“As soon as a sentiment rises to the tonality of fire, as soon as it becomes exposed in its violence to the metaphysics of fire, one can be sure that it will become charged with opposites.”
-Gaston Bachetard, The Psychoanalysis of Fire
“Did you ever stand and shiver just because you were looking at a river?”
-Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, 912 Greens
Cool. Be cool. Cool it. Chill out.
Cool is a state of being. Some things are cool and some are not. Cool is a physical condition. But it is also a metaphysical condition. And a stylistic and psychic condition as well. Cool is both simple and complex.
Cool is essential to survival. The extremes of hot and cold are threats to life that call existence into question. Cool is the answer. Cool is both internal and external; your cool is something to keep.
Within the known universe there are basically two kinds of cool: elemental cool and cultural cool. Elemental cool is the physical condition of being cool, like windsurfing on the Pacific off northern California where the water is always 50 degrees. Cultural cool is a stylistic expression, often but not always associated with music. For instance, Ella Fitzgerald’s “Night in Tunisia.” John Coltrane, Lester Young and Professor Longhair were cool; ditto William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac. Pat Boone and Ed Meese were never cool.
Aside from broadcast meteorologists, the widespread use of the term “cool” on a broad scale first appeared among musicians. During the 1940s in Harlem, a new generation of musicians was defining its own sound and so positioned themselves against the previous epoch—the era of hot jazz. These new bebop musicians began describing their sounds as “cool,” although in retrospect their sound was actually pretty hot.
Hot jazz had migrated northward from the Crescent City and was popularized by Orleanians such as Louis Armstrong (and his Hot Five) and Jelly Roll Morton (and his Red Hot Peppers), among others. But Armstrong especially was synonymous with heat on an epoch-making scale—the man could have melted the advancing glaciers with his horn had he been around during the Ice Age.
It was against this background of torrid Satchmo radiation that musicians like Charlie Parker began to release records with titles like his “Cool Blues” in 1947. Later a Miles Davis collection designated “Birth of Cool” appeared on Capitol, taken from sessions recorded in 1948.
Initially the sound was bebop, but the cool elements continued to evolve until finally modern or cool jazz was born. Saxophone legend Lester Young was in many ways the spiritual patriarch of cool, his soaring, floating sound having been a prime influence on cool sax icons such as Stan Getz and Jimmy Guiffre. Other musicians from that era who came to comprise the pantheon of cool included Gerry Mulligan, John Lewis, Kenny Clarke, Gil Evans, Art Blakey, Horace Silver, Sonny Rollins and Zoot Sims.
Historians of cool tend to be New Yorkers with New York geocentricities, but even they acknowledge that the demographics of cool were peculiar indeed. Midwesterners and Caucasians were prominent in its development. And even in Harlem where the term was most actively popularized, cool jazz musicians often dressed like hopped-up stockbrokers. This was the beginning of the expansion of cool into a look as well as a sound.
Whether a look or a sound, the really weird thing about the early cool scene was the way in which black and white styles were synthesized. From bop origins in Harlem in the persons of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, what finally evolved as cool contained a lot of Caucasian formalism. Stan Kenton’s legendary orchestra was all white, and even Lester Young, the black godfather of cool, named Frank Trumbauer, a white saxophonist, as a major influence.
If hot jazz was defined by the application of certain improvisational black idiomatic expressions to the matrix of traditional European-American musical structures, then what became cool jazz seemed to almost signify the inversion of this process. But what does this really say about cool?
Obviously there is more to this than merely the encounter between some bebop blacks and some cool Caucasians. Cool is ultimately transcendental and seems to be some sort of an archetype. It is something we recognize—we know it when we see it or hear it. But what is it?
The concept of coolness has been traced by Robert Farris Thompson in his book Flash of Spirit, to the Kongo and Yoruba territories of Africa. There, the term had essentially the same meaning it has for us, only more fundamentally so—cool is “the correct way you represent yourself.” According to Thompson’s account: “Like character, coolness ought to be internalized as a governing principle for a person to merit the praise, ‘his heart is cool’ (okan e tutu). In becoming sophisticated, a Yoruba adept learns to differentiate between forms of spiritual coolness…So heavily charged is this concept with ideas of beauty and correctness that a fine carnelian bead or a passage of exciting drumming may be praised as ‘cool’.
“Coolness then is part of character. To the degree that we live generously and discreetly, exhibiting grace under pressure, our appearance and our acts gradually assume virtual royal power…we find the confidence to cope with all kinds of situations. This is ashe. This is character. This is mystic coolness…”
Grace under pressure. Thompson’s account of cool gives us something to work with. When we look at the art forms of cool we find contrast and equilibrium. Bold strokes and strategic restraint. Passion contained within repose. Grace under pressure.
In this, cool is like certain oriental philosophies. The notion of cool as a finely balanced and disciplined kind of passion is especially luminous. In this sense, all true art is cool.
There is a voodoo deity (loa) in Haiti known as Ghede Nimbo, the ruler of death and sex. When an initiate is possessed by Ghede Nimbo, he wears sunglasses and smokes a cigarette. The effect is stylistically cool, the face a mask of dynamic repose, like a keyboard or bass player deep in reverie. Maya Deren has traced Ghede Nimbo back to the death and resurrection cult of the Ndembo Society of the Lower Congo, represented in art by a carved visage whose features resemble the blank reverie imposed by sunglasses and cigarette. This figure is described by Maya Deren as “the cosmic corpse which informs man of life.” Ghede is associated with the moon, and all of these considerations taken together suggest that this loa is in fact a close relation of the ancient Egyptian deity Osiris, who stood for essentially the same things.
