G. Bruce Boyer ... What a guest!

Jazz Style: News from the Great Wide World


G. Bruce Boyer

In a wonderful article on the career of tenor sax jazz legend Sonny Rollins in The New Yorker a few years ago, Stanley crouch quoted Rollins on his influences:

“I used to see all these great musicians,” Rollins said. “There were Coleman Hawkins, and his Cadillac and those wonderful suits he wore. Just standing on the corner, I could see Duke Ellington, Andy Kirk, Don Redman, Benny Carter, Sid Catlett, Jimmy Crawford, Charlie Shavers, Al Hall, Denzil Best, and all these kinds of men. Those guys commanded respect in the way they carried themselves. You knew something was very true when you saw Coleman Hawkins or any of those people.”

The New Yorker, May 9, 2005 (p.66)

Crouch and Rollins perfectly hit what I felt, and still feel, about jazz musicians. That they were always very conscious of their appearance, and dressed with great style, panache, and authority. The music of course represented a spirit of freedom and creativity of individual expression, and so there was an organic relationship between the art and the style, the music and the appearance. Whether it was Charlie Parker's zoot suits and Lester Young's porkpie hats, or Gerry Mulligan's Jivey Ivy and Miles Davis's Continental Cool, these musicians had an aura of mastery about them, of their instruments and music, their demeanor, and their style. They were the best symbol of personal freedom we had.

Thirty-six years before Crouch wrote about Sonny Rollins, the novelist Ralph Ellison had written in a similar vein about Duke Ellington:

[When] Ellington and the great orchestra came to town; came with their uniforms, their sophistication, their skills; their golden horns, their flights of controlled disciplined fantasy … they were news from the great wide world …

Ralph Ellison, Living with Music, p. 81

Jazz wasn't only a uniquely American expression of music, it was a lyrical expression of style that shaped us in the 20th Century. It was an artistic expression of what the American experience was and could be.