James P. Johnson Gets Dressed (by Matthew Guerrieri)

(Ed. note: Polymath Matthew Guerrieri has written a wonderful book on Beethoven reception (The First Four Notes) and created the definitive website on André Previn’s jazz. I’m thrilled to host this unique take on James P. Johnson. — e.i.)

Innumerable are the illusions and legerdemain-tricks of Custom: but of all these, perhaps the cleverest is her knack of persuading us that the Miraculous, by simple repetition, ceases to be Miraculous.

—Thomas Carlyle, Sartor Resartus

In 1959 and 1960, a long interview with pianist and composer James P. Johnson, by Tom Davin, was serialized in the short-lived but influential magazine The Jazz Review. (The magazine, in fact, ceased publication before the complete interview could run.) Quotes from this interview turn up frequently in histories of ragtime and early jazz, but one part—the third installment, published in the August 1959 issue—deserves closer attention. Here, Johnson stopped talking about music and, instead, talked about clothes: what the great Harlem ragtime and stride pianists (“ticklers,” in Johnson’s parlance) wore, and how they wore it.

As it turns out, Johnson knew a lot about clothes. After a brief reminiscence of his friend and fellow keyboard titan Willie “The Lion” Smith (“He was a fine dresser, very careful about the cut of his clothes and a fine dancer, too…. When Willie Smith walked into a place, his every move was a picture”), Johnson spelled out the sartorial requirements of the Harlem pianists with unusual rigor.

When a real smart tickler would enter a place, say in winter, he’d leave his overcoat on and keep his hat on, too. We used to wear military overcoats or what was called a Peddock Coat, like a coachman’s: a blue double-breasted, fitted to the waist and with long skirts. We’d wear a light pearl-gray Fulton or Homburg hat with three buttons or eyelets on the side, set at a rakish angle over on the side of the head. Then a white silk muffler and a white silk handkerchief in the overcoat’s breast pocket. Some carried a gold-headed cane, or if they were wearing a cutaway, a silver-headed cane. A couple of fellows used to wear Inverness capes, which were in style in white society then.

Many fellows had their overcoats lined with the same material as the outside—they even had their suits made that way. Pawnbrokers, special ones, would give you twenty or twenty-five dollars on such a suit or overcoat. They knew what it was made of. A fellow belittling another would be able to say: “G’wan, the inside of my coat would make you a suit.”

But to go back. . . when you came into a place you had a three-way play. You never took your overcoat or hat off until you were at the piano, first you laid your cane on the music rack. Then you took off your overcoat, folded it and put it on the piano…. Now, with your coat off, the audience could admire your full-back, or box-back suit, cut with very square shoulders. The pants had about fourteen-inch cuffs and broidered clocks. Full-back coats were always single-breasted, to show your gold watch fob and chain. Some ticklers wore a horseshoe tiepin in a strong single colored tie and a gray shirt with black pencil stripes.

The whole thing is worth reading; it’s probably the best description of its kind. (Willie Smith’s 1964 memoir Music on My Mind has a long passage similar enough in outline and detail that I wonder if Smith’s collaborator, George Hoefer, used Davin’s interview as a prompt.)1 The few places I’ve seen this part of the interview excerpted, it’s been to provide a bit of color: setting the scene, providing an image, putting the reader into the milieu. But Johnson’s command of both the particulars and the technical niceties of tailoring and dress is telling. Fashion, after all, is all about power: political power, social power, economic power, sexual power—who has it, who wants it, who wants you to know they have it, who wants you to think they have it. (Johnson again: “A big-timer would, of course, have a diamond ring he would want to show off to some gal…. So he would adjust his hand so that the diamond would catch her eye and blind her. She’d know he was a big shot right off.”)

There’s a point to this litany of suits and silks and finery. Johnson has something to teach us.

(It’s also worth noting that the interviewer, Tom Davin, was an unusual student of the ways of American power and privilege. As an editor, Davin had worked for New York’s Museum of Natural History and Sheridan House, a publisher specializing in yachting and maritime volumes. In those roles, Davin mixed with American aristocracy and gentry—he turns up a few times, for example, in Charles H. Baker, Jr.’s legendary cocktail book The Gentleman’s Companion, that thorough compendium of the eating and drinking habits of the well-heeled American abroad.But Davin was also involved in radical and Communist movements of the 1930s and 40s, “marching with quaint and disordered fellows in May Day parades in Union Square,” as Baker put it, and occasionally writing for left-wing organs like New Masses.2 For a time prior to his Johnson interview, Davin had been effectively blacklisted from the publishing industry after pleading the Fifth in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Anyway, back to the story.)

