How a 1920s jazz age term became and remains a global phenomenonby John Harris / May 16, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in June 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
The Origins of Cool in Postwar America, by Joel Dinerstein (University of Chicago Press, £30)
In Straight From the Fridge, Dad, an authoritative dictionary of slang published in 2009, Max Décharné defines “cool” as “in the know, A-ok, hep,” and “unworried, calm… relaxed.” The musician and writer traces its origins to an effervescent jazz piece “How You Gonna Keep Kool?”, recorded by an obscure troupe called the Georgia Melodians in 1924. Almost a century separates then and now. Plenty of similar words have long since bitten the dust, from hep to hip, through groovy and fab, and on to wicked, phat and sick. But the notion of cool is still with us, expressed so often it goes unnoticed.
The rapper Jay Z replied to speculation about the gender of his unborn twins by saying: “Whatever God give me, I’m cool.” In 2014, London grime artist Stormzy admonished his rivals and detractors: “That is not cool, I can’t respect it.” Last year, Tove Lo, the potty-mouthed Swedish pop star held up as the embodiment of female empowerment, released “Cool Girl,” a celebration of no-strings romance: “I’m a cool girl… Ice cold, I roll my eyes at you, boy.” In terms of its endurance and ubiquity, then, no pop-cultural word comes close. But what does “cool” really mean, where did it come from and how has it changed over the decades?
After those 1920s origins in jazz, the most crucial part of the cool story begins 20 years later, in the great upturning of cultural attitudes fomented by the Second World War. Tangled up in the same moment was a sea-change in the attitudes of many African-Americans, who wished to face the world in a spirit of self-possessed defiance. In his new book, The Origins of Cool in Postwar America, the cultural historian and academic Joel Dinerstein frames the crucial period as lying between 1943 and 1963, when “a new embodied concept and romantic ideal—being cool—emanated out of African-American jazz culture to become an umbrella term for the alienated attitude of American rebels.” “Cool” has, admittedly, always been given to occasional appropriation by less rebellious types as well. Back in 1924, the same year that the Georgia Melodians were doing their bit, the quiet, conservative US president Calvin Coolidge ran his election campaign under the slogan “Keep cool and keep Coolidge.” This was a something of an aberration. More generally, before the war and immediately after it, “being cool was an alternative success system combining wildness and composure… directly opposed to the social norms of a materialist and rapidly suburbanising society.”