William Claxton was a talented and successful photographer before he met Chet Baker in Los Angeles in the early ’50s. Baker was a fairly successful solo artist before Claxton began photographing him. As a result of their collaboration a jazz star was born, albeit one who gradually fell due to a lifetime of substance abuse and self-destructive behavior. And Claxton came away with some of the most iconic photographs of the era. As described vividly in James Gavin’s biography, Baker was an immoral man who frequently treated friends, family and associates badly, but none of that matters when looking at these stunning photos. In the notes accompanying the images, Claxton describes Baker as having “more than a photogenic quality: he had a unique sense of presence in front of the camera… He instinctively knew what to do, how to move, which way to look to catch the best light, and yet, I don’t know that he was ever conscious of these actions.”
Looking through this book, it’s almost incomprehensible to imagine the haggard and grizzled Chet Baker of the ’70s and ’80s—a man so drug-addled that he apparently died from falling from a second-story window ledge. Baker never looked as good as he does in these photos, which capture that moment in time when he appeared as smoldering and sexy as his playing style. The soft-cover printing by Schirmer is exquisite. A jazz fan could tear out a page, frame it and only a photography curator would know the difference between it and a photo print. Claxton’s observations about the sessions and Baker are thoughtful, insightful and self-effacing. Claxton would later go on to inadvertently mythologize another cool white guy—Steve McQueen in those white jeans—but he had more help from the film industry and media in that regard. In the case of Baker, Claxton deserves much more credit for establishing the persona of the quintessentially cool jazz musician.