Carolyn See reviews 'The Birth and Death of the Cool' by Ted Gioia

By Carolyn See
Friday, December 18, 2009; C02


By Ted Gioia

Speck. 251 pp. $25


This very attractive book, with a cover that subtly recalls a Miles Davis LP from over half a century ago, is a study of how the notion of "cool," with all its elegance and purity, was co-opted by wretched American corporate types who, in true fairy-tale fashion, killed the cool golden goose that they thought was going to lay them golden eggs. To put it more plainly, the author sets up his work with three short biographies of early jazz icons -- Bix Beiderbecke, Lester Young and Miles Davis -- and lays out what he thinks they stood for, both in their music and in the outer world.

Then, in just a few following chapters, he takes some dizzying leaps to places where readers may have trouble following him. Gioia's contention is that the mantle of cool passed all too soon from these aloof, original, extremely gifted musicians to another set of equally iconic but very public figures, such as Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods. Jordan and Woods were hired to endorse Nike and General Motors, who traded on their images to sell running shoes and cars. In an evolution of events that no one expected, "square" personalities like Rush Limbaugh began to intone from the radio, Bob Dole endorsed Viagra, and comparatively unprepossessing contestants like Susan Boyle appeared on "Britain's Got Talent." That, according to the author, signified the end, the death, of the whole idea of "cool." (The term "square" is mine here. Gioia never uses it.)

The author is a musician, music historian and very active businessman. Thus, he's looking at the world through a pair of spectacles with two very different lenses: jazz and commerce. As far as I can see, his perceptions and insights about jazz, the actual "birth of the cool" (as a mind-set as well as a point of view about musicianship) are flawless. His chapters on Beiderbecke, Young and Davis are what reviewers like to call lapidary; they are jewel-like, particularly the pages about Miles playing with Charlie Parker in the early New York days. The prose is so strong, simple and evocative that it brings the reader almost to tears with longing. What wonderful nights! What insanely terrific music! What a marvelously enchanted meeting of minds and sensibilities! The book is worth much more than its price for these three chapters alone.

Whenever I open a book about jazz, I turn to the index and look for Lennie Tristano, the incredible pianist; Lee Konitz, the luminous alto sax player; and Warne Marsh, the tenor player who captured some of the most beautiful sounds in the world. These three, coming roughly between Young and Davis, were the epitome of "cool," elusive, smart and aseptically pleasing. They were far, far from famous -- that was part, I suppose, of what made them cool in the first place. They're here in these pages, very respectfully and accurately treated, which is one proof, I believe, that the author knows what he's talking about. And if I have trouble following his reasoning about American business, I'm sure it's my fault, not Gioia's.

But on Page 102, after having established the historical origins of the word "cool" as it pertains both to jazz and to American lifestyle, the author, without much warning or fanfare, begins to substitute "trend," "trendiness" and "trend-setting" for "cool." So that while Davis used to play, for instance, with his back to the audience, and Lester Young, when he didn't like a certain turn of events, would take a whisk broom from his pocket and brush off his shoulders and, according to a fellow musician, "was so quiet that when he talked each sentence came out like a little explosion" -- suddenly, this meticulous attention to a certain kind of personal manners turns into a heavy commercial drama having to do with Nike, Michael Jordan, those Air Jordans, the crass mercantile selling of image and then the making of billions of dollars.

What is "cool," anyway? Maybe it's Warne Marsh, almost totally obscure and penniless, coming in late to a fourth-rate Hollywood nightclub, playing like an angel with a couple of sidemen, but never speaking to or even acknowledging another human being. Then dying in an obscure San Fernando Valley nightclub, sliding off a stool (as I heard the story) while playing "Out of Nowhere." Incomparably cool, in life and in death.

It's hard to see how this translates into running shoes or the Gap pushing T-shirts, but if the author says it does, I believe him. I would just say, though, that squares always existed side by side with cool, and the squares were always in the majority: Arthur Godfrey strumming his ukulele and singing "She's Too Fat for Me" was concurrent with Miles, not after him. And although the author says that in the 1950s people were too cool to sing old songs, there was always Kate Smith shouting out "God Bless America" and hitting much the same vibe as Susan Boyle in 2009. Even in its heyday, the "cool," as a way of life, was followed only by a minority -- that's what made it cool.

I don't believe you can buy or sell "cool." As the author says, if you try, it dies in your hands. But is that whole mind-set actually, really, dead? I hope not, but who knows? This double-vision book looks at an obscure branch of American vernacular music and pairs it with a particularly creepy branch of American advertising. It will force you to think about making connections you haven't made before.

See reviews regularly for The Post.


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-- The madcap economics of Christmas.

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-- The future of the Chinese empire.

-- And Greg Mortenson the school-builder.

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