Jazz is a naturally photogenic art form, maybe more so than its noisier, more moneyed cousin pop, with its thick layers of hype and posing. In jazz, legends are usually based on talent, and the imagery and charisma of the music is an aftereffect. Personalities reveal themselves in the details: The angle of a horn, the arch of a body over a piano, the tics of expression or wardrobe complement rather than dictate the musical voice.
And good jazz photographers such as William Claxton let their eyes and ears guide them. That’s the underlying message in the generous exhibition of Claxton’s black-and-white photographs, now at the Carnegie Art Museum, a must-see show for aficionados of jazz or photography. Here is another fine example of the museum’s commitment to fine-art photography, and to illuminating areas of that world not always granted the respect it deserves.
Claxton’s 90 images, mostly from the late ‘50s and early ‘60s and mostly from the West Coast, create a broad, genial tapestry of jazz lore. For those familiar with the music made by the subjects here, the exhibition conjures up a whirlwind of sounds. Look at the shot of the fiercely individual Thelonious Monk, at the piano in an empty ballroom in San Francisco. His expression is strong and enigmatic, and a hint of his music creeps into your head.
Then we have alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman, the gentle revolutionary who formed his classic quartet in L.A. in the late ‘50s, moved to New York to flee the jeers of conservatives here and proceeded to alter the course of jazz history. In this classic 1959 image, Coleman cuts the image of a young, earnest rebel genius--devoted, not cocky--on the cusp of a breakthrough.
Actually, some of the image-conscious jazz musicians who were subjected to the fickle image-making machinery suffered criticisms for it. The glaring example is Chet Baker, seen in a few familiar Claxton shots from the ‘50s as a shy matinee idol flanked by a stronger woman, or as a languid, shirtless bohemian. Miles Davis, shot in Los Angeles in 1956, stands at ease, sucking on a cigarette and holding his horn at his side, like a pistol or a briefcase, or both. He exudes the dark prince persona that he honed in the years after this.
Other musicians are captured in distinctive settings, or else in common settings made distinctive by an artful tilt of the camera. Claxton does some of his best work with trumpeters. Donald Byrd is seen practicing his horn on the subway, amid bemused passengers; Kenny Dorham is a man and a horn in action, to the side of a mostly white composition, consumed by the sky at the outdoor Newport Jazz Festival. A tiny plane trails its advertising banner overhead.
Seminal jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong, shot in a Hollywood studio in 1957, is literally the reckoning force in the corner. In this shot, music stands are in the foreground, with the trumpeter tucked into the far corner of the picture, wailing with eyes rolled back, horn pointed upward and a handkerchief tucked into his shirt like a bib.
Some of the work will speak to jazz fans, even when the photography aspect is lacking, as in a shot of the saxophone icon John Coltrane, tenor and soprano saxes in hand, climbing the steps to the stage at Newport in 1960. By most standards, it’s a throwaway shot, caught on the fly and without much regard for composition. But because it’s Coltrane, one of the most revered musicians of the last 30 years, it takes on a sense of character, both as a representation of his role in jazz and as an unusual perspective before he hits the stage.
A concert shot of the bop trumpeter Clifford Brown, who died young, exudes intensity, conveyed in his hunched shoulders, squeezing out a gymnastic phrase. Contrarily, Bill Evans’ introspection is conveyed by an image of the back of his head as he bows over the keys.
The image parade continues downstairs, with kinetic shots of New Orleans musicians on the street and one oddball shot of Charlie Parkerwith three of his fans. .
On and off stage, jazz legends convey something unique in American culture, as keepers of a mighty flame, securely fastened into a music that exists between vernacular and serious camps. That duality, and legacy, is beautifully woven into these pictures.
Painter’s Secret Life: Also on display in the museum, and a world away from jazz imagery, are the “Mystical Paintings” of Peter Adams, an artist respected for his impressionistic landscapes. But curator Suzanne Bellah discovered a different body of work on visiting his studio: These paintings, seen here for the first time, bask in a kind of somber grace and mystery.
Local-Global Spin: Photographer Donna Granata, showing in the local art gallery downstairs, is a fitting subject since she has focused on local artists of note. She shoots them, and heads an arts program called “Focus on the Masters.”
Her series of color portraits include pristine, sometimes poetic images of such Ojai legends as ceramist Otto Heino, the late photojournalist Horace Bristol, and neo-fauvist painter Gayel Childress. But her best image isn’t local: Famed photographer Arnold Newman is seen lost in thought, amid the photographic paraphernalia of lights and reflective umbrellas.
Exhibits--"JAZZ: William Claxton,” “The Mystical Paintings of Peter Adams,” through May 17, “Art and Soul: Donna Granata,” through April 17 at the Carnegie Art Museum, 424 South C St., Oxnard. Thursdays and Saturdays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Fridays, 11 a.m.-5:30 p.m.; Sundays, 1 p.m.-5 p.m. (805) 385-8157.