How a 1920s jazz age term became and remains a global phenomenonby John Harris / May 16, 2017 / Leave a comment
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.”
Cool, then, was—and still is—both a behavioural and creative ideal, whose influence eventually encompassed philosophy, cinema, art and literature. But its original wellspring was music, the form that perfectly expressed the post-war experience of black America. Jazz is a part of the cultural past—and present—that 21st-century writers too often overlook. Parodied to death and long since overshadowed by the successive dominance of rock and hip hop, how the music and its surrounding culture changed the United States and the wider industrialised world is a story not often told. Neither is enough attention paid to the wonders of jazz; how rapidly it developed, from its beginnings in the early 20th century, to the great flowering of the 1940s and 50s.
An important part of the cool story centres on Lester Young. The saxophone player (and occasional clarinetist) was born in 1909 in Mississippi, and eventually became a key member of the Count Basie orchestra—and a creative foil to Billie Holiday—before drinking himself to death in 1959. As Dinerstein points out, the revolutionary approach Young brought to the sax was based on “rhythmic surprise and melodic ideas, not technique or flash.” Listen to his playing on Basie’s “Doggin’ Around”—which was recorded in 1938 and evokes the relentless dazzle of the 20th-century city—and you hear something remarkable: a style of sax playing which is idiosyncratic, semi-detached and possessed of its own rules. It points 10 years ahead to the birth of bebop, and the restrained “cool jazz” that arrived at the same time.
Young’s revolutions were also visual. In July of that same year, Dinerstein writes: “…he wore an early pair of wrap-around plastic shades on the stage of the Swing Jamboree at Randall’s Island in New York City, a concert featuring 26 bands that drew 25,000 young people. Young looked calm and aloof amid a noisy, joyous, outdoor throng; the Basie band caught rhythmic fire but Young remained detached and dispassionate. Sunglasses became a key element of the stylistic rebellion of black jazz musicians in the post-war era; in effect, wearing sunglasses at night was the primary symbol of the cool mask.” Young’s innovation paved the way for such inveterate shades-wearers as Bob Dylan and the Velvet Underground (“the only reason we wore sunglasses on stage was because we couldn’t stand the sight of our audience,” said John Cale). But in Young’s case, his sense of detachment from his audiences had a specific African-American provenance.
“Cool,’ in its many pop-cultural senses, usually lacks the rich connotations of its African manifestations”
Young was here blazing a trail away from what was known as “Tomming”: the tendency of black musicians and entertainers to play the Uncle Tom, to present a grinning, self-parodic face to the world, in keeping with the prejudices of their white audiences. Young embodied a very different attitude, not just in his playing style and demeanour, but the language he spoke: “nearly impenetrable hip slang,” according to Dinerstein, so idiosyncratic that a fellow musician “claimed it took several months to understand him.” Young was credited with coining the slang term “bread” for money. At the core of his vocabulary, however, were three key words: “dig,” “hip” and, inevitably, “cool.”
Whether consciously or not, Young and his fellow cool merchants were channelling their West African inheritance. Thirty years on from Young’s heyday, the US historian Robert Farris Thompson traced words like “boogie,” “funky” and “juke” (as in jukebox) to West African languages—and placed great emphasis on ititu. This is a Yoruba concept which literally translates as “cool,” as in at low temperature, but means a great deal more. Thompson wrote in 2005 that no matter how much cool had come to stand for “kids who think if they put on the shades and imitate Eminem that they’re super-cool,” the term ititu signalled a “deeper cool.” Dinerstein, in his new book, interprets the same idea as “mystic coolness,” associated with “discretion, healing, rebirth, newness, purity.”
“Cool,” in its many pop-cultural senses, usually lacks the rich connotations of its African manifestations. Equally, its banal boiling-down to mere studied detachment cut it loose from the specific African-American experiences in which it was initially rooted. As the black American writer Amiri Baraka—previously known as LeRoi Jones—has pointed out, in its purest form, “to be cool… was to be calm, even unimpressed, by what horror the world might daily propose.” Many of those horrors were all about “the deadeningly predictable mind of white America.” African-American cool partly represented a kind of determined stoicism.
Technology soon helped the idea of cool to dominate western popular culture as a whole—before long white as well as black. Microphones could pick up the personal expressiveness in the playing, which helped to foster the cult of the soloist. This development made stars of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Miles Davis. When Davis announced a new turn with the late 1940s music later anthologised on the compilation Birth of the Cool, he ensured the nuances of his playing were vividly in the foreground. “Talkies” and then cinematic close-ups enabled coolly undemonstrative acting styles, which lent cool glamour to Humphrey Bogart and Robert Mitchum, whose on-screen noir personas exhibited a poker-faced taciturnity. One writer later described Bogart’s métier as “a brand of hard-bitten, rueful integrity that fit the times like a glove,” highlighting what he had in common with many of the best jazz musicians—whose art was an outgrowth of that most rueful of American forms, the blues.
The cool embodied by Bogart and Mitchum—and later James Dean—might be reducible to poker-faced machismo. There is, indeed, a profoundly gendered element to the history of cool, reflected in the male parade of people said to embody the attitude. But there were also women: Billie Holiday (“the essence of cool,” according to Duke Ellington), blues pioneer Bessie Smith—and, in Dinerstein’s telling, such actors as Barbara Stanwyck and Lauren Bacall. Thinking about their qualities highlights what cool denotes: in Holiday’s case, it came down to “a capacity to inhabit complex emotional states from within a physical state of relaxation,” and the “self-possession and self-expression of a person’s art as embodied in an original, signature performance style.”
