In Birth of the Cool, poet-journalist Lewis MacAdams goes behind our cool conceptions to chronicle the historic deliverance of “cool” from small mid-century art vanguards. Before that “‘cool’ was in use among African Americans in Florida as early as 1935,” he tells us. But it wasn’t until the era of Bebop that the term really stuck, widening in usage among black musicians during and just after the Second World War.
MacAdams understands the slippery nature of his subject, and he tells us that “anybody trying to define ‘cool’ quickly comes up against cool’s quicksilver nature. As soon as anything is cool, its cool starts to vaporize.” “Cool” also was about self-protection, “the ultimate revenge of the powerless. Cool was the one thing that the white slaveowner couldn’t own. Cool was the one thing money couldn’t buy. At its core, cool is about defiance.”
Cool hit full stride around 1945, “taking place in the shadows, among marginal characters, in cold-water flats and furnished basement rooms.” Many jazz musicians, poets, performers and artists in New York existed as outsiders in a newly victorious world power. The Cold War in coming years would intensify social pressures, forcing artists into a quiet battle between art created at society’s margins and an explosive machinery of fame, bestowed on unknown artists by the sudden attention of the press and influential critics.
Jackson Pollock and Jack Kerouac are two such men for whom experimentation, social defiance and singular willpower ultimately crashed under a market conspiracy to move their art into mass consciousness (and consumption). They were the first to become national ambassadors of cool by embodying its very essence.
Others before them such as Miles Davis, Lester Young and Charlie Parker were still guiding spirits of cool, ruling for many in the imagination behind the mediated figures of Pollock, Kerouac and other popular stars such as Marlon Brando, James Dean and Andy Warhol. But it was the media who embraced cool and presented it to a country hungry for some new expression as the Cold War destabilized a collective psyche already battered by World War II and conflicts in Korea.
Stories fuel his book, and MacAdams spins a narrative of cool by focusing on key figures of mid century art, music and literature. He finds in legend and lore the traits of “cool,” looking first at the black musicians closest to its roots, then at the quick transformation of cool from underground bohemian posture to a mainstay feature of national life. It was after all an African American phenomenon, and whites have always been drawn to the power of black art. Behind their hip facades, Dizzy Gillespie, Billy Eckstine, Thelonius Monk, Sonny Rollins and other black jazz musicians are featured as conduits of cool.
MacAdams also acknowledges heroin use among musicians, not to moralize against it in the manner of Ken Burns’ recent documentary, nor to uplift it as a kind of inspiring daemon, but to show its use and the underground culture that developed around it. Sharing the words of trumpeter Red Rodney, MacAdams tells us that “Hipsters used heroin. Squares didn’t. Heroin gave us membership in a unique club, and for this membership we gave up everything else in the world. Every ambition. Every desire. Everything.”
It was saxophonist Charlie Parker’s drug habit that influenced scores of younger musicians. “People followed Bird around everywhere, analyzing his moves,” MacAdams says. “Yet even as his reputation soared, and the music that he pioneered was coming of age, Parker’s health and music were collapsing.”
William S. Burroughs, another famous junkie and son of “genteel St. Louis upper-middle-class society” receives considerable attention as an outlaw figure, the wandering fuck-up who wants society to leave him alone to cruise for boys and take drugs. He is an uncanny image of depravity through which the idea of cool was filtered and extended.
Once Kerouac’s fame was sealed with the now legendary On the Road, Burroughs became an underground celebrity for his novels Naked Lunch, Cities of the Red Night and Place of Dead Roads. But throughout the ‘30s and ‘40s he wandered between American cities and rural areas in South Texas and Louisiana, living on the outside, a would-be gangster, unknown and desolate save for a small pension offered by his family. With Kerouac, Ginsberg, Herbert Huncke, Joan Vollmer (the wife he accidentally shot in Mexico City) and others, he lived the life that one day would be transformed into legend.
But his petty thefts, drug addiction and other brushes with the law left him scarred too. “I am so disgusted with conditions I may leave the U.S.A. altogether,” he wrote Kerouac in November 1948. The following year he crossed the border to Mexico, “inaugurating an exile that would last, with only a few brief, furtive interruptions, for the next twenty-four years.”
While Burroughs and others blasted America with drugs and sex, looking for a life free of the gripping social conditions of the Cold War, cool was extended further into the mainstream. D.T. Suzuki’s Columbia University lectures introduced a generation of young East Coast intellectuals to the ideas of Zen Buddhism. In addition to John Cage, Philip Guston and Erich Fromm, “Suzuki inspired an entire generation of ‘bodhisattvas of cool’ — new, cool heroes indifferent to privilege, dogma, and attachment in but not of the world.”
Socially, the Left embraced cool. Activist Dorothy Day, Living Theater performers Julien Beck and Judith Malina, pop artist Andy Warhol and singer Bob Dylan find space in MacAdams’ pantheon of cool. In Dylan, who abandons the leftist idealism of the folk movement to expand his music to a wider audience, MacAdams sees the ultimate upload of cool into the mainstream.
Norman Mailer’s essay, “The White Negro,” revealed an earlier popularization of “cool” as a kind of commodified personality, insisting “cool was sexual,” and that “cool was capable of being seduced.” White intellectuals and artists sexualize this passage, a white acculturation to African defiance and self-defense extending through the ’50s and ’60s. The power of “cool” is that of self-transformation, the ultimate in New World mythology, and the reinvention of ourselves into social abstractions is one result of cool attitudes, poses and social extensions.
The value of this book lies in the historic narratives we encounter throughout it. Neither a celebration, exactly, nor a critical evaluation of it, the “cool” is shown by virtue of the forms it took in the lives of musicians and artists such as Charlie Parker, Robert Rauschenberg, Gary Snyder and others.
“If cool has been trivialized, it’s also been globalized,” MacAdams writes. “As English has spread around the earth, so has cool. To use the word ‘cool’ well is to partake of a central ritual of global culture as profound and as universal as a handshake.”
While he doesn’t say so, the global sale of the “cool” is nothing to celebrate. The mass production of personality, stamped out with products from Nike to Coke, or Budweiser to VW, is less a front for individual security than a necessary stance taken for success. The individual has been usurped by the cool projection of style and attitude, copped from magazines, movies, television — wherever the personal can be mediated.
But MacAdams remembers for us here the African American foundation of our current condition in a cool society, showing us a collaboration of American identity between the individual and the society that reduces us to a standard cookie cutter cutout of some greater mystery or more alien form.
For MacAdams, growing up in Texas, “‘Cool’ meant not only approval, but kinship. It was a ticket out of the life I felt closing in all around me: it meant a path to a cooler world.” Growing up in Texas myself, I know instinctively what he means. It was always cooler elsewhere.
But now that cool is everywhere, a global product of consumer marketing, we’re still waiting, anxious for what new image of ourselves to appear? With few traces of sentiment, the history behind the cool is a record of the resilient and adaptable psyche of a nation. MacAdams cuts to the chase to show us his version of the “cool,” and by extension, also where we come from.