Cool is in the eye of the beholder and poet and writer Lewis MacAdams has come up with a blueprint charting the development of that elusive, unspoken, Zen-like state of American "cool."
Don't be mislead 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 the jazz, thereby soothing bebop's fever. Although Davis and the 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, MacAdams pilgrimage begins long before "cool" 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 it was swing-era saxophonist Lester Young--a very cool guy, indeed--who first coined the term "cool." But, regardless of who said what when, MacAdams maintains that it was not until post-World War II America--specifically in New York City--that "cool" really flourished.
Music is the thread that connects MacAdams' timeline 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, but so does 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 brought to the mix. He tips his pork-pie hat to the impact that such diverse icons as John Dillenger, D.T. Suzuki, John Cassavetes, Jackson Pollack, 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 that follows their rise and fall, William Burroughs, Jack Keroauc, 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 is 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 cool and a lot of people get left out. His adamant attitude can frustrate a reader, but it's also kind of cool.