Birth of the Cool: Beat, BeBop and the American Avant-Garde

By Lewis MacAdams (Simon & Schuster Free Press)

Cool is in the eye of the beholder, and poet/writer Lewis MacAdams has come up with a blueprint charting the development of the elusive, unspoken, Zenlike state of American "cool."

Don't be misled by the title. Birth of the Cool isn't a history recounting the famed Miles Davis' nonet sessions of the late 1940s, which introduced a more refined -- if not icy -- approach to jazz, thereby soothing bebop's fever. Although Davis and other "cool" jazz practitioners make an appearance early in the book, for MacAdams those musicians are only a few of the many who navigated the road to cool.

In fact, the author's pilgrimage begins long before that style of jazz made the scene. Hipper-than-thou attitudes, he says, were showing through the American fabric as far back as the late 19th century. He peers into a number of "cool" schools of thought seeking the true definition of the word. He also chases down the legend that holds that it was swing-era saxophonist Lester Young -- a very cool guy, indeed -- who first coined the term. But regardless of who said what when, MacAdams maintains that it wasn't until post-World War II America -- specifically in New York City -- that "cool" really flourished.

Music is the thread that connects MacAdams' time line, and he examines a wide array of musical styles as he studies America's fascination with all things cool. Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Cab Calloway and Gil Evans all make important appearances in the book, as do avant-garde composer John Cage, folk troubadour Woody Guthrie, Guthrie's number one fan Bob Dylan and the Velvet Underground.

But there is more to cool than meets the ear. MacAdams also looks at what the French Avant-Garde and New Wave film movements brought to the mix. He tips his porkpie hat to the impact that diverse icons like John Dillinger, D.T. Suzuki, John Cassavetes, Jackson Pollock, James Dean and Judith Malina had on popular culture.

And, of course, there is the obligatory investigation of the Beats. But thanks to MacAdams' detailed narrative following their rise and fall, William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassidy and the rest of the Dharma bums emerge not so much as literary outlaws as they do Benzedrine-soaked degenerates and low-rent criminals.

Which brings up one important flaw in the book. Trying to define cool is kind of, well, uncool. One person's collection of hip, insightful writers is another person's gang of depraved hacks. Writer Nick Tosches once questioned whether it was the Beats or the Rat Pack who were the "hipper charlatans of the day." He concluded that although it "was a tough call . . . high-roll collars and mohair britches certainly have held up better than berets and bongos."

But there's no room in MacAdams' erudite view of hipness for Sinatra's "cocktail" cool. Or, for that matter, Jerry Lee Lewis' "redneck" cool or Nelson Algren's "cornfed" cool or "Sugar" Ray Robinson's "roundhouse" cool.

It's MacAdams' way or the highway when it comes to defining the term, and a lot of people get left out. His adamance is occasionally frustrating, but at the same time MacAdams' broad sociohistorical approach certainly makes for an interesting read.

 
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