Not Keen, Nifty or Swell: The Origins of Cool
Published May 01, 2001Why is something cool? Something else not cool? "Cool" sounds like a Mandingo word for "gone out," far out or trippin', first recorded in African-American communities in Florida in the 1930s. It is slang, ephemeral and hard to define, but it has a history. Cool has outlasted square, or hep or jive and lives alongside hip (hop) and jazz as part of the language. More than that, cool is part of how we live our lives. It is parodied in Austin Powers, abused in advertising, and celebrated in The Blues Brothers. And in fact, Lewis MacAdams's book Birth of the Cool: Beat, BeBop and the American Avant-Garde is a blueprint to everything Jake and Elwood Blues would have thought was cool. The book reads like a map of David Lynch's mind when he was directing Blue Velvet and has the feel of an early 60s Bond poster. This is a book about one of the greatest, all pervasive social movements of modern times: without cool, there could be no Las Vegas, no Pink Panther, no X-Files.
MacAdams's book itself has a cool feel, its design and lay-out recall the 1940s and 50s style and times it describes. Every other page is a black and white photo that could be from a Chess Records 78 or a Greenwich Village playbill. But cool is more than a specific look, way of speaking or personal style. "At its core," writes MacAdams, "cool is about defiance." It is a way of dealing with the world.
Cool was born out of the anxiety and rebellion of a time after World War II when people felt more free and more wealthy than they had ever felt before. But between the Bomb and the invention of suburbia, this freedom was threatened with being smothered at birth. The same forces that gave birth to teenager culture and rock'n'roll gave birth to cool. So cool was caused by similar forces to other revolutions, but it was a revolution without a cause. Cool did not have a particular agenda; it was a new way of relating to other people and to ourselves. Perversely, cool contradicted conformity, but brought with it a new anxiety of appearing to conform too much.
In the late 40s, Miles Davis invented a new kind of music in a windowless basement apartment behind a Chinese restaurant on 55th Street in Manhattan. Count Basie called it "slow and strange" but "good, real good." Birth of the Cool is a title borrowed from the 1957 re-release of eight tracks from that Davis session with Gil Evans, a Toronto big-band arranger. Davis and Evans had summarised the style of the times while Davis epitomised the cool feeling of his own art in his custom-tailored "clean as a motherfucker" suits. These are the kind of moments that MacAdams captures: Charlie Parker creating bebop at Max's Kansas City or Bob Dylan going electric at the Newport Folk Festival. Jackson Pollock, Jean Paul Sartre, Marlon Brando and Cab Calloway in "full zoot"; MacAdams tells stories about turning points and their pivotal figures. His history is always immediate, personal and specific. A filmography and discography add to MacAdams's cool kind of history, giving life to moments when the people present changed the way things would come to be.
MacAdams has been tracing cool happenings for decades. He is a beat journalist and writer for Rolling Stone who "got most of his education" following Gregory Corso around Manhattan in the late 60s. MacAdams is an example of the kind of person he is writing about; iconoclastic and irreverent, two-time winner of the World Heavyweight Poetry Championships. If he has a blind spot it is to the women who shaped cool; Zora Neale Hurston and Billie Holiday get full page photos but these are not much more than window dressing.
The culture he writes about is first and foremost a counter-culture. From the beginning, "cool" was something born against: against tradition, against conformity and against authority. Cool is probably hard to square with writing history, or book reviews, but MacAdams understands this problem. Cool is a word, like punk, that is hard to pin down, as soon as something becomes cool it isn't cool anymore. How to tell a history of cool? MacAdams takes on a voice which is relaxed and personal and conveys a mood as much as it tells a story.