A plaque remaining from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem.

Above, a 1934 plaque from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem. Discarded as trash in 2006.

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Entry from January 27, 2013
“A gentleman is a man who can play the saxophone but doesn’t”

"A gentleman is a man who can play the saxophone/bagpipes/accordion but doesn’t” is an old joke of unknown authorship. a gentleman is a man who can play a cornet but won’t” was cited in 1917. “A gentleman is a man who plays a saxophone but won’t” was cited in 1922.

“A true gentleman is one who can play the bagpipes—and doesn’t” was cited in 1965; in 1974, it was credited to English playwright Noel Coward (1899-1973). “One pro wit defined a gentleman as one who ‘knows how to play an accordion but doesn’t’” has been cited in print since at least 1972; the accordion version is often credited to American singer-songwriter Tom Waits.

[This entry was prepared with research assistance from Garson O’Toole of the Quote Investigator.]


3 February 1917, Portsmouth (OH) Daily Times, “Doc Koko’s Kolumn,” pg. 14, col. 6:
Definition of the True Gentleman
Lord Chesterfield had his own crude ideas about what a gentleman should be, but Frank Fiest of Atchison, says a gentleman is a man who can play a cornet but won’t.—Kansas City Star.

20 June 1922, Fort Wayne (IN) News Sentinel, “Private Opinions Publicly Expressed” (Letters to the Editor), Letter from S.A.W., pg. 4, col. 3:
Then he appeared in person and was asked if he knew the definition of gentleman. He said no so his friends told him. “A gentleman is a man who plays a saxophone but won’t.”

2 February 1930, Boston (MA) Herald, “On Broadway” by Burns Mantle, pg. 2B, col. 6:
This young man, an obscure tooter of the saxophone not long ago (you know the girl’s definition of a gentleman as one who can play the saxophone but doesn’t) this Rudy Vallee, they tell me, is now collecting from his various jobs the tidy sum of $12,000 weekly.

Google Books
Bulletin of the School Library Association of California, Southern Section
Volumes 1-7
1930
Pg. ?:
His introduction, however, was most happy, and was as follows: “You doubtless have heard the definition which declares that a cultured gentleman is one who can play the saxophone, but doesn’t.

Google Books
The Windsor Magazine: An Illustrated Monthly for Men and Women
Volume 72
1930
Pg. 398:
Definition of a gentleman — one who can play the saxophone, but doesn’t.

Google News Archive
4 October 1940, The Age (Melbourne, Australia), “The Gentleman,” pg. 20, col. 2:
Humbler folk with a finer sense of humor have been known to assert that a gentle man is one who can play the saxophone, but doesn’t.

2 September 1965, The Oregonian (Portland, OR), “Today’s Chuckle,” pg. 1 (upper left of masthead):
A true gentleman is one who can play the bagpipes—and doesn’t.

Google News Archive
23 January 1968, The Deseret News (Salt Lake City, UT), “Of Babies, Bagpipes And Phones” by Harry Jones, pg. A11, col. 6:
There is an old saying that a gentleman is a fellow who can play the bagpipes...but doesn’t!

After the Ball
By Ian Whitcomb
London: Allen Lane, The Penguin Press
1972
Pg. 176:
One pro wit defined a gentleman as one who “knows how to play an accordion but doesn’t.”

9 March 1974, Aberdeen (SD) American News, “Earl Wilson’s New York,” pg. 4, col. 2:
WISH I’D SAID THAT: It was Noel Coward definition of a gentleman: “Someone who can play the bagpipes—but doesn’t.”

Google Books
The Third and Possibly the Best 637 Best Things Anybody Ever Said
By Robert Byrne
New York, NY: Ballantine
1987, ©1986
Pg. ?:
A gentleman is a man who can play the accordion but doesn’t.
Unknown

21 May 1991, Marietta (GA) Daily Journal, pg. 6D, col. 1:
Yesterday’s Cryptoquote: A GENTLEMAN IS A MAN WHO CAN PLAY THE ACCORDION—BUT DOESN’T.—SOURCE UNKNOWN

15 March 1994, San Diego (CA) Union, “That’s what friends are for”:
Bob’s definition of a gentleman: “A man who can play the accordion. But doesn’t.”

New York (NY) Times
February 23, 1997
Acting Up
By MALACHY MCCOURT
(...)
As is often said, the definition of a gentleman is a man who can play the accordion but doesn’t. The same applies to bagpipes. Further, it can be said that if there is music in hell, it must be the bagpipes.

Google Books
The Devil’s Horn:
The Story of the Saxophone, from Noisy Novelty to King of Cool

By Michael Segell
New York, NY: Picador
2005
Pg. 101:
There’s an old joke about a gentleman being someone who knows how to play the saxophone but doesn’t.

Twitter
Tom Waits (ANTI-)Verified
‏@tomwaits
A gentleman is someone who can play the accordion, but doesn’t. http://www.tomwaits.com
11:10 AM - 9 Nov 09

Posted by Barry Popik
New York CityMusic/Dance/Theatre/Film • Sunday, January 27, 2013 • Permalink