The Origins of Cool in Postwar America

The Origins of Cool in Postwar America

by Joel Dinerstein


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Cool. It was a new word and a new way to be, and in a single generation, it became the supreme compliment of American culture. The Origins of Cool in Postwar America uncovers the hidden history of this concept and its new set of codes that came to define a global attitude and style. As Joel Dinerstein reveals in this dynamic book, cool began as a stylish defiance of racism, a challenge to suppressed sexuality, a philosophy of individual rebellion, and a youthful search for social change.

Through eye-opening portraits of iconic figures, Dinerstein illuminates the cultural connections and artistic innovations among Lester Young, Humphrey Bogart, Robert Mitchum, Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, Jack Kerouac, Albert Camus, Marlon Brando, and James Dean, among others. We eavesdrop on conversations among Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Miles Davis, and on a forgotten debate between Lorraine Hansberry and Norman Mailer over the "white Negro" and black cool. We come to understand how the cool worlds of Beat writers and Method actors emerged from the intersections of film noir, jazz, and existentialism. Out of this mix, Dinerstein sketches nuanced definitions of cool that unite concepts from African-American and Euro-American culture: the stylish stoicism of the ethical rebel loner; the relaxed intensity of the improvising jazz musician; the effortless, physical grace of the Method actor. To be cool is not to be hip and to be hot is definitely not to be cool.

This is the first work to trace the history of cool during the Cold War by exploring the intersections of film noir, jazz, existential literature, Method acting, blues, and rock and roll. Dinerstein reveals that they came together to create something completely new—and that something is cool.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226599069
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 09/26/2018
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 541
Sales rank: 411,529
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.60(d)

About the Author

Joel Dinerstein was the curator of American Cool, an acclaimed exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, and the author of its accompanying catalog. He is also the author of the award-winning Swinging the Machine: Modernity, Technology, and African-American Culture and Coach: A History of New York Cool. He is a cultural historian and professor of English at Tulane University.

Read an Excerpt


Lester Young and the Birth of Cool

Lester Young first invoked "cool" to refer to a state of mind and contemporary usage of this word and concept disseminated from jazz culture starting in the late 1930s. When Young said, "I'm cool" or "that's cool," he meant "I'm calm," "I'm OK with that," or just "I'm keeping it together." Jazz musician and scholar Ben Sidran noted that this cool ethic reflected "actionality turned inward" and was "effected at substantial cost and suffering." If Miles Davis's 1957 collection The Birth of the Cool often serves as a lightning rod for discussions of cool in jazz culture, a spate of jazz recordings testify to the importance of being cool starting in World War II as a strategy for dealing with the dashed hopes of social equality. The messages of Erskine Hawkins's hit, "Keep Cool, Fool" (1941), Count Basie's "Stay Cool" (1946), and Charlie Parker's "Cool Blues" (1946) all testify to a new valuation of public composure and the disparaging of the outward emotional display long associated with stereotypes of blacks, from Uncle Tomming to the happy-go-lucky "Southern darky."

One of the two or three most influential jazz artists between the eras of Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker, Lester Young created the so-called cool saxophone style and carved the melodic path to the "cool school" of jazz co-created by Miles Davis and Gil Evans. Young is little known outside the jazz world because his groundbreaking recordings were primarily made with either the Count Basie Orchestra or Billie Holiday. Young was the "genius soloist" of the classic 1930s Basie band and the saxophone complement to Billie Holiday's best vocal performances before 1945. Young was Holiday's favorite musician, and they bestowed the nicknames on one another that stuck for life: she called him "Pres" as short for "the president of all the saxophone players," and Young dubbed her "Lady Day."

