The Look of Music
Of Beatle Boots, High Heels and Blue Tuxedos
Featuring an interview with 2023 MacArthur Fellow, Courtney Bryan
This week on Music Inside Out, musicians tell us about the look of music in their performances — and in their memories. We asked eight New Orleans performers to recall the first concert they attended and to describe their impressions of it. We also wanted to know if those experiences informed how they look on stage.
That observation by the legendary New Orleans musician Danny Barker sparked The Look of Music. Some of those we talked to agreed with Barker; some did not. But everyone had a story to tell.
Leroy Jones and Katja Toivola
Trumpeter Leroy Jones vividly recalls seeing James Brown at New Orleans Municipal Auditorium in the late 1960s. And what made the biggest impression on him?
“What he had on appeared to be Beatle boots. And I remember … the toes were very pointed, and it was a half-boot — and as a matter of fact, I wanted a pair.”
Jones’s spouse, trombonist Katja Toivola, has a different approach to shoes. “I never was a jeans, t-shirt, tennis shoes type,” she says. Toivola recalls playing at a jazz club in her home town of Helsinki, Finland:
“The gigs were long, from 10:00 pm to 3:00 am. And I had a dress on; high heel shoes. And my shoes were hurting me, so for the last set I took my heels off and put on flat shoes. And there’s this superbly drunk guy that comes up to me: ‘Auggh! You took your sexy shoes off!’ And I’m like, really? At 2:00 am, this is your takeaway? You complain to the trombone player that she changed her shoes?”
Don Vappie is a multi-instrumentalist and composer of classical music, traditional jazz and Creole folk tunes. In the 1970s, he went to a memorable concert at LSU in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
“It was killer,” Vappie recalls. “Santana opened for Gino Vanelli. It was killer. I realize now that the lighting, the layout of the stage, it has to project what the music is saying. And I’ve unconsciously thought about that when I play my own gigs.”
As a young musician, Don Vappie played in his own funk band: Trac 1. “We had these uniforms, you know. We looked like Aladdin.”
“And the guy in the middle, his mom made the outfits,” Vappie recalled. “Mainly, we wanted to look like a professional group. We wanted to look like stars.”
Like Leroy Jones, Johnny Vidacovich saw a life-changing concert at the New Orleans Municipal Auditorium. But it wasn’t popular music. It was an orchestra — the New Orleans Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra (now the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra.)
“I was very in awe at the visual impression of a collective focus,” Vidacovich recalls. “And then I started to realize the collective importance of playing music.”
When Johnny Vidacovich started playing in his own bands, his look changed with the times. At first, it was traditional Dixieland band attire — red-and-white pinstripes and all. Then came the arrival of pop music in the early to mid 1960s.
“We used to buy these used tuxedos. We had a guy named Richie at New Orleans Tuxedos who used to sell (to) all the young bands … one band would have gold brocade tuxedos, and then another band, they would have blue brocade. So by the time I was 17 I had about five different colors.”
Composer and pianist Courtney Bryan is a 2023 MacArthur Fellow. She credits the likes of Billie Holiday and Mary Lou Williams with inspiring her own sense of style. That said, Bryan admits “I always tend to remix things. I might have an outfit that’s a mix of Billie Holiday, Mary Lou Williams, Alice Coltrane and maybe Nina Simone.”
As it turns out, Courtney Bryan and Katja Toivola have a similar fondness for shoes. Bryan says she has “certain things I wear that give me confidence. I like heels. I don’t wear heels daily, but if I’m performing and I put on heels it almost switches my personality. It gives me that ‘go-on-stage’ energy.”
Singer and guitarist Joy Clark recalls a memorable concert on Frenchmen Street in New Orleans:
“Walter Wolfman Washington … his smile. I just remember his smile, and his guitar playing and just – how he connected. He just had a presence about him. It kind of felt like church.”
Clark is also proud of her musculature, particularly her arms. “I love wearing sleeveless shirts because I totally think they give me my power.”
Dr. Michael White
After the concert, Dr. White says, he saw Barney Bigard alone backstage. “For about an hour I had him all to myself. So during that time I asked him every question I could think of about clarinet, what kind of reeds he used … about practice techniques. About his experience with Ellington and Armstrong.”
As a young musician, Dr. White played in brass bands — most notably Doc Paulin’s Brass Band. “Doc Paulin was a stickler for proper attire and appearance. I mean, he would send somebody home if they didn’t dress right.”
Like the young Johnny Vidacovich, Haruka Kikuchi’s first jazz teacher in Japan played in a Dixieland band — and he dressed the part. Trombonist Kikuchi says she was urged to do likewise. “I had no idea, when I was 15 or 16, so I wore the same thing.”
Now Haruka Kikuchi is a member of the all-female Shake ‘Em Up Jazz Band, where, she says, everyone has their own unique style of dress. “Chloe the clarinet player, she has a beautiful character, like the 40s or 50s. And Molly the guitar player, she loves skateboarding … more rock and roll style.”
Glen David Andrews
Trombone player and vocalist Glen David Andrews is one of the most popular brass band musicians on the streets of New Orleans. He didn’t grow up going to concerts … instead, he says, musicians came to him. Or rather, to his aunt’s house.
“I been watching Danny Barker since I was literally four years old bring the who’s who of American music in my aunt’s and them house and jam the night away.”
And speaking of Danny Barker, Andrews does not entirely agree with Barker’s “listens with its eyes” quote. He says the idea of musicians dressing in a certain, uniform style is outdated.
“As you get older, a suit and a tie don’t fit every occasion. And if you’re a band like Rebirth Brass Band, the milkman hats and the black and white outfit, it don’t go.”
Playlist: The Look of Music
There’s a ton of music in our program and we hope you’ll go to your favorite music retailer and add some of it to your collection. To help you do this, we’ve compiled a handy playlist.
The Look of Music — Emilie Rhys
All of the interviews on this program came about in collaboration with New Orleans artist Emilie Rhys. One of her passions is creating images of New Orleans musicians. In 2020 she asked us to talk with many of the artists she had depicted, to find out how they felt about the process.
Of course this coincided with the Covid-19 pandemic. As a result we called our show Music In the Time Of Covid. Rhys’ exhibit, New Orleans Music Observed: The Art of Noel Rockmore and Emilie Rhys opened in January, 2020 and has been extended to September 1, 2021. For more details, go to: https://nolajazzmuseum.org/exhibits.