Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Keeping Up Appearances

A week ago some of my students from Capilano University played an off-campus concert as part of a small ensemble class.  In an email to them I suggested that everyone dress to show respect for themselves and their music.  Only two of the six were not dressed in jeans.  This is not the first time this has happened.  My purpose is not to shame these guys for not dressing to my standards, but I am quite interested in the idea of how standards of dress and behaviour relate to music and performance.

When I was a young boy, two wonderful old ladies played a major role in my life: my maternal great grandmother, Frances Astbury, and her younger sister, my great-great aunt, Mabel Potter.  Grandma and Auntie Mamie were, quite literally, from another era.  They grew up around the turn of the 20th century in a tiny village in rural Kent without electricity or running water and had only minimal formal schooling. As soon as they were old enough to go out and work, they did.  Despite their humble circumstances, they somehow learned to speak the English language with impeccable grammar.  They dressed with meticulous attention to detail with every article (no matter how old or worn) meticulously cleaned, pressed and mended.  They behaved with immaculate good manners and a sense of personal dignity and propriety in all situations.  Though I fall short of their examples in many ways, they certainly did instill in me a sense of what was 'proper'.   My mother picked this up too.  I remember going to see The Who (on their last big tour before Entwhistle died) and Mom scolding me for wearing jeans to a concert.  My Grandfathers were also important sartorial influences.  Grandpa Burrows was a self-made business man and wore a tie every day, only removing it for physical work in the garden.  This kind of dress is much more rigorously formal than I can manage.  Grandpa Tidmarsh has more of a thrift-store aesthetic and is not a tie-wearing type, but always has a fantastically creative combination of unusual shoes, coats and hats.   I'll probably never match his fashion daring.  From all these people I have somehow inherited some sense of the importance of keeping up appearances. To this day, I don't think I could bring myself to wear jeans to work or to leave the house without shining my shoes or ironing my shirt.

Some of you may think this is all just incredibly uptight and pointless, but I don't.  I'm simply talking about clean clothes appropriate to the situation and a sense of respect for myself, my work, and the people with whom I interact.  I don't think this requires a lot of money and I don't think it requires fancy things.  Earlier this week I took some students to breakfast at Bon's, the famous greasy-spoon, all-day breakfast place at Broadway and Nanaimo.  The crowd there, though sometimes diverse, tends to wear a carefully prescribed uniform of 'studied scruffiness'.  It was clearly important to these folks to have the right amount of beard growth, the right rips in jeans of the correct brand, and toques of the correct size and shape pulled down to the eyes.  From the smell of several people standing with us in the lineup for tables, washing seemed to be discouraged. Unfortunately, the 'marginal' position of jazz music in society seems to be influencing a new generation of young players to dress in a similar way to the Bon's crowd.  They are creating a subculture that proclaims its own marginality in a self-perpetuating cycle. 

For jazz musicians of bygone eras, the Brooks Brothers suit was the basic uniform for work.  (Check out the MJQ at left)  Think of Miles Davis, John Lewis, Duke Ellington and so many others in those photographs from the 1930s, 40s and 50s.  Those guys looked good on stage and their appearance was only a tantalizing hint at their musical artistry.  Miles famously said that he could tell how a musician would play just by looking at them and the way they dressed and carried themselves.  Now the standard is quite different.  I rarely see jazz musicians wearing suits or even jackets to a gig.  Classical players, by contrast, have maintained a very high standard of concert dress.  Classical players demand respect for themselves and their music through the way they dress, the venues in which they perform and the fees they demand for their services.  There are notable exceptions in the jazz world today of course.  Wynton Marsalis and his Linclon Center colleagues adopted early on the sophisticated and suave urban dress of their musical role models from the Blue Note era.  John Pizzarelli similarly cops the 1940s crooner look to match his music, and some of the 'downtown' New York players are very much aware of the latest contemporary (even if casual) fashion trends.

Most of the players with whom I perform do not dress up for a gig unless it is a 'formal' situation like playing at a hotel reception or a wedding (a type of performance which on the West Coast we ironically call a 'casual' gig).  I have never suggested (well, ok, maybe once or twice...) that people dress differently when they perform with me.  I don't think it is my business to say so and, frankly, I care much more about musicians abilities than I do about their appearance.  I'm also not suggesting that anyone should share my taste in clothing or that everyone should wear suits or jackets to gigs.  I simply think that making music and performing in public is a very special activity and that some effort should be made to make one's dress and comportment reflect that.  This could be accomplished in numerous ways without conforming to a specific, standard mode of dress.  Take my friend Curtis Andrews as an example.  Curtis is a wonderful drummer from Newfoundland who has studied music in Africa and India for many years.  When we perform he wears a fantastically personal blend of African and Indian clothing which he has gathered on his travels.  His appearance reflects the varied and colorful nature of his music.  Talking of drummers, a few years ago I saw the wonderful Chicago drummer, Hamid Drake, perform at the Vancouver Jazz Festival.  Drake walked out in a colorful ankle-length robe and this, combined with his large stature and tremendous pile of long black dreadlocks, made him look like some kind of African king from a storybook.  His appearance was reflected in his incredibly powerful playing on that day.  His mode of dress was thoroughly in keeping with his artistic greatness and I could feel that his visual impact had a palpable effect on the crowd. 

Whether musicians like it or not, public performance does have a visual component.  Even if it is "all about the music" for a musician, it will rarely, if ever, be so for the audience.  We live in a visual culture where subtle, subconscious messages are sent and received all the time through our dress, speech and manners.  For musicians who are interested in elevating the status and importance of their music in our culture, I believe it is worth considering the content and the impact of the messages we are sending.


Post a Comment