Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The Birth (and Death) of the Cool

By Ted Gioia

 Genre: Jazz, Cool

Cool is one of those things that fit the "I can't define it but I know it when I see it" category but I must admit Jazz critic and writer Ted Gioia does a fine attempt at defining it. Here is my feeble definition. Cool is an attitude, a facade that hides the base emotions but communicates a an individualistic ambivalence over status and society. Cool is one of those things that you can attempt to have but is defined by others judgments making it a bit contradictory. Yet we all know it when we see it and we know what is not cool. Frank Sinatra was cool. Micheal Bolton isn't. Laugh-in was cool. American Idol isn't. James Dean was cool. Jim Carry isn't. I think my cool definition is similar to Gioia but he says it better and takes a lot more words to say it. But what else the author does is to identify its birth and how Cool is no longer an issue in our "post-cool" society. Gioia starts at the beginning with the jazz musicians. Cool is above all a jazz concept and he spends a good bit of time with the three lead perpetrators of Cool: Bix Beiderbecke, Lester Young and Miles Davis. He describes the role of Cool in the arts and media and show how the advertising establishment hijacked cool and led to its demise. He shows how Cool is a late 20th century device not having any real comparison in American culture before that time. And he also define the Post-cool area, a time when sincerity and honesty becomes important for its own sake and people are not defined by brands. I'm not totally convinced by this part of the book but Gioia makes some nice points. I also enjoy the revelation that my generation was not introduced to coolness by Davis or Kerouac but was already indoctrinated into cool by the antics of Bugs Bunny, Top Cat, and Rocky & Bullwinkle. A decade of watching Bugs Bunny will definitely prepare you for the writings of Jack Kerouac. I did find his chapter on comedy a bit perplexing. He spends a lot of time on David Letterman as a arbiter of cool comedy but barely mentions Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl or Richard Pryor. Personally I think cool comedy started with Jack Benny but that is just my opinion. Any book on such a broad topic is going to encourage agreements and disagreements. But that's cool.

Background CD: Miles Davis - Birth of the Cool

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