Style lessons from one of jazz music’s most famous photo books
Let me start this story with a bit of context: I really like Jazz. I’m listening to it right now, and I did it while writing my last article too. But it’s not just the music that obsesses me. Hanging in frames on every wall in my apartment you will find jazz photographs. This is to me what baseball cards or group posters are to others, a way to keep the energy of this era alive.
In photos by Pittsburgh-born photographer Teenie Harris, I find Duke Ellington signing autographs for an audience lingering after a show; through Art Kane’s lens, I see 57 legends crouching on a porch in Harlem; in William Claxton’s stills I see Elvin Jones blowing cigarette smoke through his nose.
Every photo is a pleasure to browse, but the images of Claxton mesmerize the most. While his photos often have editorial intent – for his book Jazzlife he and a reporter traveled to the United States in a rental car to capture the country’s jazz scenes – they are usually dramatic in nature. Claxton takes a romantic ride on the subway with trumpeter Donald Byrd and a workout with Dizzy Gillespie looks like a packed performance.
What does all of this mean to you, reader? What are my ramblings about Jazz do in the style section? Well, my countless hours flipping through the pages of Claxton’s photo books have helped me learn a few dress-up tips. In the 50s and 60s, jazz musicians (and jazz fans) often did: put on collared shirts all day, wore costumes all night. I’m not saying it’s necessary these days – certainly not – but it’s fun copying looks from those kind of books, ones where style inspiration isn’t necessarily expected but pleasantly abundant. You leave with pointers for your own personal style and a vague plan for implementing them.
Here are some simple style tips to take from some of the best dressed men featured in Claxton’s recently reprinted book, Jazzlife, his 600-page jazz photo essay, available now via Taschen.
Don’t be afraid of the ointment
Seen here in Hollywood (and with a cigarette on his lips), André Previn, 31, clearly knew the importance of a small product. This part is difficult! While it doesn’t seem like you’ve taken tar all the way to the hairline, feel free to be liberal with the right some products. Find something without noticeable shine, then shape your hair however you like – just try to keep it semi-natural.
Bring your suit to the tailor
I don’t see a bad costume in this photo. Jimmy Archey, Earl Hines and Pops Foster were clearly regulars at their local tailors. Their shoulders look fit even with their arms outstretched for the shot, and their shirts seem perfectly sized to their measurements. Everyone also follows the quasi-laws of trial. Everyone remembered to button only one button; they have all folded their pockets well; their bonds were tied by talented hands.
Get a good shirt
Look at Larance Marable’s striped short-sleeved shirt (right). Now take a look at Philly Joe Jones’ shirt (left). Philly also has a stylish hat, watch and ring, as well as a pair of sunglasses. Both men had a clear mastery of casual shirts, which meant they knew which collar they preferred and what the patterns were.
Everyone needs a soft sweater
Here’s that photo of Elvin Jones that I mentioned earlier. Captured by Claxton outside of Birdland, a jazz club in Manhattan, he wears what looks like a pretty leather briefcase and wears a cross between a shawl and a crew-neck sweater. I wouldn’t recommend the fedora today, but the sweater is still very cool. And I’m not saying that to spur a night of eBay research for an unused version of Jones’ sweater. Just remember that just like it wasn’t, don’t be afraid to step outside of the knitwear norm.
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