The Pork Pie Hat That Defined 1930s Jazz

There aren’t many opportunities to compare a 1930s jazz musician with Madonna, David Bowie or Kanye West but, decades before social media and the modern era of ‘celebrity’, jazz musicians were at the forefront of pop culture – as the story of Lester Young and his pork pie hat attests.

It seems like a cliché today..

The smart-suited jazz saxophone player doling out a languid solo in the basement of a smoky jazz club.

But a little less than 100 years ago, this was new territory for legions of jazz lovers across America and, before long, the world.

Much like all popular music throughout history, jazz in the first half of the 20th Century was not simply a style, but a way of life.

It may seem trifling today, through the eyes of a dedicated jazz listener, but the way musicians dressed, spoke and acted was studied, copied and talked about by legions of fans and journalists, in much the way that stars like Madonna, David Bowie or Kanye West would later be.

A clipping from one major newspaper at the time noted:

“[Lester] dresses like the extreme jazz sophisticate he is—slick, rakish and smooth. Standard item in his varied and astonishing wardrobe are his wide, black, low-crowned pork pie hats which he is credited by many jazz musicians with originating.”

But what is the pork pie hat and how did it come about?

The Pork Pie Hat in Jazz

Whilst the origins of the pork pie hat date back to the 19th century as a piece of women’s headwear, it’s popularity surged in 1930s America during the Great Depression.

Whilst several public figures were noted as championing this stylish accessory, there was one musician ahead of all others that became synonymous with the style: Lester Young.

Rising to prominence with the Count Basie Orchestra, the tenor saxophonist was popular for his cool, laid-back style which was at odds with many of the ‘hard swinging’ musicians of the day.

This aura of laid-back cool extended into every part of his life, with his hip-yet-introverted style reflected in his dress and even language, seeing him come to define, for many, the quintessential jazz hipster that the general public was so fascinated by.

Credited with coining a whole bunch of jazz slang (“Bob & Bing”, anyone?!), it was his iconic choice of headwear which seems to have left the most lasting impression.

The pork pie hat’s popularity in jazz remained well into the 40s, where it was a popular part of the swing-era outfit (aka ‘the zoot suit’) for many.

Such was the interest in the topic, that one newspaper ran a feature with the “jazz sophisticate” showing readers how to make a pork pie hat just like his.

Extract from a 1948 newspaper article. “Young makes his own pork pies, converting them from ordinary wide-brimmed black hats (see below) although the store-bought variety is quite popular with many men.”

Goodbye Pork Pie Hat

If further proof was needed that the saxophonist was the king of the pork pie hat, look no further than the musical elegy composed by none other than Charles Mingus after Young’s death in 1959.

Simply titled “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” the tune has remained one of Mingus’ best-loved songs since its release on the iconic jazz album “Mingus Ah Um“.

For those looking to pull this thread of jazz history, we’ll leave you with 5 other versions which, whilst perhaps not quite so magical as Mingus’ original, are certainly worth a listen…

Bonus Listening: Goodbye Pork Pie Hat

  1. Joni Mitchell & Herbie Hancock
  2. Marcus Miller
  3. Rahsaan Roland Kirk
  4. Stanley Clarke
  5. Avishai Cohen

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