Toward the end of Jazz Seen -- German filmmaker Julian Benedikt's hagiographic 2001 documentary about photographer William Claxton -- Los Angeles gallery director David Fahey, who has mounted exhibitions of Claxton's iconic images of American jazz musicians, deftly defines the photographs' potency: "Viewers are not hearing the music, but they're seeing the physiognomy [the body language] of the subject. Once they see those [images], they can begin to kind of hear the music. It's an extension of the music. I think that's what his objective is -- to really catch a visual sense of what the music is saying."
For more than 50 years L.A. resident Claxton has been capturing jazz's often ineffable nature in his evocative shots of the music's creators, both well-known (Chet Baker, Thelonious Monk, et al.) and unknown (New Orleans marching brass band members, New York City street players). Intuitively Claxton pinpoints what pioneering French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson called the "decisive moment," laying bare the soul of the matter. "I can't remember any situation where Bill would say, 'Would you pose like this or do that or turn this way and let me see you,'" recalls pianist-composer Russ Freeman, one of a handful of A-listers tapped by Benedikt for testimonials to Claxton and his work. "He would just take the pictures as he saw them, which is the right way to do it, of course, because that's like playing jazz. It's supposed to happen right now -- it's not supposed to be premeditated."
In its U.S. premiere, Jazz Seen (also the title of a 1999 book of Claxton's portraits) kicks off the seventh annual Miami Jazz Film Festival, a weeklong cinematic cavalcade celebrating this nation's most distinctive indigenous music. Benedikt weaves re-creations of events from Claxton's life; the photographer's recent shoots with stars Cassandra Wilson and Diana Krall; hundreds of the lensman's stills; archival footage of performances (Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald with the Duke Ellington Orchestra); tributes from admirers (David Bailey, Dennis Hopper, Burt Bacharach); and reminiscences from Claxton and his wife, Sixties model Peggy Moffitt.
"Every time you clicked the shutter," Claxton explains of his early intoxication with photography, "you recorded something. You preserved a moment ... almost forever. And that moment will never happen again." A corpselike Bill Evans hunched over the keyboard in 1962, for example. Or Donald Byrd, surrounded by strangers, serenely blowing into his trumpet on a New York City subway car in 1959. A pensive-looking Art Pepper, just released from prison, sax tucked under his arm, climbing a steep L.A. street in 1956.
"I think Claxton's definition of beauty rests in the authenticity of a person," German publisher Benedikt Taschen observes in the film. "He considered beauty to be in the heart. He captured this aspect in his photographs, and made these brief moments visible."