Johnson starts, naturally enough, with outerwear. A military overcoat would have carried a certain cachet in Harlem following the World War I exploits of the 369th Infantry Regiment, known as the “Harlem Hellfighters.” (Both Willie Smith and another great pianist, Luckey Roberts, served in the 369th.) A Paddock coat was a little more specific: an English style, gently tailored, with a pleated double vent in the back. Here’s a picture from Wikipedia:

If you look closely at that picture, you can see that a Paddock coat has no seam at the waist—both the front and the back are large single pieces of cloth, the tailoring done via pleats and darts.

Homburg hats, too, were an English flourish: a semi-formal hat with a single dent running the length of the crown, which became a fashion necessity after the future King Edward VII brought one back from a trip to the German spa town of Bad Homburg. (Other pianists, including Willie Smith, opted for a derby hat—which is to say, the bowler hat favored by London bankers. Smith: “Derbies appealed to me because they were worn by the English, the rabbis, and the members of my Masonic lodge.”)3 An Inverness cape: again, English.­ (Think Sherlock Holmes roaming the moors, the game afoot.)

In the years between the wars, American men’s fashion still very much aspired to British practice; magazines of the era are full of reports from London regarding the latest season’s “correct” dress among the British upper crust. The pianists were riffing on wealthy white Americans’ imitation of British style. “Most of the society folks had colored valets and some of them would give their old clothes to their valets and household help,” Johnson recalled. “Then we’d see rich people at society gigs in the big hotels where they had Clef Club bands for their dances.” (The Clef Club was bandleader James Reese Europe’s outfit; its all-black orchestra played Carnegie Hall—twenty-five years before Benny Goodman did—and formed the nucleus of the 369th Infantry band.) But, as Johnson noted, they took the whites’ style and “made improvements.” Some of the improvements were a kind of added code, an extra layer of connoisseurship.4 Still, almost all the improvements involved—and advertised—greater luxury and expense.

The significance of a box-back suit, for instance, wasn’t just the cut and the silhouette. A box-back had no center seam. Like the Paddock coat, the entire back of the suit was a single piece of cloth. There’s a reason off-the-rack suits always have a two-piece back: they’re far easier to alter. A box-back suit was, almost by necessity, custom tailored; trickier to cut, trickier to shape. (And, with such a large part of the bolt in play, mistakes were far more costly.) In fact, to judge from later photos and film, most of the pianists changed with the times and started wearing center-seam coats. But here’s Willie Smith, in 1964, still sporting a box-back suit:

Lining one’s overcoat with wool instead of satin, as Johnson described, was another visible boast. Such matching fabrics were a big deal. Johnson again:

If you had an expensive suit made, you’d have the tailor take a piece of cloth and give it to you. so that you could have either spats or button cloth-tops for your shoes to match the suit.

Some sharp men would have a suit and overcoat made of the same bolt of cloth. Then they’d take another piece of the same goods and have a three-button Homburg made out of it.5

Note how all these choices were intended for multiple audiences. The outfits were a mixture of surface flourishes—the embroidered clocks, for instance, decorative patterns stitched into the sides of the trouser legs—and overall finesse. Matching spats or hats were easily noticed by those who know little about fashion, but also would speak to those who knew the ins and outs of haberdashery, the people who would appreciate the skill and cost of a bespoke box-back suit.

But sometimes even the tailoring was obviously extraordinary. Later, Johnson recalled the wardrobe of pianist Fred Tunstall.

There was a fellow name Fred Tunstall. whom I mentioned before. He was a real dandy. I remember he had a Norfolk coat with eighty-two pleats in the back. When he sat down to the piano, he’d slump a little in a half hunch, and those pleats would fan out real pretty. That coat was long and flared at the waist. It had a very short belt sewn on the back. His pants were very tight.

Norfolk coats were another fad introduced (according to some sources) by the future Edward VII, in his playboy Prince of Wales days. It was a hunting jacket, tailored in at the waist, with a sewn-in belt and extra material in the back, so it wouldn’t bunch up when you raised your arms to fire your rifle at grouse or the like. Like most upper-class English styles, the Norfolk jacket crossed the Atlantic. F. Scott Fitzgerald, the ever-attentive chronicler of the Jazz Age, wore one:

To make the extra material lie flat, Norfolk jackets usually featured pleats. Most common were a pair of box pleats running straight down the back at the shoulders. Sometimes there would be a pair of pleats in the front, as well. There might be a pleat in the center of the back. To summarize: two pleats, sure; four pleats, okay; five pleats, maybe. An eighty-two-pleat Norfolk jacket is, frankly, insane.