But did anything tie all these people and developments together? Any answer to that question is bound to be speculative, but the post-war moment is replete with clues. The fight against Nazism had seen societies regimented and collectivised as never before, and the capitalism that followed was of a piece. In the age of the big state, the job for life and the company town, it was not surprising that the most vivid kinds of rebellion were based on solitude, detachment and aloofness: the nobility of the individual. Moreover, if millions of soldiers had seen horrors in the war that they would never have previously imagined, it was perhaps not surprising that some of popular culture’s most visible faces now took their lead from African-Americans’ stoic responses to a collective suffering that long predated the meltdown of Europe.
Some of this was also reflected on the continent, where existentialism reached its peak in post-war Paris. Dinerstein’s book begins with the time Miles Davis spent in the French capital, his love affair with Jean-Paul Sartre’s muse Juliette Greco, and one of the conversations Sartre and Davis shared, on the dilemma Davis faced about staying in Paris, or returning to the US. Existentialism and jazz cool had in common a belief in integrity and self-knowledge in the face of a world that had gone mad—though drawing direct lines between them, as the author does, feels rather contrived. What is undeniable, though, is that as the 1940s gave way to the 50s, in the minds of listeners and readers, jazz and existentialism became two central parts of the same cultural wave. Owning Sartre’s The Age of Reason (1945), Albert Camus’s The Rebel (1951), or equally—moving from books to records—Davis’s Young Man with a Horn (1952) all signified that someone was on the cutting-edge. These elements fused into a culture that the subsequent birth of rock’n’roll has long overshadowed.
Dinerstein’s book is an extended attempt to make this point but, ironically, he often tries too hard. “Cool was an intellectual’s mask of composure in the face of nuclear anxiety, post-Holocaust meditations, and the concurrent rise of oppressed peoples,” he writes. A little later, he goes on: “Cool rises from the ashes of western civilisation: it is the endgame of the west provided by its internal dissidents.”
The truth was not nearly so apocalyptic: like so many cultural waves, cool also proved to be a very good way of selling records, books and cinema tickets. Dinerstein’s book does not substantially deal with the rock’n’roll age, but it was surely from the mid-50s onward that cool went global. The spectacle of Elvis Presley maintaining his unbreakable composure in the face of outrage and ridicule was cool incarnate. As Dylan began to ditch folk music and speak in a newly mystical vocabulary (naturally wearing shades), cool was both updated and refilled with some of its old richness. Meanwhile, in the 1960s, the belated popularity of some of the canonical figures of the blues—Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf—reminded audiences in Europe and America of the conditions and experiences that had given rise to the cultural codes they now took for granted.
As the vitality and cultural relevance of jazz declined, the mantle of cool was inherited by successive generations of black American musicians, although Dinerstein believes that something important was lost forever around 15 years after the close of his supposed golden age. “The end of the post-war cool matrix came about on the cusp of the 1980s due to the re-evaluation of wealth acquisition along with renewed pride in upper-class affiliation,” he writes. “Ronald Reagan was the political and economic figurehead of this shift, but it permeated nearly all cultural production… Everyone still wanted to be cool but cool—as a concept—lost its force as the password of an alternative success system.”
Is that really true? The advent of hip-hop culture in the late 1970s and early 1980s surely proves it wrong. The performing styles and personae of trailblazing DJs and rappers mixed poise with purpose, but also many of their stage names. The DJ who first began using two turntables to create so-called breakbeats was a Jamaican émigré named Clive Campbell, who performed as DJ Kool Herc. The first hip hop artist to perform at the Grammy’s was his fellow New Yorker Kool Moe Dee. Hip hop’s commercial watershed came in 1987, when among the biggest selling records of the year was Bigger and Deffer, by a rapper from Queens who called himself LL Cool J. By the mid-1990s, hip hop had effectively become the youth culture of the western world, and its debt to jazz was often clear. In 1993, I remember being knocked sideways by a new group from Brooklyn called Digable Planets, who made the links between contemporary black music and its post-war roots explicit. Their breakthrough single was titled “Rebirth of Slick,” with its subtitle in parentheses: “(Cool Like Dat).”
Echoes of classic cool are clearly present in the work of the African-American musicians—Kendrick Lamar, Frank Ocean, Chance the Rapper—who define the cutting-edge. Moreover, jazz has lately re-emerged, thanks partly to a 36-year-old sax player from Los Angeles called Kamasi Washington, who played on Lamar’s huge-selling album To Pimp a Butterfly. Washington’s first album was a three-hour work entitled The Epic (2015), portrayed not just his own story, but the entire post-war African-American experience. When he made his first substantial appearance in the Guardian, the piece was headlined “the new cool,” and quoted him thus: “People like to compartmentalise music, especially African-American music, but it’s really one thing.”
Washington’s music evokes history, but in doing so it also shines light on the contemporary America of Donald Trump and Black Lives Matter. He mixes scope, virtuosity and poise in a way that suggests a mind simultaneously looking forward, while also acknowledging a debt to the past. But to listen to him is to understand instantly not just that jazz endures, but that in its most thrilling, rich, cerebral form, the cool ideal lives on.