If Jazz Was a Person...
This is a question that I’ve thought about for quite some time, and am now deciding to share my thoughts on it. But since this question really encapsulates two other questions, I’ll present them as such, which is to say “What is the visual essence of the quintessential Jazz musician” and “What does such a musician stand for?” And since the manner in which a person presents themselves is simply a reflection of an inward disposition, I’ll start with the latter.
The culture of the Jazz musician is one that’s largely built upon maintaining a certain level of reverence for not only the musical developments of its earlier practitioners--which mostly refers to the inception of Jazz on up through the 1970’s, and a little bit from the 80's--but also an interest in maintaining the cultural practice of the oral tradition in regards to how the knowledge of these musical developments are passed on from one generation to the next. And since Jazz music is a life-long pursuit, there’s rarely a desire among the Jazz elite to ever gloss over any historical data, as they realize that the road to mastery within this music is more akin to an Olympic marathon than it is to an all-out sprint (think the shelf life of most pop acts). So since we tend to take our time within the process of wading through 110+ years of recorded and published material on the subject of Jazz music, it’s sort of no wonder why our style of speech and dress (to a lesser degree these days) tends to mimic the musicians that we've invested so much of our time trying to emulate. However, with the 1990's having been perhaps the last era where the typical Jazz musician could have a shot at supporting themselves, we now find ourselves in a situation where many are having to do some serious soul searching as they reassess the manner in which they see fit to present both the sound of their music and the ways in which they brand themselves. And so it's only natural that questions regarding authenticity will surface, so as to mitigate any possibility that one might be perceived as “selling out”—which really just refers to the smell test (i.e. if it don’t smell like Jazz, then it isn't). The reason why this might be an issue for many is because we've all been taught to embrace a familial sense of connected-ness to our musical elders. And so the concern here would be the idea that certain stylistic decisions may potentially cause us to fall out of our elders’ good graces--which, for some, may be akin to their parents losing respect for them. So the acceptance of anything that might look or sound like it’s even a tad bit congruent with the ever changing trends within the world of pop culture is one that tends to make many musicians wary in regards to them embracing such strategies. However, for the ones who have a good sense of themselves, they tend to have less of a problem with grappling with these issues, and thus are able to see where there’s both a viable artistic lane and financially profitable path for them to explore. But for the rest (which probably represents the majority), they tend to grapple with notions of self-identity within this market economy. So in regards to how all of this is reflected within how we look is of course somewhat subjective, as there’s still the factor of where you currently live, or perhaps grew up, that also plays a role in how one chooses to present themselves. But generally speaking, my observations have been pretty consistent among all the places that I've either lived or have visited throughout the world over the past 19 years, which I'll share with you now.
From what I've seen, the culture of Jazz is rather quite in that it seeks to make the point that it doesn't need any flashy gimmicks for it to be relevant, or seem important. And in fact, it prefers to use its distance from any of the gimmick related devices that are typically employed by pop culture as a litmus test for how well constructed its music and performance of said music actually is. And since no one becomes a Jazz musician for the prospect of wealth, means that there can sometimes be an air of “this is me…take it or leave it.” So this raw, and sometimes jaded persona of the struggling artist, can be seen in how they dress. Typically speaking, in the larger metropolitan areas, where there are more obvious opportunities for economic advancement, you’ll tend to see more musicians make the attempt to emulate the fashion of those who are considered captains within their industry, as they possess the funds to hire those musicians who look something like themselves. So when you compare the fashion sensibilities of a CEO in a major city like NYC or LA, as opposed to a much smaller city somewhere in the U.S., you’ll see what I'm talking about in regards to the similarities between the look of these two business owner archetypes and the musicians that they have the potential to hire. In fact, a perfect summarizing quote for this point can be found in the movie “Remember the Titans,” when one of the football players says one of the most memorable quotes throughout the whole movie, which is that “Attitude reflects leadership.” However (as a general rule of thumb), given that Jazz musicians don’t gravitate too much towards ideas of total conformity, means that we’ll always look for ways of improvising with what we have on so as to reveal our true identity. And for musicians who have really found their own voice, they tend to have also found their own set of convictions in life as well, as once again, one’s outward appearance or disposition is generally a reflection of their inward conditioning. Therefore, the better the musician, the more successful they’ll tend to be in knowing how to play within the framework of what they’re wearing so as to be respectful of the general vibe of the look that they’re going for (especially while dressed up), but with a little something extra that’s reflective of their true nature.