By G. Bruce Boyer
Jul 13, 2022
G. Bruce Boyer salutes the timeless style of the jazz greats.
Jazz is America’s great gift to the world, and I wanted to say a word about the style of the givers. While I have certain specific interests within the music, I find the classic jazz musicians of almost any stripe sartorially fascinating. From Louis and Duke to Miles and beyond, style was always an important aspect of their lives. My thoughts about that were perhaps best put a couple of years ago by the wonderful writer and authority on the music, Stanley Crouch. In a New Yorker article on the career of saxophonist Sonny Rollins, he quotes Rollins on his influences:
“I used to see all these great musicians,” Rollins said. “There were Coleman Hawkins and his Cadillac and those wonderful suits he wore. Just standing on the corner, I could see Duke Ellington, Andy Kirk, Don Redman, Benny Carter, Sid Catlett, Jimmy Crawford, Charlie Shavers, Al Hall, Denzil Best, and all these kinds of men. Those guys commanded respect in the way they carried themselves. You knew something was very true when you saw Coleman Hawkins or any of those people.”
My personal favorite, both for his music and his personal style, was the great saxophonist Lester Young, perhaps the world’s coolest human being and the best example of the relationship between a man and his music. His way of playing ballads – breathy, light, floating -- caressed his audiences in a mist of love. “Prez”, as he was known to his associates who had the highest respect for his talents, was a sensitive, shy, lovable, eccentric, sad-eyed genius who wore flamboyant, broad-brimmed pork pie hats and super-sharp suits. He was arguably more the model for the hipster than anyone in the 20th Century, and it could in truth be said that his very personality defined “cool” for several generations of Black and White urban youth: particularly writers, activists, and other musicians such as Malcolm X and Amiri Baraka, Iceberg Slim and Alan Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, John Coltrane, Ahmed Jamal, Stan Getz, and Miles Davis among them.
Gjon Mili, Red Callender and Lester Young, 1944. Photo: Gjon Mili
Young’s working life bridged the period in jazz from hot to cool. He had become a star in The Age of Swing with the Count Basie Band roaring out of Kansas City, at a time in the mid-1930s when jazz made up a large part of the American culture. Along with Hawkins, and later Charlie Parker and Ben Webster, Prez made the sax the weapon of choice. The singer Sylvia Sims recalled that he was “a beautiful dresser and his accent was his pork pie hat worn on the back of his head. He used cologne, and he always smelled divine.” He was fond of pointed-toed shoes with Cuban heels which he’d buy in various colours of suede to match his suits. He preferred boldly striped shirts and silk knit ties, high-waisted, wide-legged trousers with pegged bottoms, and coats on the long side, with wide shoulders. His hair was long, pomaded, and worn straight back.
Lester Young, 1949. Photo: Herman Leonard
No one was hipper than Prez. But perhaps the most endearing tribute to him was made by his dear friend Billie Holiday:
He wears high-draped pants, the stripes are really yellow,
He wears high-draped pants, the stripes are really yellow.
But when he starts in lovin’ me, he is so fine and mellow.
Come on, fellas, you can’t beat that.