Into the jazz heartland

By William Claxton. Excerpt from the book 'William Claxton. Jazzlife'

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Early in October of 1959 I received a telephone call from Germany. The person introduced himself as Joachim-Ernst Berendt, a musicologist living in Baden-Baden. In very good English, he explained that he was coming to America to do a study of "America's great art - jazz." He went on say that he needed a photographer to work with him - a photographer who liked and understood jazz. He had seen a great deal of my work published in European magazines and on record covers and thought that I would be the perfect choice to work with him - "because your pictures have soul." He went on to explain that the book would be mainly a collection of my images to augment his writings about jazz. There would be interviews with musicians, descriptions of the various places where one hears jazz, and a look at the origins of jazz as well as the art itself. He made it all sound a bit erudite, but it seemed like a very important project, and I was thrilled by his offer. The chance to photograph many of my jazz heroes in addition to the many unknown and yet-to-be-discovered jazz musicians all around America, was too tempting to resist.

I shall refer to Joachim Ernst-Berendt as "Joe" from now on. Joe and I planned to meet at Idlewild Airport (it wasn't named JFK yet) in New York on the day he arrived from Frankfurt, Germany. [My wife] Peggy and her sister drove me to LAX that morning. I was not feeling well but boarded the plane anyway. Before it left the terminal, I became very ill and went into the restroom. The next thing I knew, we were landing not in New York but in San Francisco. The flight attendant explained that they had changed planes and that I was obviously on the wrong flight. I finally took another one from San Francisco into New York. I'd kept Joe waiting for five hours, but the airline had alerted him as to my new arrival time. Joe and his friend, the Hungarian jazz guitarist Attila Zoller, whisked me off in Attila's new Buick into Manhattan. I don't think that I made a very good first impression on Joe. I was pale white and feeling terrible. We checked into the Hotel Alwyn, on West 58th Street and Seventh Avenue. The place was slightly rundown (and wanted cash upfront) and was a notorious hangout for junkies. Joe remarked, "Isn't it a wonderful place? Musicians hang out here. That's good, no?"

I introduced Joe to George Avakian, head of the jazz department at Columbia Records; Jack Lewis of RCA Victor; and Ahmet Ertegun and his brother Nesuhi of Atlantic. Joe was very impressed that I knew such important people in the jazz recording world. All of these fellows helped us make contact with the top musicians and arrangers in the New York area.

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The Lighthouse jazz club, Hermosa Beach.
(c) William Claxton