Garner Couture | Erroll Garner Tuesdays Week Three
The following post is part of “Erroll Garner Tuesdays,” a semester-long blog series written by University of Pittsburgh music doctoral students in the seminar titled Music, Media, and the Archive: Jazz Collections of Pittsburgh. It was originally published by the University of Pittsburgh.
Six pressed tailored shirts of pastel colors that have been transformed to a lighter hue from age
Two gold Armex pocket watches,
Three gold zippo lighters,
Thirteen cuff links of semi-precious stones, three rings of semi-precious stones,
Four gold broaches,
One orange tie,
One bright pink zodiac tie,
Three money clips,
one inscription of “passing through”,
one inscription of “money tree”,
one inscription “bitch”…
“The black man is comparison. That is the first truth. He is comparison in the sense that he is constantly occupied with self-assertion and the ego ideal. Whenever he is in the presence of someone else, there is always the question of worth and merit.” Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks
“Diaspora practices of black stylization are intelligible at one ‘functional’ level as dialogue responses to the racism of the dominant culture, but at another level involve acts of appropriation from that same ‘master’ culture through which ‘syncretic’ forms of cultural expression have evolved.” Nelson George in Hip Hop America
In performance, Erroll Garner was impeccable; visually respectable. A quick internet image search will yield a multitude of photos of Garner sitting at the piano, a large smile on his face, presenting himself in a suit jacket, pressed shirt and tie: all different photos, but the same immaculate fashion. Garner’s visible fashion noticeably locates a space of his self-representation, a space for him to construct his own identity. Through his formal appearance, Garner’s constructed identity reads as a space of respectability. What implications of identity construction might Garner’s respectable fashion play? My purpose in this post is to explore the relationship between fashion and racial identity construction. Two questions to consider throughout are: What can Garner’s fashion imply about race? How might we read Garner’s fashion choices through the lens of literature on black visuality and fashion in the 20th century? This post will reflect on Garner’s fashion as not only a space of self-representation, but as an inscription of blackness that is defined by mediated respectability.
Franz Fanon’s anecdotal “Look! a Negro!” moment in Black Skin, White Masks—in which he meditates upon being visually marked as black by a white child—serves as a foundational scene in which the black subject comes into self-knowing through the traumatic recognition of another’s gaze. Fanon and George’s above quotes serve as explorations of the ocularcentrism of race, the inescapability of being marked visually black in the public sphere. The violence of being visually marked, labeled or inscribed upon centers on a politics of visibility. Those that have the power to label create a scaffolding of classification. Through classification, belonging and otherness are implied. The quotes illuminate notions of this ocular power dynamic: in Fanon’s case, to be compared to, in George’s, mediating power through material. Both identify the ocular inscription of identity upon the black body as 1) a coding of white privilege, and 2) black exclusion. Visuality, then, holds a prescriptive power of classification through which Garner’s visual self-presentation can be viewed.
Garner’s visual presentation of himself, of his “blackness,” exemplifies what musicologist Ingrid Monson refers to as a “Politics of Respectability” in her text Freedom Sounds (Monson, 95). Monson’s use of respectability implies the recognition and interplay of racial power politics. When speaking of the African American jazz ensemble the Modern Jazz Quartet (MJQ), Monson states that while the group “retained enough swing and improvisational excitement to earn the respect of jazz lovers,” it could also be observed that, “Theirs was a precise but conservative jazz whose very elegance and sophistication demanded that white audiences respond to them as the intelligent, dignified men they were” (Monson, 95).
Musically, the MJQ practiced a politics of respectability through an embrace of classical musical standards: fugal writing, species counterpoint, classically oriented thematic development, and classical functional harmony. By embracing and, in turn, appropriating the European standards of classical music, the MJQ crossed over to white audiences with a predilection for classical aesthetics while also offering an implicit commentary on that very same racialized power structure. In its fashion sense, politics of respectability combines both a conservative and a subversive impulse. A visual presentation of sophistication that questions the very idea of sophistication: at once, an attempt at breaking out of an inscribed identity by the performance of an evidence of racial “progress”; at another, a commentary on power through its material absorption.
In such a reading, black fashion and stylization become a visible response to marked identity upon the skin. Garner’s fashion, then, becomes a material and hypervisual performativity of blackness. This becomes evidently more vivid when we approach the meticulously dressed Garner on stage. Put another way, Garner’s impeccable fashion in an arena of extreme public presentation further adds to the performance of his “blackness.” In Troubling Vision: Performance, Visuality and Blackness, Nicole Fleetwood states that the “public presentation of the black body is rich with seemingly ordinary acts of defiance, pride, self-articulation, but always with the risk of white disapproval and violence” (Fleetwood, 147). This public presentation is also what Fanon refers to in the introductory quote above. The visual presentation of the body becomes hypervisual in its comparison of worth, value, self-assertion and respectability.
Garner’s elegant pressed tailored pastel shirts, ties, and gold jewelry of semi-precious stones present locations to explore notions of respectability and, in turn, hypervisibility. Garner’s use of fashion could also be an attempt to blend in with his respectable audience, to take eyes off of him, to become invisible. If viewed through the lens of hypervisibility, the attempt to fade into the background also becomes a visible attempt at wrestling with inscription of “other”: recognition of an unsolicited label upon the body (Fanon’s “Look! a Negro!” moment) and an attempt at playing down difference through assimilation. Garner’s recognition of his black body in the public arena as having a type of visual currency—and his attempt at visibly transforming it—becomes an act of hypervisibility.
Hypervisibility, in this sense, refers to the notion of Garner being overly visible and his recognition of this overrepresentation. Garner’s attempt at mediating his own racial demarcation highlights blackness as historically structured against dominant discourses of race, specifically that of whiteness.
On another hand, Garner’s choice of formal dress could be an attempt to co-opt the imagery of European high-art as seen earlier with the MJQ. If viewed through this lens, Garner’s fashion choice would not be an attempt to blend in, fade, or become invisible, but to elevate in an active manner, to assert the value of black artistry. Through this lens, Garner would be attempting to operate on a level that, as Nelson George argues, “involve[s] acts of appropriation from that same ‘master’ culture through which ‘syncretic’ forms of cultural expression have evolved.” However, Garner’s appearance, in both interpretations, becomes metaphorical for the far-reaching arms of repression and the inescapability of racial marking.
- Jeff Weston
Doctoral Candidate, Composition and Music Theory, University of Pittsburgh