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.

Friday, August 19, 2011

William Holden (1954)

Dig, if you will, this beautiful 1954 color photo of silver screen legend William Holden...

I am sure some of you have seen it before. But take another look. Soak it in. There is a lot of good things going on. First, some background. This was shot during production of Billy Wilder's feature film Sabrina some time in 1954. The film was released in early September, so we can speculate it was Spring or so. Every reference to it says it was shot on Wall Street and the background bears this out. Unfortunately, I've yet to find a photo credit, so please do let me know if any of you out there have this information. A couple of words about Holden's role in Sabrina if you have never seen the movie. In it, Holden portrays a "playboy" type, the younger of two brothers. Interestingly, the film-makers chose not only to equip him with Nash-Healey roadster (also known as "America's first post-war sports car"), but also to outfit him primarily in an Ivy League-styled wardrobe in much of the film and attendant promo stills.

Fortunately, I was able to dig up a couple of other photos from the same shoot. What primarily concerns me here is Holden's clothes. Quintessential American Ivy League Style at Mid-Century! For starters, I would like to enter the first photo as evidence that the sack suit is a boxy, unflattering cut. Depending on the angle this particular example even veers towards slim. Custom suitmaker Jonathan Behr reckons it is a J. Press suit and presents his reasoning here. Regardless of the maker, it's a well cut 3/2 sack with a perhaps a bit more shoulder padding than one might expect - but, hey it's 1954! Zoot Suits were still a recent memory, so we'll go easy on him. Otherwise, all of the requisite Ivy hallmarks are there: button-down soft roll collar shirt, regimental stripe tie, and moccasin (possibly Bass Weejuns, my mind is not 100% on this point yet) loafers. Add to that a nice straw fedora and a TV-fold pocket square, plus just the right amount of color contrast for some élan.

Oh, did I mention the film co-starred Audrey Hepburn? If you can take your peepers off Audrey for a moment or two, be sure to check out some more of those details in Holden's ensemble.

Time Magazine had named William Holden the Top Star of the year in May of '54, so one can only imagine the influence his style had on the American male populace when the film was released in the Autumn.

Side Note A: Now would be a great time to point out that 1954 was also the year the Miles Davis adopted the Ivy League look, at least according to this article. Photographs pretty much bear this out.

Side Note B: As a contrast, Mark Robson's equally fine film Phffft! released just around the same time as Sabrina features Jack Lemmon, in a starring role, trying to shake his square image to show his ex-wife (played by the wonderful and underrated Judy Holliday) that he can be a playboy. His square duds are other great examples of Ivy style, while his "playboy" image includes such frivolities as a striped waistcoat and a mustache! The end result has definite Continental flair, which is a nice historical example of this then emerging style trend. It just so happened 1954 was something of a watershed for that look as well. Read on, if you are interested.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

The Subject is Jazz: Swing (1958)

Produced in New York City by National Educational Television for classroom use and in conjunction with the National Broadcasting Corporation for broadcast. If you had a television in 1957-1958 and were lucky enough to get one of the affiliate stations, this is a sample of what you would see Friday night at 5 PM.

I've been reading series host and pianist Billy Taylor's Smithsonian Jazz oral history transcript available here. Just follow the link and scroll down to Dr. Taylor. There were so many good things about Billy and The Subject is Jazz is just one of them. Check out the clips, read the transcript, and check out some of Taylor's recordings (many of which are available on iTunes).

Side note: this series features the wonderful guitarist Mundell Lowe, a personal favorite and probably one of the last dozen or so living musicians to have played with Charlie Parker.