It was Mark Twain who said "Clothes make the man" - and despite
a proliferation of opposing quotes by other equally notable people, his
observation, for better or worse, still holds merit.
First impressions are everything and, as many a depping jazzer will attest,
sometimes a first impression is all you have to go on when you're booked
to make up the numbers in a scratch band. It is therefore the wise musician
who pays attention to the subject of attire, and the following treatise
should provide much valuable advice and guidance when choosing one's dress...be
it for an informal club gig or an auditorium performance.
It has been many years since white tie and tails was the standard dress
requirement of the upstanding jazz musician. Although many of us (myself
included) mourn the passing of such sartorial elegance, one cannot deny
that it was never an especially practical outfit - and in these egalitarian
times the wearing of tails is likely to result in your being confused
for a waiter, or worse, a classical musician...and that would simply never
However, it is still true to say that a musician's dress says much about
the quality of the player - and whilst functionality perhaps takes precedence
in these times, it should not do so to the detriment of smartness.
Remember, your fellow musicians will judge your social standing on your
turnout (as you will judge theirs) - and a bad choice of dress may well
mean that not only do you not get first dibs for the lead alto chair,
you may also end up having to help the drummer pack his kit away.
One should always bear in mind that jazz is an art form that represents
the pinnacle of expression, and what few restraints there are in terms
of the music (the breaking of which often providing entire new sub-genres)
should be countered by careful and tidy presentation on the part of the
artist - the better to accentuate the stark differences.
Indeed, a wrong note played by an elegantly attired musician will immediately
take on an air of daring experimentation - the same note played by a scruffy
oik merely remains a wrong note.
As the late Sir Charles Birdingley-Parker (a gentleman much noted for
his diligent attention to dress on stage, and much admired for his considerable
collection of jazz beards) so wittily put it when addressing a young,
somewhat ill-dressed dep who was having some trouble with his sight-reading:
"Take care of your ties, and the ties will take care of themselves".
By far the most common dilemma regarding the choice of apparel is how
to achieve the look of 'Cultivated Cool' - de-rigueur since Lester Young's
trouser waistline reached his chin back in 1937.
A simple pair of trousers (slacks are permissible) and a shirt of quality
is really all one needs - along with the mandatory tie.
Note that bow ties require some careful consideration on the grounds that
no-one who wears such an article is likely to be taken seriously unless
they have a Nobel prize tucked away. Bass saxophonists should ignore this
advice on the grounds that they will not be taken seriously anyway - not
even if they have a Nobel prize.
The now seldom-seen Cravat is singularly interesting insomuch as whilst
it spans the whole of the jazz idiom, it only does so at the extremes.
Thus, it is acceptable, proper even, to wear one for the playing of jazz
prior to and including the Duke Ellington period - after which it becomes
gauche, and should not be seen again until the Avant-Garde period. A notable
exception is where a violinist features in the ensemble, in which case
the cravat may be worn at one's discretion. It also doubles up as a 'bandit
mask' should you not wish to be recognised when leaving the gig.
A suit is always an excellent choice of apparel, but it is vitally important
to choose the correct jacket.
A double-breasted jacket is rarely worn these days, except by singers
- but should you choose to do so you must ensure that the lapels are as
wide as the jacket is long. Any less than this and you will look like
a spiv or a chat-show host, and may even be refused entry to some of the
more exclusive jazz clubs - even if you're on the bill.
Choice of fabric is largely at your discretion, but a simple rule of thumb
is that the shine of your suit should not exceed that of your horn. Players
who have mistakenly bought a black lacquered saxophone in the belief that
it makes them look cool should on no account wear tweed.
When selecting matching trousers, be mindful of the informal (in other
words, ignore at your peril) rule that equates the height of the waistband
with the skill of the player. 'Young Turks' and fresh-faced boppers straight
out of jazz school should wear their trousers off the hip. More seasoned
players may extend the line just over the hip.
To move the waistline any higher you must have played a set with at least
one musician who has at some point either appeared on a record or has
played with someone who has done so. This will get you halfway to your
ribs - once you've been recorded yourself you may take your waistline
to your ribs.
Moving above that requires that you have been recorded by a major jazz
record label, such as Blue Note or Verve etc. If, however, you have been
recorded by ECM you may only wear a Nehru suit - the length of the jacket
being dictated by the number of times a fellow artist has accused you
of 'selling out'.
