Into the jazz heartland

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

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I was curious as to how Joe would be accepted by the super-hip players themselves. It was soon apparent that not only had he done his homework about the music and the musicians, but that he could deal with them in a knowledgeable, sincere and authentic manner. Most of them took to him right away. It helped that he was from another country, which made him even more interesting to them. He could talk endlessly about "America's most important art form."

After several days of Joe taping interviews on his portable Nagra recording machine and my shooting pictures with my Nikon F and Leica M3 cameras (and an old used Rolleiflex camera that Richard Avedon had given me a few years earlier) with a modest assortment of lenses, and an enormous amount of fresh film, we set out in our rented 1959 Chevrolet Impala. You know the model - it had giant tail fins bent over to a flat position and big fish-like tail lights, and somehow the rental agent had managed to leave a cardboard license cover over the official plate that read "See the U.S.A. in Your Chevrolet" - how appropriate! Joe's plan for our jazz odyssey was to start in Manhattan; cover Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.; drive down the Eastern seaboard states and over to New Orleans and Biloxi; go up the Mississippi to Memphis; then move on to Chicago, St. Louis, Detroit and Kansas City. After that we would head west to Los Angeles, Hollywood, San Francisco and Las Vegas. I planned to visit the Monterey Jazz Festival later in the fall after Joe had returned to Germany We would then return to New York City; run up to Boston's Berklee School of Music; and end up at the Newport Jazz Festival in Newport, Rhode Island.

We would try to entertain ourselves with the car radio, but there was no such thing as a jazz radio station once you left New York, only hillbilly and church music. At almost every little village, we would check to see if there was any local music being performed, but rarely did we find anything good except the choirs in the local churches, which seemed to be performing or practicing all day. Near Savannah, Georgia we started to search for St. Simons Island in the Sea Islands near Brunswick. Joe had heard or read about a group of Negroes who spoke and sang in an African language dating back to the 1700's, and lived on the island. It was very difficult to find. Most of the residents were friendly at first but then would hardly speak to us when they heard what we were seeking. The black people along the road were usually frightened by us and wouldn't speak at all. Incidentally, these are the same Sea Islands that George Gershwin and DuBose Heyward researched for their Porgy and Bess in the early 1930s.
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A contact sheet of Peggy's shots of Joe Berendt and William Claxton, New York City.
(c) William Claxton