Editor’s Note: We are very pleased to present the second in a series of columns by G. Bruce Boyer on music (jazz mostly) and fashion. We have also put together another playlist for you to correspond with this piece, which can be found by clicking here. Without further ado, the versatile Mr. G. Bruce Boyer:
Big Band Swing music, which began to seriously replace small jazz combos by the early 1930s, mirrored a new optimism about democratic culture (an appreciation of racial pluralism, emphasis of urban life, appeal to a mass audience, an American vernacular music, and populism among them) during the Great Depression. The great initiating moment of Swing is said to have come on the evening of August 21, 1935, when Benny Goodman opened at L.A.’s Palomar Ballroom, and the crowd went wild. It can be said that from that moment swing music became the center of youth culture, and a popular diversion in colleges.
There were jazz groups on university campuses and college newspapers often had jazz columns reporting on new records and recording artists. In fact, up through the 1950s even most public high schools – and even junior high schools — of any large size had a jazz band which played for dances. The first live music I remember hearing as a teenager was a band playing for an open-air dance in a public park in 1954. That year had already seen the birth of Rock ‘n Roll, but the song the band was playing was Glen Miller’s “In the Mood”, a favorite big band song that was a hit as early as 1940.
When jazz began to cross the barrier from saloon, night club, and dance floor to concert hall – which it began to do in grand fashion with the famous Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert of January 16, 1938 — it was seen as the brightest of hopeful lights: a revitalization of mass democratic culture, a bridge to assimilation and outward manifestation of the Melting Pot, and a symbolic gesture of a middle finger to the Depression that we may have been down but we certainly weren’t out.
After the war ended in 1945, the economy changed, and so did the music. Between 1944 and the end of 1945 there were in fact two important events which occasioned this change, one broad and sweeping, one specific and esoteric:
- The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 (The G. I. Bill, as it came to be called)
- Charlie Parker led a small group of BeBop musicians in a Town Hall Concert (Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, Bud Powell) on June 22, 1945.
Many critics have stated that this was the point where jazz began to break down into two camps: dancers and listeners — Swing and Bop — and the music divided along generational and racial lines. For those who agree with this view, the period has been seen as the beginning of a regression. But it soon wouldn’t matter much in the popular sense because by 1970 less than 2% of all recorded music sold was jazz. 75% was Rock. It’s rather paradoxical that the music that almost killed jazz was derived from the same roots that had generated jazz: Rock was the offspring of Rhythm ‘n’ Blues.
By the 1950s, jazz on campus was becoming a mix of the two camps, dances (swing bands) and concerts (bop combos, and other forms of progressive jazz). At the same time of course, Rock was competing for attention as well, and now winning. Each jazz camp had its own dress. You begin to see this in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road: there were Ivy Leaguers and there were Hipsters. Both could be found on the steps of the Library at Columbia University, which is where Kerouac and his friends really began their road trips, and on other campuses as well. The progressive jazz musicians and their followers in particular took the Ivy style road. Chet Baker, Jerry Mulligan, Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and the entire Modern Jazz Quartet were all aficionados of the Ivy style of dress.
In 1953 and 54 Brubeck and his quartet recorded a number of albums at colleges: Jazz Goes to College, Jazz Goes to Junior College, Jazz at Oberlin, Jazz at the College of the Pacific . These were very popular and followed by other musicians doing the same sort of thing: Dizzy Gillespie, the last of the zoot suited hipsters, recorded Dizzy Gillespie Goes to College, and Jack Sheldon recorded College Goes to Jazz. The great jazz critic Philip Larkin (who hated the new jazz forms and also became Britain’s Poet Laureate) would have said it should have been called Jazz Goes to Hell.
Jazz musicians had gone, in a ten-year period from 1945 to 1955, from wearing zoot suits to wearing sack suits. These two outfits were antithetical in every conceivable way, as was the music. Zoot suits were brash, in-your-face, flamboyant, arrogant, brazen, bold, and blaring; the sack suit was laid back, quiet, understated, minimal, restrained, and subtle. This was somewhat mirrored in the music: the East Coast style of jazz was more driving, piercing, and sharper; West Coast jazz was more laid back, relaxed, and underplayed. But it was all “cool”, and after the musicians began to play regularly on campus – which were often more lucrative gigs and generally less troublesome than bars and cheap night clubs — they started emulating the dress of their audience, students and professors who were dressed by local Ivy League men’s shops. When these jazz musicians returned to the urban centers where so many of them lived, they took the Ivy look with them. As American novelist Ralph Ellison points out, jazz musicians always carried an air of elegant style and heroism to the underprivileged.
The change in styles can all be clearly seen in the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival documentary Jazz on a Summer’s Day. All the younger musicians are wearing the Ivy style of dress, while the older guys like Louis Armstrong and Jack Teagarden are not. It had all happened three years before at the 1955 Newport Jazz Festival. John Szwed, in So What, his great bio of Miles Davis, recounts that when Miles Davis’s turn came on the evening of July 17th “he strode on stage in a white seersucker sport coat and small black bow tie” and was the hit of the festival, and got a lucrative record contract for his talent. He had also made the other musicians aware that the zoot was dead, and Ivy was cool. By 1958 all the hip young jazz musicians would be wearing Ivy clothes all the time. And, as Ralph Ellison said when he was asked if Afro-Americans had failed to create any institutions to preserve themselves: “We do have institutions. We have the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. And we have jazz.”
G. Bruce Boyer