Style lessons to learn from one of jazz music’s most famous photobooks
Let me start this story with a bit of context: I really As Jazz. I’m listening to it right now, and I did while I was writing my last article too. But it’s not just the music that obsesses me. Hanging in frames on every wall in my apartment are jazz photographs. It’s to me what baseball cards or band posters are to others, a way of ensuring the energy of that time lives on.
In photos by Pittsburgh-born photographer Teenie Harris, I find Duke Ellington signing autographs for a lingering audience after a performance; through Art Kane’s lens, I see 57 legends crouching on a porch in Harlem; in William Claxton’s photos, I see Elvin Jones blowing cigarette smoke through his nose.
Each photo is a pleasure to browse, but Claxton’s images fascinate the most. Although his shots often have editorial intent – for his book Jazzlife he and a reporter traveled around the United States in a rental car to capture the country’s jazz scenes — they’re usually dramatic in nature. Claxton takes a ride on the subway with romantic trumpeter Donald Byrd and a practice session with Dizzy Gillespie feels like a packed performance.
What does all this mean for you, reader? What are my ramblings on 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 dressing tricks. In the 1950s and 60s, jazz musicians (and jazz fans) often did: put on collared shirts all day, wear suits all night. I’m not saying it’s necessary these days – certainly not – but it’s fun to copy looks from these kinds of books, the ones where style inspiration isn’t necessarily expected but pleasantly plentiful. You leave with pointers for your own personal style and a vague plan to implement them.
Here are some simple styling tips to take from some of the best-dressed men featured in Claxton’s recently reprinted book, Jazzlifehis over 600-page photographic essay on jazz, available now via Taschen.
Don’t be afraid of the ointment
Seen here in Hollywood (and with a cigarette in his mouth), 31-year-old André Previn clearly knew the importance of a small product. This part is difficult! While this shouldn’t feel like you’ve taken tar to your hairline, feel free to be liberal with the right some products. Find something with no noticeable shine, then style your hair to your liking – just try to keep it semi-natural.
Take your suit to the tailor
I don’t see a bad suit in this photo. Jimmy Archey, Earl Hines and Pops Foster were clearly regular visitors to their local tailors. Their shoulders look in shape even with their arms outstretched for the shot, and their shirts look perfectly tailored to their measurements. Everyone also follows the quasi-laws of costume. Everyone remembered to button only one button; they have all folded their pocket squares well; their ties were tied by talented hands.
Get a good shirt
Look at Larance Marable’s striped short-sleeved shirt (right). Now look at Philly Joe Jones’ shirt (left). Philly also has a stylish hat, watch and ring, and a pair of sunglasses. Both men clearly mastered the casual shirt, meaning they knew which collar they preferred and what patterns they were in.
Everyone needs a soft sweater
Here’s that photo of Elvin Jones I talked about earlier. Captured by Claxton outside Birdland, a jazz club in Manhattan, he wears what looks like a nice leather briefcase and wears a mix 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 this to spur an overnight search on eBay for an unsold version of Jones’ sweater. Just remember that just like it wasn’t, don’t be afraid to step out of the norm when it comes to knitting.