Young burst into recorded history in 1936 with two songs — "Shoe Shine Boy" and "Oh! Lady Be Good" — that featured his revolutionary, vibrato-less tenor saxophone sound: fast, floating, airy, clean, light. His sound was so completely opposed to the then-dominant model of the tenor saxophone — Coleman Hawkins's rhapsodic, powerful, macho tone — that it confused many jazz musicians. Young's combination of lightning speed, blues feeling, rhythmic balance, precise articulation, and inexhaustible melodic ideas made him, in retrospect, something like the Michael Jordan of jazz. Dizzy Gillespie called it a "cool, flowing style" to emphasize the long, fluid phrases, strategic use of silence and space, and rhythmic mastery. Young's sound and style represented a musical synthesis of early jazz history: from his childhood on the New Orleans streets and adolescence on the black vaudeville circuit to his responsiveness to white Chicagoan influences like Jimmy Dorsey and Bix Beiderbecke; from his mastery of the blues and his classical virtuosity to his involvement in "the big music workshop" of Kansas City in the 1930s. Young influenced hundreds of musicians between 1937 and 1944. After suffering a series of traumatic experiences at a Georgia army base in World War II (see below), he remained a perennial performer but withdrew into a quiet, gin-soaked nonconformity.

Young's strategies of self-insulation in the postwar era — his shades, slang, and style — were as influential as his music on younger jazz musicians. Young's renowned use of hip slang influenced jazz culture, black cultural pride, Beat writers, and (through them) the counterculture of the 1960s. His prodigious consumption of marijuana and alcohol, renowned sense of humor, trademark porkpie hat, and silent, expressive sadness generated so much jazz lore he remains the exemplar of this golden age of jazz — as Dale Turner in the movie 'Round Midnight (1986) and Edgar Pool in John Clellon Holmes's novel, The Horn (1958). Young earned more than $50,000 a year during this period yet self-consciously drank himself to death in a small room in the Alvin Hotel on 52nd Street, neither proud nor ashamed of either his substance abuse or his sadness. Between his dedication to expressing his inner pain artistically and the blank facial expression he wore to resist the white gaze, Young embodied two seemingly contradictory aspects of cool: artistic expressiveness and emotional self-control.

There were four core African-American cool concepts alive at the birth of cool, all of which still influence contemporary usage. Cool the first: to control your emotions and wear a mask of cool in the face of hostile, provocative outside forces. Cool the second: to maintain a relaxed attitude in performance of any kind. Cool the third: to develop a unique, individual style (and sound) that communicates your personality or inner spirit. Cool the fourth: to be emotionally expressive within an artistic frame of restraint, as in jazz, acting, or basketball. Cool is also the term used to express aesthetic approval of such a performance ("Cool!").

Cool was an ideal state of balance, a calm-but-engaged state of mind between the emotional poles of "hot" (excited, aggressive, intense, hostile) and "cold" (unfeeling, efficient, mechanistic). "Cool" translated to "relaxed intensity," a common objective of jazz musicians in performance. Nelson George reflects that, for young urban black men in the late 1940s, "cool came to define a certain sartorial elegance, smooth charm, and self-possession that ... suggested a dude that controlled not only himself but his environment." When jazz producer and scholar Ross Russell called Lester Young "the greatest bohemian and hipster in the jazz community," he meant Young was an anti-authoritarian, peace-loving, jive-talking nonconformist long before those qualities were acceptable in the average American man (of any ethnicity).

Lester Young was a musical genius with a legendary sense of humor who influenced hundreds of musicians during the most dynamic years of the Great Migration, a time when American race relations were undergoing a radical shift. Young's whole life was self-consciously dedicated to being original — in his music, mannerisms, and detached style — on the Romantic model, as if being original was the vital force of life itself. He was often described as "'cool' — calm, imperturbable, unhurried, and balanced in his playing and personal demeanor." Young died in 1959, and yet two generations later, bandleader Johnny Otis still declared Young to be "the one figure who stands above the entire field of music as the guiding spirit of African-American artistry." Here I will explore the West African, Anglo-American, African-American, and pop-cultural roots of the concept of cool, then show how Young's synthesis of these materials gave birth to American cool.

