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 do.
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.
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.
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 suit is always an excellent choice of apparel, but it is vitally important
to choose the correct jacket.
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.
Be mindful too of the need to match your footwear to the height of your
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.
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.
'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 ).
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 player.
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.
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".