Reflections and Improvisations in Hair Loss and Harmony




Yes, the jazz world has had and continues to have quite a few masters whose majestic yet sly riffs were the product of a hairless, or at least less-haired, head.

Now, your humble author has a definite interest in jazz and greatly appreciates the art; however, I would be the first to admit that my knowledge is far from encyclopedic.

Nevertheless, it seems to me that there are a disproportionate number of our balding brethren represented among those who express themselves through that most sensual of instruments, the saxophone. I could certainly be wrong, but when I started putting together my lists for this article, the most crowded category of balding jazz musicians was definitely that of the saxophonist.

And though my less-than-comprehensive knowledge of the jazz field makes it difficult for me to prove that the number of bald men among saxophonists is unusually high, I offer this made-up syllogism to back up my theory:

  1. The saxophone is the most sensual and erotically charged musical instrument.
  2. Because baldness is related to an overabundance of testosterone, the bald man is the most sensual and erotically charged human instrument.
  3. Therefore, there is often a natural mutual attraction between a bald-pated guy and a saxophone.

High notes and hot notes from hairless hepcats

Now that that’s out of the way, who are some of these de-follicled sax men? To start with, there’s Ornette Coleman, the influential and groundbreaking musician who was awarded the 2004 Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize for making “an outstanding contribution to the beauty of the world and to mankind’s enjoyment and understanding of life,” as well as a 2007 lifetime achievement Grammy. Coleman Hawkins, considered by many to be the first important jazz tenor saxophonist, is also on this list, as is Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, who received his middle name after an unfortunate (and painful) accident with lye left him bald. The brilliant alto man Paul Desmond, author of Dave Brubeck’s immortal “Take Five,” also is one of the hair-be-damned gang. More contemporary members include Branford Marsalis, Joshua Redman, Greg Osby, Michael Brecker, Miguel Zenon and Chris Greene. Two other giants, Charlie Parker and Dexter Gordon, could arguably also make the list.

There are as well a fair number of ivory ticklers represented on our list. Thelonious Monk had a kind of strange balding pattern, but that is perhaps to be expected from a man whose style was so distinctive and bold. The aforementioned Dave Brubeck also joined the balding club, where he is in the good company of such other supreme keyboardists as Oscar Peterson, Hank Jones and Mose Allison — not a bad group to be jamming with.

Hair loss is just part of all that jazz

The masters of stringed instruments also turn up in our crew. The incredible guitar licks of Joe Pass and Jim Hall are pure poetry, and Kevin Eubanks knows how to engage in some mighty fancy strumming as well. Russell Malone may be more close cropped than actually bald (although it’s hard to tell), but guitar legend Bucky Pizzarelli has definitely thinned out in recent years. And as for the bassists, the likes of Peter Washington and Jay Leonhart are nothing to sneeze at.

The bassists’ fellow rhythm keepers, the drummers, don’t just have skin on the tops of their drums; many of them have skin on the tops of their domes as well. Conga beater Poncho Sanchez may say that his flat top hat doesn’t hide a bald spot, but it seems kind of suspicious; however, Leon Parker is definitely a guy with a shining pate, and though Ed Cassidy may be better known for the time he spent with rock band Spirit, his jazz chops are certainly solid.

I mentioned the saxophone players earlier, but there are other woodwinds that benefit from the ministrations of bald men. The clarinet, for example, had the profoundly bald Pete Fountain as well as the eventually bald Benny Goodman.

The horn section? The iconic trumpeter (and singer) Louis Armstrong was very close cropped and eventually balding, and Randy Brecker and Eddie Henderson, who are masters of both the trumpet and flugelhorn, never have to worry about their hair falling in their eyes as they race through a fast-tempo ditty.

As noted, some of these men are also singers. But let’s end our little improvised survey with a salute to a delicious, free-spirited female jazz singer who has been known to sport a shaved look, namely Dee Dee Bridgewater. Bridgewater’s artistry is undisputed, but her willingness to appear shorn is just as inspirational.

Take a lesson from Dee Dee, men. Bald can indeed by very beautiful, whether in a jazz singer, a jazz star, a jazz sideman — or a plain old jazz fan like you.