The Birth of Cool: Style Icons from Jazz’s Golden Age
The Birth of Cool: Style Icons from Jazz’s Golden Age
- Words Mat Ferraro
- Date June 13, 2017
Many American musical movements have been accompanied by stylistic movements: disco in the '70s, grunge in the '90s and hip-hop in the 2000s just to name a few. Mimicking the rise of their musical counterparts, these polarizing trends are in no small part due to the aesthetic choices of the genres’ frontrunners. While punk and rock inevitably left their mark on how we dress, not many genres can rival the continued fashion influence of 1950s Jazz.
Originating in New Orleans around 1910, jazz music quickly swept through America on the heels of swing music and big bands dominating pop culture in the '30s and '40s. As big band style jazz’s popularity began to wane, a new art form was brewing in the heart of Harlem, Bebop. Fast-paced and unpredictable, Bebop was a stark departure from the foremost danceable music of the Swing era. The Bebop movement, closely followed by hard bop, created the foundations for Jazz as we know it and spawned many of the world’s greatest musicians. Predominantly played in swanky nightclubs, '50s Jazz artists were forced to adopt a certain dress code. Yet, the greats added their own unique flair and created a style all their own. Below, we break down some of the greatest to ever do it.
Jazz trumpeter Miles Davis is, 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. Early in his career, Davis favored simple, slim-cut suits, which he paired with a plain, usually white, dress shirt and skinny tiea. 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.
Bill 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. On his 1964 album, Conversations with Myself, Evans recorded over himself, a technique incredibly rare in the jazz world and went on to win a Grammy for Best Instrumental Jazz Album. 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.
Even though he was a highly-celebrated drummer, Art Blakey’s skills as a bandleader elevated him to new heights in the jazz world. His group, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, was revolutionary for one particular reason: its members were in constant rotation. Blakey had an exceptional eye for talent and he would bring young members into the band until they were ready to succeed on their own. Over its 45 year lifespan, the group recorded over 50 albums with 217 members, some of whom include Freddie Hubbard, Curtis Fuller, Wynton Marsalis, Kenny Garrett and McCoy Tyner.
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. An outgoing individual, Blakey was most often seen smiling, laughing and even shouting from behind his drum set.
Nobody else has ever and, frankly, will ever sound exactly like Thelonious Monk. Shrouded in unconventionalities 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 became a regular in the New York jazz scene in the late '40s, playing with icons such as Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. Monk disregarded traditional harmony, injecting his playing with whole-tone runs and clashing chord voicing. On one occasion, Monk even got up from the piano during the middle of his solo, walked around the room, then sat back down and resumed playing. 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.
Grant Green [See: Below]
A synthesis of various genres, including blues, gospel and jazz, Grant Green’s musical style stands alone. When Green moved to New York in 1959, Lou Donaldson introduced him to Alfred Lion, the founder of Blue Note Records. Instead of testing him out as a sideman as was the usual Blue Note practice, Lion allowed Green to immediately record his first solo album in 1960. Throughout his career, Green was known for his unparalleled “groove,” which is undoubtedly present in his wardrobe. While he mostly wore suits and club collared shirts, Green occasionally donned wide collared casual shirts and a badass pair of shades.