Sunday, March 9, 2014

Jazz Bums

Somewhere along the way, I haven’t determined exactly when, it became acceptable for some musicians to think showing up for live (Jazz) performances wearing the same clothes that they wear anywhere else is the thing to do. These days it isn’t that uncommon that a patron of the music, with hard-earned cash in hand, will venture out for an evening with hopes of enjoying some high art but instead will be offered a gig where some of the cats who perform will actually show up and get on stage with prominent holes and stains in/on their jeans, wrinkled and tattered t-shirts, dirty sneakers, saggy trousers and visible underwear, greasy, unwashed hair (or bodies), dirty fingernails, or worse…. What the hell happened? When did it become acceptable for performers to look like they don’t give a s—t? A quick look at any vintage photograph featuring the champions of the music reveals how much detail went into how they looked as well as how they sounded. Neither was any accident. (For that matter, look at the early photos of the Beatles….SUITS.) So why must the prestigious and noble face of the music be tarnished now with this mass nose thumbing at one of the more important aspects of performance etiquette? Improvising musicians once were the very model for contemporary style and cool behavior. Performers graced their own stages in appropriate attire and projected dignity and respect.

MILES. Needs no explanation.
Now, don’t get me wrong, in my private life, I’m just as casual and relaxed in my dress as anyone else. Sometimes I would even classify my look at home as “homeless chic.” But once I step outside my house and venture into the world where simple minded people sometimes size you up immediately before you even have a chance to speak… well, let me just offer this to any of you who happen NOT to be a Black man who is always followed and eyed suspiciously whenever he decides to peruse the items in any retail establishment..if this was an element of your reality that went back as far as you could remember, then you would understand why it would be absolutely imperative to appear in public at all times as if you mean business. I certainly don’t want to be mistaken for a thug, degenerate or anyone else who doesn’t want to be taken seriously or respected. (Side note: Each and every single time that I travel with casual or sportswear , I am detained and searched thoroughly at airport security and customs. EVERY time. They call it a random secondary search but I know better. This is obvious character profiling, of course, but the odds would be lessened if my garb and external profile didn’t resemble that of a hellraiser.)

The Duke. Always sharp.

But where musical performances are concerned, jeans, baseball caps, sneakers and t-shirts and other extreme casual wear just doesn’t cut it for me in terms of stage apparel. Not in my band, it doesn’t. The exception, of course, would be some of the summer outdoor music festivals where we’re often found performing in sweltering heat, or situations where we’ve had to rush to the bandstand directly from the airport after a day of hectic travel and near-missed flights. Sometimes there is absolutely no time that will allow for the band to “get it together” and one must perform “as is”. But dressing as if you just woke up from falling asleep with your clothes on should not be an acceptable norm. I’m constantly surprised to find the number of Jazz musicians who feel that it’s no big deal and argue that they’re merely “dressing for comfort”. I doubt very seriously that any member of any philharmonic orchestra would agree, or think for one minute that their job would be secure if they didn’t appear for work dressed appropriately.

Lee Morgan. tailored flair.

Once in or around 1983 or ‘84, during a break on a gig with Jon Faddis' quartet at a location that I can’t immediately remember, Dizzy Gillespie who was our guest, complimented me on the sharpness of my suit and relayed to me some stories about how meticulous some of the musicians had been about their “vines” (Jazzspeak for suits – hanging on your body like vines). He told me that a hip suit (and hat) were essential to “the look” and that they would have never even considered performing in anything less. He concluded his story with the same phrase that I’ve heard said countless times when referring to the audience: “They SEE you before they HEAR you”. I agree wholeheartedly with this and have to confess that I base my total enjoyment of any given performance on a multitude of factors – appearance and stage presence being two of them.

Mr. Hank Jones. Style and grace.

I would further contend that this slacker mode of dress has contributed to the devaluation of the music in terms of visual presentation and a steadily increasing lack of respect for an art form whose very participants sometimes don’t appear to have much respect for anything other than subjecting their audiences to 10 chorus length solos and songs that last 30 minutes each – AND looking like derelicts while doing it!

In my own experience, I would have to admit that not only do I feel better about my presentation when I’m secure that everything is in place both with the music as well as with the business, but I also notice all too well how different I am treated and respected when I am dressed like a “grown-ass-man”. In music, as well as in every other aspect of life, respect for oneself and the rich lineage that we’ve inherited deserves ample consideration and attention to every facet of the art form – not just being a “bad ass” on your instrument. So to those to whom this would apply: Clean up your act!

Perhaps it’s time for musicians to, along with the refinement of their craft, begin to reinvestigate the value and immediate benefits (WINK!) of being “clean” and “sharp as a tack” once again. I know, quite personally, a number of people who would support the music with a bit more enthusiasm if the musicians themselves didn’t appear so aloof and disheveled. It’s not so much to ask.



  1. I was just watching a tribute for Stevie Wonder on YouTube from a few years ago. Everything about it, the set designs, the lighting, the clothing worn by the performers, the hair styles, accessories, were first class, EXCEPT Ed Sheeran, who was wearing some casual shirt that he might of picked up in the $1.00 segment of the thrift store. Now don't get me wrong, you can get some nice things at the thrift stores, especially in some wealthy neighborhoods, but Ed Sheeran's outfit struck me as being so out of place! His look has it's origins in the hippie movement who were anti establishment, anti parents, etc. Fatigue and ex military surplus clothing were acceptable too. Some people are all style and no substance, some no style, a lot substance and then there are those who dress for the occasion! As a performer, assuming you're not performing for a bunch of "dead heads" or a casual out door festival in the summer, it's always a good idea not to have your appearance detract from your presentation!

  2. Toni "Jazz Tone" ManiesonFebruary 20, 2018 at 5:22 PM

    Thank You Greg, I stay so frustrated with my musicians. They dress any old way. It is so frustrating. I dress nice and they most times just wear anything.
    I am going to be sure to share this with all the musicians I know in Ghana.
    I use to tell stories of how well dressed the Atlanta Jazz Musicians were and how they even carried their instruments with pride. Also how many of them were teachers or had day jobs and no matter what kind of job they did they still dressed when it came to performing.

    They don't want a woman telling them what to do. I have shared stories of how I was always told first impressions are lasting. I tell them they are not taken serious. This is why they can't get what they want.

    I hope you don't mind if I use portions of this in a book I am writing about performance.

    I am celebrating my 20th anninversary of "Keeping Jazz Alive" in Ghana. For me, this is right on time.