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On-Stage Fashion + Why Style Matters

Why, why, why do some of these jazz musicians not dress to the nines on stage? Don’t tell me that it’s because they don’t have the bread either. Some of these cats are just not in tune.

What happened to the jazz stylistic fashion movement that dominated back in the 50’s and 60’s during “The Birth of Cool”? If you’re going to be performing on stage, particularly at a swanky venue or nightclub, then you need to adopt a certain dress code – period.

A musician and artists fashion style should mirror the music. I don’t care what kind of jazz you’re playing, have some style Motherfucker, and present yourself with a sense of cool, a sense of style, a sense of pride and a sense of class.

When I see some of these cats and session players, young and old, simply phoning it in on stage (both musically and stylistically), it pisses me off. Again, you’re fuckin’ it up for the rest of us. These cats show up in all black, wearing either some oversized jacket, or just a black button-down with some sort of cheap black slacks or black Docker pants, and topping it off with black Reebok's or Chuck Taylor's (I love Chuck Taylor's, but not stage). What…. the… fuck… are… you… wearing? And equally to blame, why is the MD allowing it? It’s no wonder why some of these lounge lizards are only getting paid $50 - $100 for a 4-set gig. Everything you’re bringing to the table is average at best.

Have some of these cats simply forgotten what taking pride in oneself is all about? Even back-in-the-day when artists weren’t bringin’ in the cash, they still dressed to kill.

The Birth of Cool Style Icons Breakdown:

Let’s go back to the greats and break down how they did it in hopes to give you (the musician) some fashion lessons, or some inspiration at the very least. You’ve been so busy learning their licks, you need to also understand the importance and value in fashion to help support the music you’re playing.

Miles Davis:

Without a shadow of a doubt, one of the most influential musicians of all time. Known for his melodic phrasing and innovative, groundbreaking compositions, not to mention his on-point suits, Davis helped bring jazz back to the forefront of popular culture with his 1959 album Kind of Blue. In the late 50’s and into the 60’s, Davis favored simple, slim-cut suits, which he paired with a plain, usually white, dress shirt and skinny ties. While his suits covered a range of fabrics, styles and patterns, nearly all of Davis’ suits shared one interesting similarity: they only had one button. As Davis’ career progressed, his musical style shifted away from straight-forward jazz and more towards experimental fusion. His style followed closely behind as Davis abandoned his tamer looks from the '60s in favor of big frame sunglasses, floor-length fur coats and colorful ascots.

Miles said, “I can tell whether somebody can play or not by what they wear and how they move in it.”

Bill Evans:

Evans has been heralded as one of the greatest jazz pianists ever. Deeply rooted in classical music, Evans’ musical style is thoughtful and contemplative, airing on the side of minimalism. Cementing him amongst the greatest jazz innovators, Evans’ work was truly fresh. A reflection of his playing, Evans’ style was simple, yet elegant and truly timeless. In the late '50s and early '60s, Evans complemented his refined look—perfectly slicked hair and signature glasses—with a clean dress shirt and an unassuming blazer. Evans’ style encapsulates the “classic jazz” look that would forever serve as the epitome of cool.

Art Blakey:

Even though he was a highly-celebrated drummer, Art Blakey’s skills as a bandleader elevated him to new heights in the jazz world. Integral to the early New York Bebop scene, Blakey was often caught frequenting local jazz spots like Birdland and Minton’s. Keeping things simple, Blakey stuck to the standard jazz uniform of a slim suit, crisp dress shirt and skinny tie.

Thelonious Monk:

Shrouded in unconventionality and dissonance, Monk’s music is simply worlds apart from that of his peers. Perhaps the most unique figure in jazz, both in terms of music and personality. Monk’s extreme self-expression was also clearly represented in his clothing choices as Monk would pair an ordinary suit with an eclectic fur hat or an offbeat pair of glasses.


Simply put: music and fashion go hand-in-hand. It’s all about how you carry yourself on and off stage that helps enhance what you deliver on stage. My co-music partner and I, Bijon Watson, have a radio show called “B-SIDE with The Jazz Eclectic” that airs on 91.5FM KUNV Jazz & More in Las Vegas. We recently interviewed the great Kurt Elling, and the first topic we discussed was his incredible sensibility and taste for fashion. Listen to the interview HERE.

The audience also feeds on how you present yourself on stage. I can’t tell you how many times people have come up to us after a gig and comment on our fashion sensibility. You see, a lot of cats don’t think the audience cares, but they do. Here are some quotes from a couple of giants of jazz that dress to kill and that were featured in GQ Magazine:

“I wouldn’t go to work without a suit. It sets the tone for me.” – Ron Carter (Bass)

“I think style is an innate thing. Some people have it - or not.” – Charles Lloyd (Saxophone)

“Miles used to say, ‘I can tell whether somebody can play or not by what they wear and how they move in it.” – Wayne Shorter (Saxophone, Composer)

“I was having my clothes made at a young age,” says Haynes, who also drummed with saxophone godhead Charlie Parker back in the 1940s. “Even before I had a good gig, I was having stuff made. Some people would come to my gig to see what I was wearing—to see what the little M.F. was wearing.” – Roy Haynes (Drums)

Now go get some style.


Niles Thomas

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