" Claxton simply replied, "Of course he did. But I knew him best in the '50s." Both the final picture in "Young Chet"--a shot of Baker lying on a bench, trumpet cradled in one arm, dreamily looking into space--and the closing epilogue in his book, however, make it apparent that Claxton's preference for Baker's playing of the period was based on more than the convenience of a working relationship: "I will always remember," writes Claxton, "Chet as a young man with his horn, dreaming and looking toward his future."

"Yeah," he adds, "it's more than the fact that I was taking a lot of album covers . . . and spending a certain amount of time with him. After those first few golden years, it seemed as though he was always on the run--usually away from the law, or else running to find a score.

"And I think that's why he was so over-recorded," continues Claxton. "Anybody who approached with some money and asked him to record, he'd say, 'Sure, I'll record.' Which is why I think a lot of the stuff he recorded is junk--or, at least, not the best Chet Baker. Every now and then, something would go wonderful. But mostly, his playing after the '50s wasn't up to his best level."

Claxton's photographs from the '50s--of Mulligan, Charlie Parker and dozens of other jazz players, as well as Baker--disclose how profoundly he was affected by the spontaneity of jazz. The early black-and-white images, in particular, capture the intensely revealing body languages of the players--Parker's self-assurance, Mulligan's wiry balancing act with his massive baritone saxophone, Russ Freeman quietly resting his head on his piano.

They also disclose how effectively Claxton married the sudden quickness of photographic journalism with jazz. "Capture the moment," said the great French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, one of Claxton's often-mentioned influences, and Claxton constantly applied that principle in his early work, watching and waiting for the performance instant that best captured the essence of his subject.

"I didn't want to stage my pictures," says Claxton. "I wanted to be more like a photojournalist, more like Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank and Walker Evans. They were my early idols. The moment I discovered a Rolleiflex and a 35mm Nikon, I switched from the clunky old 4x5 Speed Graphic I'd been using--a relic from World War II--and tried to shoot everything with available light. And, just as important, with a minimum of direction. I might try to get the performers to maybe turn a certain way, but that was all."

Claxton's color photographs, many of which can be seen in "Jazz West Coast: The Art of the Record Cover," a collection of his album work, further expanded the boundaries of his work.

"In addition to the photojournalists," says Claxton, "I also loved the stylized and beautiful photography of Irving Penn and Richard Avedon. The cleanness, the plain, simple gestalt against a white or a gray background. I remember looking at my sister's fashion magazines in those days and marveling at some of the work they did."

A s the '50s ended, Claxton moved away from jazz. His marriage to actress/model Peggy Moffitt led to a longtime association with the revolutionary fashion designer Rudi Gernreich. The much-publicized '60s photographs of Gernreich's topless bathing suit featured Moffitt, and were taken by Claxton.

"That was a big, big family decision," says Claxton with a sigh. "Whew. Was I going to let my wife show her breasts in public. We hassled about it for a long time. Finally, we decided to employ nepotism. Only I could photograph it, we would have control of the pictures, and Peggy would never model the suit in public. And it worked out OK. The pictures were tasteful, I thought, Peggy looked great, and it was historically a breakthrough for women, that they could feel free enough to show the beauty of their breasts."

Claxton went on to direct television commercials in the '60s, and sitcoms--"Love, American Style" among them--in the '70s. It was not the sort of work he loved.

"After a while," he explains, "I just couldn't stand it. I just hated it. I'm way too polite and quiet to work in television. I got along fine with the actors. But the production crew would be ahead of me lighting the next set while I was still talking about the previous scene. It was dreadful.

"So I didn't work much for a few years until I finally decided to go back to photography, which was my first love."

The publication of "Jazz William Claxton" in 1987 brought Claxton to the jazz public's consciousness. Six more books followed in the next six years, including "The Rudi Gernreich Book," written with Moffitt. "Steve," a "photographic memory" of Steve McQueen, and "Black & Silver," a set of photographs of "Afro-American Musical Talent," are scheduled for release in the next year, in addition to softcover editions of "Jazz William Claxton" and "Young Chet."

"So the cycle's come around again," says Claxton. "And it's kind of appropriate that Chet is a prominent part of it. He was there in the beginning, and he's there again now that I've come back to jazz. I like to think that if he could see 'Young Chet' he'd have the same reaction he used to have when I showed him the album cover shots. He'd look at them very carefully, in absolute silence, and then, in that cool, '50s style, always say the same thing: 'Yeah, Clax.' "*

* "Photography: Jazz for the Eye," California Heritage Museum, 2612 Main St. (corner Main and Ocean Park), Santa Monica, (310) 392-8537. Through April 2. Hours: Wednesday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-4 p.m.; Sunday, noon-4 p.m.. Admission: $2 for non-members, children under 12 free.

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