Thereafter, a waistline that extends anywhere from the chest to the chin
is wholly dependant on your relationship to the aforementioned Lester
Young and is rarely seen these days. The author has shaken hands with
Benny Carter, and so is entitled to wear a waistline at nipple level -
pending a deal with a major jazz record label, naturally.
Be mindful too of the need to match your footwear to the height of your
Trousers that sit just above the hip should be worn with plain Brogues;
above that, but below the ribs, patent black lace-ups (never slip-ons!)
are required. Any waistband higher than that demands Spats.
Cuban heeled boots are acceptable only if you work predominantly in 5/4.
The Zoot Suit is occasionally still seen in formal settings - and should
only be worn after the Loyal Toast (but before the fat lady sings), and
you'd be wise to remember that it is still illegal in some parts of the
world to wear a Zoot suit if you are taller than 5' 9". Wearing such
a suit and playing a horn built anywhere outside the 1940's is a sartorial
gaffe so great that a many musicians will refuse to play with you. You
may also be taunted at great length.
Waistcoats are largely unworn these days, but can often be seen where
the band's repertoire consists of more than three numbers whose title
contains the word 'Street', 'Jelly' or 'Daddy'. By tradition, such waistcoats
are often gaudy and should be buttoned up prior to the gig. On taking
to the stage they should be unbuttoned - where it is hoped that a jacket
will render the article invisible.
For a more casual setting the polo-neck sweater remains as popular today
as it ever was - which means you may only wear one if your name is Bill
Shorts of any description should never be worn unless you accompany them
with a Pith helmet.
Much can be achieved via the use of accessories, such as a hat or a beard.
You must abide by the 'Beard Rule', which states that that
the length of the beard is determined by the era of jazz you're playing
and should not exceed three inches unless prior to Be-bop. Conversely,
the reverse is true for the width of a tie post Be-bop.
In the event of being booked to play a variety of styles at a single gig
you will have to resort to using stick-on beards (unless you're incredibly
adept at growing facial hair inbetween sets).
La-Fuzz market a fine range of traditional jazz beards - the 'Lateef'
is a good all-rounder, and the 'Mulligan', although expensive, can be
worn by two people at once.
'Designer stubble' is a relative newcomer to the scene, and brings with
it its own set of rules. The fundamental principal is to ride the fine
line between studied earthiness and casual nonchalance. Planning is essential
given that the international standard for stubble sets its length based
on a percentage (8%) of the measurement from the bottom of the lower lip
to the tip of the chin. Thus in my case, measuring some 45mm, my stubble
should be 3.6mm. For the average man this will take three days to grow.
Women may find it takes them somewhat longer.
The results of stepping outside this line is that too short a stubble
length simply makes you look like you forgot to shave, and perhaps wash
- and too long marks you down as a heavy drinker. If playing a week's
residency you will have to judge your stubble most carefully lest you
start the week looking like a numpty that no-one will listen to, and end
it looking like an oik that no-one wants to listen to.
If your stubble length as calculated exceeds 7mm you might want to consider
Moustaches are passé these days, but are still popular with players
who use a double-embouchure and wish to hide their shame.
When it comes to hats the rule is that there are no rules. However, nothing
works with a cravat save for a beret - and a flat cap can really only
be worn as an accompaniment to a waistcoat, and then only if the piano
is out of tune. If the rim of your hat exceeds twice the width of your
head, people will assume you're either a singer, a pimp or a harmonica
Sunglasses are popular with the West Coast set, but when worn indoors
are subject to the following conditions; they should not be worn by non-smokers
and those unable to play at least two diminished scales - one of which
must be in a turnaround. You cannot wear sunglasses with spats, pumps,
waistcoats or braces - unless you wish to look like an extra from The
Rocky Horror Show.
Finally, a quick word with regard to jeans. It is not my place to dictate
style, merely to comment upon what is deemed to be acceptable given the
standards of the day - but it is as safe to say now as it ever was that
jeans are most definitely not on.
Jeans are for gardening, certain forms of gambling, house-maintenance,
contemporary pig-sticking and cottaging.
It is all too easy to get it so very badly wrong, particularly if going
for the 'studiously unkempt' look - one runs the risk that they might
be thought to be, as the late Sir Charles Birdingley-Parker so eloquently
put it "Less of a bum and more of an arse".
If you've enjoyed reading this article, you might like
to hear it narrated by Clay Ryder. If so, check out his site at jazzstreams.org
- where you'll find this article, along with others from the Jazz Etiquette