Beat + Ivy League = jazz cool

An exclusive extract from sleeve-notes written by Paul Gorman for the forthcoming reissue of early recordings by the tragic jazz trumpeter Chet Baker:

He was an extraordinary romantic. When I first saw him, he was sitting in a convertible in a snowstorm in front of Tiffany & Co, all covered with snow. And I didn’t look at him and say, ‘Wow, that’s weird.’ I said, ‘Wow, that’s romantic.’ Bruce Weber, photographer/filmmaker

The moment in 1953 that photographer Bob Willoughby’s camera lens captured the image of a backstage Chet Baker, an icon was born.

There’s Chet, waiting for the go from his boss Gerry Mulligan, one black pants leg astride two functional chairs. On his feet Venetian loafers, with cream ribbed socks on display, on his chest a crisp white T – now there’s a Beat statement for the early 50s, the undershirt worn as fashion item – and over it a black natural line two-button black suit jacket.

Chet Baker by Bob Willoughby
//Chet Baker by Bob Willoughby//

One hand priapically cradles his horn. On his chiseled features – part cast in shadow by the flopped, greased tendrils of his quiff –a look of doomed, stoned beauty. Images of Baker are almost as powerful as the evocative music he created.

Gavin baker book

New York Times critic and Baker’s biographer James Gavin once described a 1956 shot by fashion photographer William Claxton of the shirtless trumpeter alongside his wife Halema as “so erotic that his camera all but drools over it”.

The fact is that Baker embodied a new type of cool, one at odds with the coming of teen-dominated rock & roll. Altogether more mature and masculine, the modern jazz look fused the restless spirit of post-war rebellion among America’s beats with the sharpness of Ivy League.

Chet Baker by William Claxton
//Chet and Halema by William Claxton//

This style has its roots in the stores at the leading American college which drew on the deepest traditions of British clothing for student custom, supplying a complete range for all weathers and circumstances.

Often the clothes – in tweeds, linen and jersey – were manufactured in Britain strictly for export to this market. With raincoats, scarves, jackets such as Baracuta’s tartan-lined windcheater (otherwise known as the skinhead favourite, the Harrington), the suits were similar to the Italian “columnar” cut which emerged in the early 50s, in that the drape jacket was eschewed. The shoulders were not padded but natural and the trousers often flat-fronted and without cuffs.

The shoes ranged from slip-ons, such as the classic loafers, Bass Weejuns, to lace-up wingtips, the heavy-soled brogues whose design harks back to the time when they were worn on grouse shoots in Scotland. Harringtons, loafers, plain-caps, wing-tips and other items are currently available from the UK’s leading Ivy League store J. Simons.

In THE LOOK, Richard Channing – who worked at Manhattan Ivy League emporium Paul Stuart (regular customers included the likes of Miles Davis during his phase of working with Gil Evans on Birth Of The Cool) – points out that the post-war increase in live jazz concerts, particularly at college campuses, was another reason why performers picked up on collegiate style.

“You couldn’t get more conservative than the Ivy League, and I’m sure that’s why a lot of musicians went for it,” says Channing.

Lets Get Lost release from PoppyDisc

“Also, in 1953, the LP record was launched. It had been produced for classical music but the jazz guys took it over. Now the stuff that somebody blew for 10 minutes in a jam session could be taped, and that gave rise to highly orchestrated music. The clothes added a veneer of respectability which gave the whole mix a twist.”

Whatever, Chet continues to enchant because of his insouciance. The man born Chesney Henry Baker Jr in Yale, Oklahoma on December 23, 1929, didn’t give a good goddam for “fashion” or “style”, we know that for sure. His preoccupations lay elsewhere.

Maybe that’s why the fashion world’s obsession with him has increased in the years since his mysterious passing in 1988, found dead having fallen from the window of an Amsterdam hotel room.It’s one which ensnared fashion photographer Bruce Weber, whose dreamlike cinematic valediction Let’s Get Lost celebrates and investigates the enigma. And it’s an obsession which has been repeatedly revived and revisited as a style template, even by the likes of Hugo Boss, who named a black tux jacket from it’s 2002 collection “Chet Baker-style”.

In his review of Weber’s movie, James Gavin gets to the nub of Chet: “”[His songs] were stark, poetic, as luscious to the ear as he once was to the eye. His life was another matter. Unlike other fabled drug casualties (Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix), Baker didn’t give much cause for sympathy. He was known to abuse women, to lie, steal and con, as most addicts do. By his 40s, he had turned into a ravaged scarecrow, unrepentant about the trail of sorrow he had left behind.”

Baker’s is indeed a sorry tale, expressed in his frail but muscular music. Best remember him this way; stoned, immaculate and don’t-give-a-damn cool.

Let’s Get Lost is released by After Hours/Poppydisc on March 1.

Visit Bruce Weber’Ns world and read all about Ivy League apparel in Chapter 2 of THE LOOK.

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