Birth of the Cool - Beat, Bebop and the American Avant Garde by Lewis MacAdams


By Simon Warner

Mad to Live, Desirous of Everything

I once met John Cage, back in 1989, when the great banner-waver of the musical avant garde dropped by to see a show by the British installation artist Richard Long at a gallery where I was working as a publicist. Cage was in Yorkshire, attending the nearby Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, the UK’s premier jamboree of new music. Introduced to me, he said a quiet hello, shook my hand, a gentle, unassuming genius calmly drifting toward his life’s conclusion.

Cage is a central player in Lewis MacAdams Birth of the Cool, a sweeping and hugely readable survey of a period in American cultural history where the worlds of art, music and literature appeared to tremble in a dissonant harmony: painters, jazzmen and novelists distilling the mysteries of the post-war terrain in a surge of modernist abstraction. Subtitled “Beat, Bebop, and the American Avant Garde”, MacAdams’ volume has New York at its heart, and Greenwich Village at its centre, as the likes of Jackson Pollock, Jack Kerouac, and Bob Dylan leave their calling cards in paint, words and chords. Along the way, there are a few diversions — sometimes parochial, to the jazz haunts of 52nd Street or Warhol’s Factory, sometimes further afield to California, Mexico, even Paris — but it is the bohemian quarter of the Big Apple — “the capital of the world” as the writer dubs it — that plays principal host to that very 20th-century religion, the cult of cool.

Not that the idea of cool was a totally contemporary phenomenon. The roots of the style — a knowing, inner strength — owed much to the dignity of the African arrivals on the slave ships, as their pride in the face of violence and humiliation was retained, a pride founded on a calm, quiet control in the presence of the ultimate provocation. To the black man in America, such defence mechanisms meant the survival of the body and the spirit that pulsed inside. The poet Amiri Baraka talks about cool equating with “silent yet knowing.”

Today, the term cool, on both sides of the Atlantic, has become a bland expression of accord, a word as emasculated as okay. Yet MacAdams, a younger hipster who has inhabited most of the nooks and crannies where the ethics of that older, purer cool were laid down, makes a bold attempt to resurrect those more authentic meanings via a skilfully imparted history lesson.

There are, of course, the inevitable contradictions — recent cultural chronology is no better behaved or consistent than earlier strands, and it doesn’t follow formulas all that easily. Thus cool can be represented by Kerouac’s most remembered passage — “The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time” — and also by a counter-description from Factory regular Danny Fields who says that cool might also rely on an ability “to behave minimally, let people wonder what was on your mind.”

No matter how cool made itself apparent, the mode appears to have been most associated with that community of creatives who aimed to utilise art as a weapon against convention, a device by which accepted behaviours and expected mores could be transgressed. Cool became a life-style, an argot, a barricade against Establishment norms which by the 1950s had placed an icy grip around the neck of America’s outsiders. Those years after the Second World War that fed into that subsequent decade constructed an America that was schizophrenic in mood: economically booming, prosperous in the workplace and at the hearth, yet paranoid about the possibilities of nuclear annihilation and petrified by the prospect of communist insurgency. If the magic eye of television symbolised the technological wonder of the age, it also transmitted images of Cold War confrontation and McCarthyite witch-hunts into the homes of ordinary folk.

Such conditions offered a ripe environment for dissent — overground and underground. Pollock had already fractured the mainstream psyche, as his huge and chaotic canvases leapt from the pages of the mass-readership magazine Life; the angular complexities of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie challenged the digestible niceties of swing; The Living Theatre would take performance onto the streets of New York to lampoon the masquerade of a Civil Defense strategy; Cage would move art music into a radical space with his silent sonata ‘4’33”’; and the Beats would soon transform the very language through On the Road, “Howl,” and The Naked Lunch.

Cool then, in this thesis, is about artistic confrontation, usually apolitical, rarely organised in the traditional sense, yet joined by a mood, a mirror to the Zeitgeist, a loose street philosophy that had its roots in pre-Emancipation plantations, revealed its shoots in early assertions of black consciousness, and then flowered in the hands of, very often, the “White Negroes,” as Norman Mailer described them in his seminal 1957 essay — who saw in black culture a model of resistance that could be both admired and appropriated.

There are other threads on the journey — the appeal of gangsters during the Prohibition period, the lure of mind-affecting, body-assaulting narcotics from alcohol to amphetamines, acid to heroin, and the flip-side of that coin, the inner-searching spiritualism of Zen — which weave a tapestry that is both brilliant and dark, hopeful and desperate. Yet those extremes appear to be constant bedfellows of the cool experience: danger, uncertainty, anxiety, the precarious, the unpredictable are all too frequently the fuel of both imagination and catastrophe. This zone provided no safe-houses, only hot-houses, and the roll call at the mortuary of cool is sufficiently long and illustrious to confirm such an assessment. Jackson Pollock, James Dean, and Charlie Parker were merely the high-profile casualties, wiped out in a blur of speed, drink, or drugs. Miles Davis (whose landmark 1957 album lent its title to this book), Jack Kerouac, and William Burroughs were certainly ravaged, if not erased, by their addictions. Yet it is hard not to be drawn by the flames of this half-century of energy and exploration. The Romantic ideal — from Blake to Baudelaire, Keats to Hemingway — seems dazzlingly alive in this extended period of American extravagance and it is certainly hard to imagine our present cinema, the current rock scene and hip-hop culture, or the kaleidoscope of images fed to us through TV, video, and adverts, without the influence of these explosive, fervently inventive times.

Lewis MacAdams offers a rich sequence of cameos to establish a vivid narrative. His is the voice of the admirer, the fellow traveller, and while he never quite gets to grips with the ideological concepts that theoretically form the spine of the piece — Dick Pountain and David Robins’ Cool Rules: Anatomy of an Attitude, published last year, does rather better — the anecdotes tumble thick and fast and the pace rarely relents. My favourite tale neatly characterises the paradoxes that pepper a lively account. When saxman Parker visited Paris in 1949, he was introduced to Jean-Paul Sartre, one of the godfathers of existential thought. “I’m very glad to have met you,” the musician told the philosopher. “I like your playing very much”.

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