This is all ancient history, but only in the particulars. Fashions change; fashion doesn’t. Johnson even left us some hints on where to look for echoes of the style today. His discussion of shoes is particularly interesting.

We all wore French. Shriner & Urner or Hanan straight or French last shoes with very pointed toes, or patent-leather turnup toes, in very narrow sizes. For instance, if you had a size 7 foot, you’d wear an 8 shoe on a very narrow last. They cost from twelve to eighteen dollars a pair.

Twelve to eighteen dollars would have been at the high end of the shoe market, the equivalent of about two to three hundred dollars today. So, again, the shoes are signaling a certain asserted confluence of economic and social status. But it’s the mention of specific makers that we should notice.

Hanan & Son was founded in 1854 by Irish immigrant James Hanan. The company’s great innovation—often credited to James’ son, John Henry Hanan—was to emboss its name on the sole of every shoe, which, for a time, made it the best-known shoe company in the country. Hanan & Son had their own factory, in Brooklyn, and sold its wares through its own retail stores, which eventually could be found across the United States and as far afield as London and Paris.6

French, Shriner & Urner was a Boston company, formed when Charles J. Shriner—who had been a traveling salesman for Hanan & Son—and Samuel Urner bought out half of the older firm of French & Hall. Shriner and Urner expanded aggressively. Like Hanan, they built their own Boston factory and maintained exclusive retail outposts, as listed in the 1926 Vanity Fair ad above. New York City was home to no fewer than six of the company’s stores.7

After jewelry, shoes were one of the first high-end fashion product to become associated with brands and marks. (Johnson’s mention of “straight or French last,” referring to the wooden forms used by shoemakers, hints at this: shoe manufacturers often advertised the use of proprietary lasts as a way to distinguish themselves from competitors.) Johnson’s description, then, is of an era in which the signifiers of fashion status were shifting from craft, from cut and cloth and construction, to brands. Where Johnson would brag of a box-back suit, someone today would brag of, say, a Brioni—or a Prada, or a Tom Ford, or an Ermenegildo Zegna. The categories change; the impulse is the same.

Shoes connect the early jazz pianists with their direct and obvious descendants, hip-hop artists. Hip-hop is the most brand-conscious, fashion-forward neighborhood in the contemporary music world, a connection originally forged through shoes. In 1986, Run-D.M.C., having previously only mentioned fashion in passing (“Never wear the pants they call the Calvin Kleins,” D.M.C. preached, on 1984’s “Rock Box”; instead, black Lee jeans were de rigueur), released “My Adidas,” an ode to the group’s favorite Superstar sneakers that presaged a pioneering endorsement deal. 21st-century hip-hop’s totems tend to skew more elite: Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Raf Simons. When asserting status via conspicuous consumption, as the status becomes more exclusive, so do the goods.8

Hip-hop’s negotiation between art and commerce has, over time, grown elaborate and intricate. No one exemplified those negotiations—between high and low, vulgar and refined, populism and exclusivity, copy and invention—more than the late Virgil Abloh. The designer’s work adopted the same playbook as Johnson and his cohort, adopting the fashion signifiers of the white elite and amplifying them into something confrontational and exuberant. What, in Johnson’s time, was something like rococo elaboration became, in Abloh’s hands, more like graffiti: one of Abloh’s earliest efforts saw him silk-screening his own patterns onto off-the-shelf Ralph Lauren polo shirts. In time, Abloh moved from outsider to insider, becoming the head of men’s wear for Louis Vuitton. But that energy, appropriating and asserting power through the use of both clothes and their brands, remained strong.

I often think of a customized wristwatch Abloh designed for the rapper Drake. The watch is a Patek Philippe Nautilus, which, at this moment, is quite possibly the most desired and desirable watch in the world. Collectors trying to get one spend years on waiting lists; its price on the secondary market has easily crested six figures for a while now.9 This is what Abloh did to it:

Even the Patek Philippe name has been erased, effaced by gems, a choice equal parts arrogation and confidence. (If you have to ask, &c.) Abloh took one of the most select tokens of upscale consumption and, like the Harlem pianists, made it more: more ostentatious, more expensive, more finely crafted, more exclusive. It’s pure, pointed excess. It’s an eighty-two-pleat Norfolk jacket.

