Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Miles Davis and The Ivy League (1954-1958)

Miles, 1956
Photo by Herman Leonard
Blue blazer, grey flannel trousers, and a soft-roll button down striped oxford shirt with a wonderful roll to the collar

After several recent weblog entries and Facebook "conversations" (quotes intentional, I still don't buy into the notion that social media is true conversation as I appreciate the term), I've been doing some research on Miles Davis dalliance with Ivy League style in his clothing choices. Fortunately, it's been somewhat easy to put a timetable to matters. It seems to start "sometime in 1954" according to this article. Yes, I did just cite RL Magazine as a reference, but their source is Charlie Davidson who ran (and still runs) the legendary Andover Shop in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This makes sense. Miles returned to New York City at the very tail end of Winter in early 1954. He was for the first time in at least 4 years clean, having quit heroin cold with the help of his parents in St. Louis. After a quick trip to the West Coast and and extended stay in Chicago to get his chops back in shape, he hit New York hard recording for both Blue Note and Prestige records within weeks of his arrival. It would only stand to reason that Miles was on the hunt for some new threads and maybe even a new identity of sorts. Yes, this is conjecture, but anyone who has dealt with any kind of substance abuse knows well the desire to find some new skin as part of the process. Ivy League style was definitely a known trend by 1954 and obviously appealed to Davis.

Miles, March 1954
Hackensack, New Jersey
Recording for Blue Note Records, photo by Francis Wolff
Note the beef-roll penny loafers a la Sebago; trousers are possibly chinos but could also be gaberdine from the way they are hanging

The end of the stylistic time period is a little more difficult to pinpoint. Part of the challenge is the lack of photographs of Miles 1954-1958. It is well to remember that Davis was far from the icon he is today. Even in terms of popularity he was vying with the likes of Chet Baker and Dizzy Gillespie for much of the decade (although he did top the Down Beat Reader's Poll for trumpet in both 1955 and 1957). All that said, there is definitely more than a couple of photographs that do illustrate his often celebrated association with the style.

Miles, 1956
Underneath the Cafe Bohemia awning, Greenwich Village, NYC
Seersucker sack jacket, a bold gingham or madras shirt, and a ton of cool
For more photos from this night, click here

What is a little more discernible is when Miles moved on. By 1958 the mighty advertising machine of Columbia Records (who signed and recorded Davis in 1955, but did not release his first LP on that label until 1957) was in full swing and the camera shutters were clicking at an impressive speed for a jazz man. Music aside (as it is never 100% about the music), it could be very well argued that Columbia was instrumental in building Miles the man up to the icon status he was by the mid-1960s. At the very least, they certainly were a big help in boosting his profile. But I digress. My point is that by 1959 (or possibly as early as 1958), Miles style begins to show a distinctive, tailored Continental flair. I want to address this in a little more detail in a coming entry, but it is interesting to note that this much-more personalized style is one associated with Davis for nearly the next decade - certainly until the late-1960s. In retrospect, Miles Ivy Style lasted maybe 4 years tops which is remarkably brief considering how often one may see it referenced.

Newport, 1955, by Photo by Herman Leonard
It is not discernible in this photo by Miles is sporting a seersucker blazer, checked button-down club collar shirt, and a University stripe bow tie. And, yes, I am working on a detail shot.


parisangha said...

The paradox is that this icon of 50's style became one of the most ridiculous clowns of the 80's…

Nick Rossi said...

Well, I would argue that targeting style "clowns" in the 1980s is akin to shooting fish in a barrel. I can't think of one person at the moment whose style from that era I admire. That said, Miles certainly made more than his fair share of awful sartorial choices in the last decade of his life. But were they forward thinking? Perhaps. Were they contemporary? Certainly. Regardless, I don't feel qualified to make those arguments and definitely not on this weblog! Thanks for reading and commenting.

terrelltate said...

thanks for sharing your research Nick Rossi! you helped me out big time for my own study research...

I'm also not the biggest fan of his funky eccentric looks, but you are right. he always was a pioneer in whatever he did. that must be granted.

Novice said...

@ parisangha, I would have loved to see your, style, in the 80's. People would have preferred Miles, over you. Ask 10 strangers...