Graded on a Curve: Herbie Mann, Push Push; Herb Alpert, Blow Your Own Horn

Good morning class.

I stand before you today to discuss a very important but relatively unexamined musical sub-genre. I’m talking, of course, about shirtless jazz. The “Shirtless Jazz Age” began at the dawn of the 1970s and came to an end in the mid-1980s, and at its peak buried excited record buyers in a virtual avalanche of bared nipples.

Jazz expert Roy Mantooth, author of the definitive shirtless jazz oral history Take It Off! , writes, “Free jazz was out. Free nipples were in. Shirts were for squares and white guys recording on the snobby Windham Hill label. As for the music, who really cared?”

And Mantooth was right. Because shirtless jazz had nothing whatsoever to do with music, and everything to do with posing shirtless on album covers. I’ve never even listened to the LPs in my carefully curated shirtless jazz collection, and I consider myself an expert in the field. Like children, shirtless jazz should be seen, not heard.

Historically, the movement was bookended by two bare-breasted titans. At the vanguard we have the great Herbie Mann, whose pioneering 1971 LP Push Push brought bold, topless improvisation to the Down Beat crowd. As Amiri Baraka noted in 1987’s The Music: Reflections on Jazz and Blues, “Something changed after Push Push hit the record stores. Discarded shirts soon filled the trash cans behind jazz clubs all across America.”

Push Push was a radical statement indeed; Herbie stands boldly on the cover like a swinger departing an orgy, hairy chest pelt slathered in WD-40, flute flung insouciantly over a naked shoulder, a decidedly smug post-coital pout on his face. Mann didn’t just invent shirtless jazz with Push Push; he suggested that the flute had other possibilities, creatively salacious uses that didn’t bear thinking about.

At the tail end of the “Hey I forgot my shirt!” epoch we have the brash jazz populist Herb Alpert. Alpert (along with his “All Samoan” band the Tijuana Brass) won commercial acclaim with his “queasy listening” takes on such immortal square-pleasers as “Zorba the Greek,” “Spanish Flea,” and “Fairies Wear Boots,” and was no stranger to the risqué; the mildly titillating cover of 1965’s Whipped Cream & Other Delights (“She’s… she’s…. wearing whipped cream!”) was practically pornographic by the rigid moral standards of Lyndon Johnson’s America..

But if Whipped Cream was targeted towards your dad–who probably never listened to the LP, but spent plenty of time goggling at it–Herb’s unexpected dive into the shirtless pool (on 1984’s Blow Your Own Horn) was targeted towards your gay dad. And I’m talking right down to the title, a wink-wink salute to autofellatio if I’ve ever heard one.

That said, Blow Your Own Horn is a far more decorous affair than Push Push; Alpert, with tanned shoulders bared, looks positively demure clutching trumpet to breast. There’s a world of difference between Herbie and Herb, and the reason is cultural–a seismic shift had occurred between 1971 and 1984.

Push Push celebrated an age of swingers’ parties and low-budget porno flicks; Blow Your Own Horn was very much a product of the socially conservative Reagan era, when taking your shirt off for any reason whatsoever constituted a criminal act.

But Alpert’s attempt at modesty wasn’t enough to placate some people. The Parents Music Resource Center, which would be founded the year after Blow Your Own Horn’s release, retroactively slapped a warning label on the LP, condemning the cover photo for its “lewd and kissable shoulders” and singling out its title as “a brazen invitation to young boys to take yoga classes for manifestly nefarious purposes.”

Despite its historical reputation as an inherently decadent music form, which is based of course in racism (the Nazis hated the stuff!) and fear of any music not solely based on the tuba, jazz has often retreated into hidebound conservatism, and what goes for the music goes for album covers as well. For proof all one needs to do is look at the rock, pop, soul and funk markets, where the shirtless album cover has long been an acceptable (if not always appetizing) staple of the marketplace.

From Al Green’s Greatest Hits (one sexy shirtless guy) to Orleans’s Waking and Dreaming (five decidedly wimpy shirtless guys) to the Bar-Kays’ Too Hot to Stop (eight shirtless guys all doing Shaft impersonations) to L.T.D.’s The Best of L.T.D. (11, count ‘em 11 shirtless guys! a World Record!) one thing becomes clear–in the pop world you can’t swing a shirtless guy without hitting a whole shitload of other shirtless guys.

Why even the Jackson 5 saw fit to go sans chemise on the cover of their 1976 LP Anthology. It’s a Have No Shirt, Will Travel world out there, people, and it took the shirtless jazz vanguard to wake up elitist jazzbo snobs like Leonard Feather to this fact.

Like all revolutionary musical movements, shirtless jazz peaked and waned–there are, after all, only so many ways to not wear a shirt. In the mid-eighties it gave way to a new an even bolder phenomenon–I’m talking, of course, about the pantsless jazz of such “free dick” musicians as Toots “Bare Butt” Whitlock and Lionel “Godzilla Movie” Moorcock.

But oh, while it lasted! As Mantooth writes in the concluding pages of Take It Off!, “The musicians of the Shirtless Jazz Age brought a naked honesty to their work; they saw a niche in the market and went at it full-tilt nipples. As revolting as the cover of Push Push is to all sentient beings, it made a bold and indelible impression on the record-buying public. Somebody should actually listen to some of these albums one day. I would love to know what they sound like.”

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A! And another A!

This entry was posted in The TVD Storefront. Bookmark the permalink. Trackbacks are closed, but you can post a comment.
  • SUPPORTING YOUR LOCAL INDIE SHOPS SINCE 2007


  • Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text
  • Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text