A while back I was hanging out with Greta and listening to early Beatles. She likes it all, even the back numbers like "Anna (Go With Him)." Greta definitely agrees with the Suit Theory and believes it applies to the Beatles.
The Suit Theory, of course, usually applies only to jazz. Specifically, it is that in jazz the most interesting music is produced by people wearing suits.
Oscar Peterson? suit and tie. Kenny G? purple shirt with a jewel instead of a tie. Ellington? (why do you think they called him the Duke?)
Or, to put it another way, picture this: Wynton Marsalis in a concert T-shirt, black jeans, and fanny pack. Can't picture it? Exactly.
So, here's a pop quiz: Look at these two pictures. Which group is likely to make music that's more interesting — the stuff that puts a big grin on your face, makes you want to cheer, swings with invention and wit and style? Place your bets.
I got into a conversation about this with a boomer-age friend who's a terrific jazz player (and, by the way, who often wears suits). He said, "Do you really think you play any better based on whether you wear dress shoes or tennis shoes?"
Well, I won't exactly say, "yes," but .... yes?
Maybe that's because that's not quite the right question. Here's a question that's more on the mark: When I'm on a romantic date with my wife, do I wear a concert T-shirt and fanny pack?
The fact is that I do tend to play better when I'm dressed. Partially that's because that's how I've trained — it's how I've played all these years and I'm used to it. (This is the same reason lots of musicians play better in wasted condition: state-dependent performance.) But that's just partially. The other part is because I'm saying something about myself and the music and the audience.
I know not everyone feels that way, but virtually all my favorite players did and do. Just look down the list. Of course, the "Suit Theory" is a bit tongue-in-cheek, and I'm a bit biased toward music from an era when suits were standard. But there's also real truth in there. Here are two pictures of Miles Davis from different points in his career: Which do you find yourself going to?
Speak No Evil
Wayne Shorter, or Weather Report
(And, just so ya know, I enjoy Weather Report, but I keep going to the other stuff because, face it, it's just plain better. Less gimmicky, more musical, thoroughly rewarding.) You get into conversations about this with cats, and they'll say righteously that it doesn't matter what you wear, that what really matters is the music, but — OK then — there is a distinct change in the music right at the same time there's a change in the clothes.
And then, after 20 years of studied casualness, the generation symbolized by Wynton Marsalis began dressing superbly — why? We all know why: they were making a statement, and it's a statement that I pretty much agree with. When the Jazz Protagonists first took the stage in 1990, dressed to slam, we got comments nearly every gig for a while.
In general, I only apply all this to jazz. It just doesn't work in the other genres. But, as I mentioned, I realized with a smile that it applies to the Beatles. We could ask whether they really play any better based on whether they wear dress boots or tennis shoes, matching suits or ... matching drum-major uniforms ... but we don't need to ask. The evidence is right there. Causation or not, there's an unavoidable correlation: the music and the outfits change at exactly the same stage in their history.
Of course, everyone's mileage may vary. Lots of folks connect to the White Album, which leaves me cold, and don't like the earlier stuff, which I consider gems, as much. Lots of folks dig the headbanded and dashikied Shorter of Weather Report (which I also enjoy) more than the sleekly dressed one of the Night Dreamer era. For me, though, the correlation is so strong I named it.
And I'm careful to point out that this isn't an issue of technique or skill or [to a point] musicianship. It lies somewhere more in the intangible vicinity of taste. I do realize I'm saying more about the music I
like than anything else.
I regularly marvel that so much of my life involves the two great gifts of the West to civilization: the piano and the suit, both so unnatural and complex and uniquely Western, both achieving such a simple and forceful effect through intricate and subtle craftsmanship, deftly made invisible, and both so essential.
I wonder, then, if it's just coincidence that you so often see dispiriting pictures like this one I snapped myself recently:
That's exactly what it looks like: a terrific musician, literally turning his back
on a beautiful grand piano, to play an electronic keyboard, which is set on ... wait for it! ... a piano sound
. Is it a coincidence how he's dressed? Say what you want: I say it's no coincidence all.
My friend points out, "I think some people take it to insane lengths. I saw Oscar Peterson play an outdoor performance in a three piece suit with cuff links in weather that was so hot it was killing me in shorts and a t-shirt. I would not have thought any less of him had he come on stage and removed his jacket."
Listen to the unstated assumption there about what matters. I would not have thought any less of him had he come on stage and removed his jacket.
My answer is that although you wouldn't have thought less of him if he'd removed his jacket, perhaps he left it on because of what he thought of you.
If you want to look great playing a gig, a suit is the infallible go-to way. That's because we're Westerners and we want to see men wearing suits. There's no other reason that news anchors and talk-show hosts and businessfolk (and some jazzers) wear them. It's just a fact. 220 years after the invention of the suit, we may not particularly want to see men in hats or gloves, or spats, but we still want to see them in suits.
And that's good. There's nothing that so reliably makes a man look slammingly great, in fashion and above it at the same time. It corrects you if you're skinny, wide, tall, short, dark, light: it shapes you. It's shaped the world, immeasurably, and continues to, eight days a week.