While it may be tempting to conclude that cool began in ancient Egypt, it is quite likely that the concept was actually prevalent the world over, before the nature religions were supplanted by the patriarchal Great Religions of the West and Middle East.
Crescent City Cool
There are some music historians, such as Michael Ventura, who argue that not only jazz, but also rock originated in New Orleans—because such music is ultimately derived from African spirituality, and this city was the only place where such expression remained intact even through slavery days. It is generally established that hot jazz originated here. Could a similar argument be made for cool jazz as well?
That would be stretching things a bit, but an argument can be made for New Orleans and south Louisiana as an American point of origin for idiomatic cool. Consider Sidney Bechet.
Bechet, a contemporary of Louis Armstrong, was a New Orleans Creole of Color and soprano sax player without peer. The Creoles were oriented to Europe, and when Bechet went north it was to Paris rather than New York. Yet, without ever having been involved in bop or anything of that sort, Bechet was performing his own brand of cool jazz in the City of Lights as early as the 1930s. In fact, his phraseology had elements in common with Art Pepper, that paragon of the post war cool jazz sound.
In its most sophisticated forms, cool, or modern jazz, exhibited an isomorphic balance between rhapsodic fluidity and an almost classically structured restraint. Where hot jazz was explicit in its melting of formal structure, cool jazz was implicit, it reshaped tones and structures to create a new sonic environment (good examples of this tonal innuendo and strategic restraint can be found in Miles Davis’ “Concierto de Aranjuez” and John Lewis’ “Django” performed by the Modem Jazz Quartet). Sidney Bechet seems to have discovered these devices years before, on his own initiative. So while cool jazz did not originate in New Orleans, there is evidence to suggest that cool jazz was first played by a New Orleanian.
But then not all cool idioms are jazz. Historians of cool have come to regard zydeco as an important cool music. Viewed from this perspective, we find cool sounds emanating from south Louisiana during the 1930s.
Ultimately, what is important about cool is not where it surfaced first, but that it became the force that it did. Not to be confused with the superficial trappings of transitory fashion, true cool arises from the heart and soul, from one whose “heart is cool”. As the spirit of rhapsodic spontaneity, of Dionysian passion tempered and contained by the grace of impassive repose, cool signified cultural initiative, a creative reaction against the martial Apollonian monoculture of conformist post-war America. Rather than any one technique, cool was a stance or posture adopted by artists and creative people searching for alternatives to the pervasive blandness of the age.
The ’50s and ’60s were the golden decades of cool. The best R&B and rock all contained strong components of cool. Professor Longhair, Ray Charles and Elvis were pioneers of cool’s spread into realms beyond jazz. In literature, the Beat writers, especially Jack Kerouac (who witnessed the Harlem bop scene of the ’40s) and William Burroughs, took a cool jazz approach to prose, as did Ginsberg, Corso, et al in the realm of poetry. In art, action painting by artists like Jackson Pollack made the cool idiom visual, as did certain abstract expressionists and pop artists ranging from Jasper Johns to the early Warhol. There were even a few cool TV shows during these decades, notably the Ernie Kovacs show in the ’50s and the Prisoner, in the late ’60s. Cool comedians included the legendary Lenny Bruce, but also Mort Sahl (who married China Lee, the porn star sister of Jefferson Parish Sheriff Harry Lee). Sahl also popularized the sweatshirt as a fashion statement. Other cool fashions generally followed the lead of the musicians and various other hipster artists and literati.
By the late ’60s hipsters gave way to hippies, a kind of romantic utopianism that, while it had its moments, generated a rosy cloud of euphoria that was impossible to sustain. Still, the 1970s was characterized by a serious attempt to incorporate both utopianism and cool into mainstream culture, with very mixed results. The Serial, by Cyra McFadden, was a hilarious 1975 novel describing a suburban Marin County family’s attempts to be cool and progressive. They ultimately failed because they had no feeling for these things except as fashions to be acquired. Their pseudo-cool friends are actually just coked-out proto-yuppie vultures. Which brings us to the 1980s and the demise of cool.
Problematic Contemporary Cool
In the present decade cool still exists, but has reverted to its subterranean status of the ’40s and early ’50s. Unlike the late ’50s and ’60s, cool is not prominent in this decade, and generally speaking, the pop-culture icons of this time are not cool. Rather, they tend to be geeks, twits and dorks such as Michael Jackson, Madonna and Michael Franks, respectively. Surface gloss, marketing and production value have replaced any true feeling, or any other inner orientation. Like the old men who run China, the prematurely old men who run contemporary media would have us believe that true cool never existed, that it was all just fashion, the MTV of the past. Which is like saying that true art never existed, that it was just decoration, or that poetry was just a bunch of words.
And then there are those who say that true cool cannot exist any more because true cool, like true art, is based on the inner passion of authenticity, and such things cannot exist in our media-dominated society where the artist’s role is reduced to replication or appropriation. But this is merely nonsense, gibberish from philosophers who would have felt at home in the Vichy government.
The 1980s was actually the Big Sleep, a time of somnambulism. True cool is rooted in a passionate but disciplined intuition, and in this age of cocooning people didn’t want to be bothered. But true cool is also lunar in orientation—it waxes and wanes according to its own inner harmonies. As we transit from the techno-narcolepsy of the ’80s to the fin de siecle ’90s, we would do well to remember that, while fashions always fade, true cool is eternal.