It’s a little bit ironic that Johnson’s inventory was published in The Jazz Review. Those early jazz pianists dressed in defiance of an establishment that regarded jazz as suspect, unsavory. The Jazz Review aimed to make jazz respectable—and largely succeeded, giving the music the sort of intellectual underpinning and affirmation that classical music long enjoyed. And one dresses differently to perform respectable music. When Johnson described how the ticklers’ high style fell out of favor—

Well, full-back clothes became almost a trade-mark for pimps and sharps. Church socials and dancing classes discriminated against all who wore full-back clothes. They would have a man at the door to keep them out. So. in self-defense, the hustlers had to change to English drape styles

—he foreshadowed, obliquely, what would happen when jazz approached the sort of sacralized atmosphere common to classical performance. Standard concert dress in classical music was (and is) more severe and formal than in jazz. Like all clothes, classical concert dress, in its many guises, asserts various privileges; among them, the privilege The Jazz Review would claim for jazz: the privilege of assuming that the listener will and should judge and appreciate the music as music. Ruffles and flourishes like those of the Harlem pianists would have been regarded as an unnecessary distraction from the purely musical content.

And, while not as strict, concert dress in jazz has retreated from the axiomatic luxury of Johnson’s generation into something less noticeable. This is not to say that there aren’t still practitioners who have Johnson’s sort of knowledge and appreciation (Wynton Marsalis and his bandmates have always dressed sharp as knives, for example) but, rather, that the clothes aren’t really part of the show the way they were back in the day, the way Johnson remembered:

I’ve seen Jelly Roll Morton, who had a great attitude, approach a piano. He would take his overcoat off. It had a special lining that would catch everybody’s eye. So he would turn it inside out and, instead of folding it, he would lay it lengthwise along the top of the upright piano. He would do this very slowly, very carefully and very solemnly as if that coat was worth a fortune and had to be handled very tenderly.

Then he’d take a big silk handkerchief, shake it out to show it off properly, and dust off the stool. He’d sit down then, hit his special chord (every tickler had his special trade-mark chord, like a signal) and he’d be gone!

One might generalize by saying that, these days, jazz performers dress as if they’re going to work. (Which is itself an assumed role.) One might also point out that, these days, hip-hop has a far larger footprint and more central location in the mainstream cultural conversation. I don’t put much stock in that, on its face; mainstream culture is and has been a large and important part of the interlocked machinery that maintains and preserves the status quo—the spectacle, as the Situationists, the most aesthetically-minded of mid-century European radicals, called it. In the words of the spectacle’s greatest exegete, Guy Debord:

Understood in its totality, the spectacle is both the result and the goal of the dominant mode of production. It is not a mere decoration added to the real world. It is the very heart of this real society’s unreality. In all of its particular manifestations—news, propaganda, advertising, entertainment—the spectacle represents the dominant model of life. It is the omnipresent affirmation of the choices that have already been made in the sphere of production and in the consumption implied by that production.10

At first glance, the Veblen-esque pageant of modern hip-hop or the sartorial branding of pre-war Harlem might seem to exemplify the spectacle in excelsis. But it’s that very exaltation that complicates the issue. The clothes and brands and baubles are so obviously much, so insistently excessive, that they almost seem to be taunting the commodification of fashion, appearing to buttress the spectacle while actually undermining it. As befits a movement saturated with missives and manifestoes, the Situationists had a word for that, too: détournement, deliberately hijacking the images and tropes of the spectacle to reveal their complicity. “What the spectacle has taken from reality must be taken back from it,” Debord proclaimed. “The spectacular expropriators must be expropriated in their turn.”11

It’s hard to imagine that Johnson and Smith and the rest were thinking in these rarified terms when choosing their suits and ties and shoes and stickpins. To hear Johnson tell it, they were trying to awe the upstarts and impress the women. But to read Johnson’s vibrant chronicle in the self-consciously scholarly pages of The Jazz Review practically invites speculation as to what, exactly, it was doing there. One reason it’s there is because Tom Davin—Tom Davin, who wrote for New Masses, who marched on May Day, who refused to name names—thought it was worth talking about.

The revolution Tom Davin marched for never arrived. The Situationists talked a good game, but the ferment of 1968 came and went while the capitalist spectacle remained, as strong and pervasive as ever. There’s a wardrobe for that season, too.

Johnson called Fred Tunstall “a real dandy,” and one might well call the rest of the Harlem pianists the same. This, too, is an echo of radicalism. The original dandies, Beau Brummell and his followers, those impossibly elegant young English men of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, were Romantics; and, like all Romantics, they were revolutionaries—or, at least, marked by the idea of revolution, by its repercussions, haunted by the distance between what society was and what it might and could be. Disillusioned by the failure of the French Revolution and the coming of the Industrial Revolution, the Dandies, unable to wrest power from the aristocracy, instead outflanked it in style, creating an exactingly-tailored class unto themselves. As Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly put it in his 1845 study Du Dandysme et de George Brummell:

Like the philosophers who challenged the law by asserting a higher obligation, the Dandies, on their own authority, put forth a rule above and beyond that which governs those in the most aristocratic circles, the most attached to tradition; and by mockery, which corrodes, and grace, which melds, they managed to impose this ever-changing rule which is, in the end, only the audacity of their own personality.12

Looking back, Albert Camus, in his 1951 book L’Homme révolté (The Rebel), put the Dandies squarely in the lineage of Romanticism by comparing them with a quintessential proto-Romantic figure: Satan, as portrayed by John Milton in Paradise Lost as the charismatic, tragic anti-hero par excellence.

