Let me start this story with some context: I really like jazz. I’m listening to it right now, and did while I wrote my last article, too. But it isn’t just the music I’m obsessed with. Hung in frames on every wall in my apartment you’ll find jazz photography. It is to me what baseball cards or band posters are to others, a way of ensuring the energy of that era endures.
In Pittsburgh-born photographer Teenie Harris’ pictures I find Duke Ellington signing autographs for an audience lingering after a show; through Art Kane’s lens I see 57 legends crouched together on a stoop in Harlem; in William Claxton’s stills I spot Elvin Jones blowing cigarette smoke out of his nose.
Every photo is a pleasure to pore over, but Claxton’s images mesmerize most. While his shots are often editorial in intent — for his book Jazzlife he and a reporter traveled the US in a rented car to capture the country’s jazz scenes — they’re usually dramatic in nature. Claxton makes a ride on the subway with trumpeter Donald Byrd romantic and a practice session with Dizzy Gillespie look like a packed performance.
What’s all this mean for you, the reader? What’re my ramblings on jazz doing in the style section? Well, my countless hours flipping pages in Claxton’s photo books helped me learn a few things about dressing up. In the ’50s and ’60s, jazz musicians (and jazz fans) did it often: donned collared shirts all day, wore suits all night. I’m not saying that’s necessary nowadays — definitely not — but it’s fun to copy looks from these kinds of books, the ones where style inspiration isn’t necessarily expected but pleasantly abundant. You step away with pointers for your own personal style and a vague plan for implementing them.
Here are a few simple style tips to take from some of the best-dressed men featured in Claxton’s recently reprinted book, Jazzlife, his 600-plus-page photo essay on jazz, available now via Taschen.
I don’t see a bad suit in this photo. Jimmy Archey, Earl Hines and Pops Foster were clearly repeat visitors to their local tailors. Their shoulders look shaped even with their arms stretched out for the shot, and their shirts seem sized perfectly to their measurements. Everyone’s following the quasi-laws of suiting, too. Each remembered to only button one button; they all have folded their pocket squares properly; their ties were tied by talented hands.
Look at Larance Marable’s (right) short-sleeve striped shirt. Now look at Philly Joe Jones’ (left) shirt. Philly has a stylish hat, watch, and ring on, too — plus, a pair of sunglasses. Both men clearly mastered casual shirting, meaning they knew which collar they preferred and which patterns were in.
Here’s that photo of Elvin Jones I mentioned earlier. Captured by Claxton outside Birdland, a jazz club in Manhattan, he’s carrying what looks like a nice leather briefcase and wearing a cross between a shawl and crewneck sweater. I wouldn’t recommend the fedora today, but the sweater’s still plenty cool. And I’m not saying this to spur a night-long search on eBay for a deadstock version of Jones’ sweater. Simply remember that just as he wasn’t, don’t be afraid to break outside the norm when it comes to knitwear.