The dandy is, by occupation, always in opposition. He can only exist by defiance. Up to now man derived his coherence from his Creator. But from the moment that he consecrates his rupture with Him, he finds himself delivered over to the fleeting moment, to the passing days, and to wasted sensibility. Therefore he must take himself in hand. The dandy rallies his forces and creates a unity for himself by the very violence of his refusal. Profligate, like all people without a rule of life, he is coherent as an actor. But an actor implies a public; the dandy can only play a part by setting himself up in opposition…. Other people are his mirror. A mirror that quickly becomes clouded, it is true, since human capacity for attention is limited. It must be ceaselessly stimulated, spurred on by provocation. The dandy, therefore, is always compelled to astonish.13

It is, to be sure, a long way from Milton in Hell, imagining the end-all, be-all of rebellion, to a former Hellfighter playing piano in a box-back suit. But, just maybe, there are fewer removes than we think between Barbey d’Aurevilly and Camus’s analysis and the Harlem pianists’ defiantly flamboyant clothes. Those musicians, after all, also mixed mockery and grace; they hardly lacked for personality; they took themselves in hand; they provoked and astonished as naturally as they breathed. The spectacle of fashion was only part of an antagonistic world of which they took measure, then remade on their own terms and broadcast back as bravado and joy. That’s what I like to believe, anyway. Sure, maybe it was just dressing up. But maybe it was a glimpse of a light at the end of the tunnel, reflected off a diamond pinky ring into a pretty girl’s eye.


1 See Willie the Lion Smith with George Hoefer, Music on My Mind: The Memoirs of an American Pianist (Doubleday, 1964), pp. 46-49.

2 Charles H. Baker, Jr., The Gentleman’s Companion, vol. 1: Being an Exotic Cookery Book or, Around the World with Knife Fork and Spoon (Crown Publishers, 1946), p. 141.

3 Smith, Music on My Mind, p. 47.I honestly do not know what a Fulton hat was or is. Possibly it referred to a specific dealer; there was a Fulton Hat Shop on Jamaica Avenue in Queens in the 1920s. But the only two places I have found a Fulton hat mentioned in print are Johnson’s interview and Smith’s memoir—further evidence, perhaps, that Smith (or Hoefer) used the former as a jog to the memory.

4 Specifying a silver-topped cane to accompany a cutaway coat, for instance, is a fashion commandment above and beyond anything found in etiquette guides of the day.

5 To be clear, one probably wouldn’t be able to make a hat out of suiting wool; a hatter would have to source and/or custom-dye hatting felt to match.

6 Hanan & Son declared bankruptcy in 1935, the company having never really recovered from a pair of deaths: that of John Hanan’s son James, the company’s head, who was a 1920 victim of the post-World War I influenza epidemic, and the sensational murder of John’s niece Mildred by a drug- and alcohol-crazed member of her social coterie.

7 French, Shriner & Urner hung on for a long time, but their factory finally closed in 1971; the trademark, having passed through several corporate hands, is still in use. The former factory has been converted into luxury loft condominiums.

8 In an early draft of this essay, I had included, at this point, a digression on the etymology and varied use of the word flex in relation to this sort of status-signaling. I took it out after realizing that the only real reason I had written the paragraph was to remind everybody that, back in 1990, San Antonio Spurs star David Robinson made a sneaker commercial in which he dunked on pianist Rudolf Firkušný.

9 Uneasy with such speculation, Patek Philippe recently announced that it would stop making the most well-known version of the Nautilus, the reference 5711; as Patek president Thierry Stern explained, “you have to protect the brand and not just one product.”

10 From the film version of The Society of the Spectacle, as translated by Ken Knabb in Guy Debord, Complete Cinematic Works (AK Press, 2003), p. 45.

11 Ibid., p. 52.

12 Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly, Du Dandysme et de George Brummell, 3e édition (Alphonse Lemerre, 1879), pp. 28-29 (translation mine).

13 Albert Camus, trans. Anthony Bower, The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt (Vintage International, 1991), pp. 51-52.

Also on DTM:

In Search of James P. Johnson

The Gate Is Open (on Charles Rosen, with Matthew Guerrieri)