From Blackface Minstrels to Jazz Artists

Even among jazz musicians, Lester Young was thought of as a visitor from another planet. A shy, reserved, and gentle man, Young was a fierce musical competitor but otherwise recoiled from interpersonal conflict. When insulted, he pulled out a small whisk broom and brushed off his shoulder; when a bigot was present, he said softly, "I feel a draft"; when a fellow musician made a musical mistake on the bandstand, he rang a little bell. Young's bandmate, the guitarist Freddie Green, reflected: "Most of the things he came up with were ... things you'd never heard before. ... He was a very original man." His stylistic trademarks were a slow, relaxed step no one could hurry and the flat, black porkpie hat he had custom-made from a Victorian woman's magazine. He seems to be the primary source for the essential jazz idea that it is more important to "tell a story" in your solo than to be virtuosic; his sage advice was "Ya gotta be original, man."

After 1940, Young spoke a nearly impenetrable hip slang, and more than one fellow musician claimed it took several months to understand him. To express desire for something, he had "big eyes" for it (or "no eyes" if he disapproved), an expression still used among jazz musicians; he called policemen "Bing and Bob," an old girlfriend "a way back," and white jazz musicians "gray boys"; he addressed fellow musicians as "Lady" plus their last name (e.g., Lady Basie, Lady Tate, Lady Day) and stuck many of them with permanent nicknames. His vocal inflections were so expressive, a New York clergyman called it "his personal poetry" and claimed that only "Prez could say 'mother-fucker' like music, bending the tones until it was a blues." He was that rare jazz musician whose use of slang "correspond[ed] with the popular magazine and radio concept of a jazz musician's jargon," critic Leonard Feather recalled, "'dig,' 'cool' and 'hip' are key words with him."

Two strains of the African-American historical experience converged in the 1930s that helped create the conditions for the emergence of cool: first, a new impatience among blacks with the need to mask their feelings and smile in front of whites; second, the fight for recognition of individuality and artistic self-expression. As blacks moved north and west and became part of the national social fabric, a new sense of possibility arose along with economic success and this freedom of movement. The two most important cultural forms of what Cornel West calls "New World African modernity" were black vernacular English and jazz, "a dynamic language and mobile music." Blues, gospel, and big band swing, along with the urban slang then called "jive," became the influential portable expressions of American society's "perennial outsiders." Black jazz musicians helped stimulate cultural pride and became national cultural heroes. In validating Southern black vernacular culture, they helped "nurture the undercurrent of protest in the black community between the 1930s and 1970s." In the mid-1930s, these changes were only bubbling beneath the surface.

Ironically, the confluence of masked behavior with African-American artistic expression first occurred when blacks replaced whites as entertainers in the business of blackface minstrelsy in the 1870s. African-Americans created a professional class of singers, dancers, musicians, and comedians "under the cork," since minstrelsy was one of the only open paths to success at the time. Blues composer and bandleader W. C. Handy wrote that "the minstrel show was one of the greatest outlets for talented musicians and artists." Minstrel performers forever shaped American comedy through character sketches, slapstick, syncopated music, and rhythmic-based dance (cakewalk, tap, flash). Kansas City bandleader and arranger Jesse Stone grew up in his family's minstrel band, and he perceived a musical continuity between rhythm and blues and minstrel music, "the flavor of things I had heard when I was a kid." But there was a serious social cost: white Americans believed real-life African-Americans were similar to the stereotyped characters portrayed on the idyllic Southern plantation of the minstrel show: the smiling "Sambo," the slow-witted, shuffling Southern darky (Jim Crow), the Northern urban dandy (Zip Coon), the black buck, Mammy, Uncle Tom, old Uncle and old Auntie. These were the only "frames of acceptance," to use Kenneth Burke's term, through which whites saw blacks. The social contradictions created by this overlap of performative skill, rhythmic genius, and smiling pretense still confound race relations today. Minstrelsy's most enduring legacy was "the grinning black mask ... embedded in American consciousness," yet, ironically, it was one of the great stars of this theatrical tradition that inspired the earliest definition of black cool by a white observer, poet William Carlos Williams.

In an essay entitled, "Advent of the Slaves" (1925), Williams perceived a certain "quality" among his working-class African-American neighbors in Paterson, New Jersey: "There is a solidity, a racial irreducible minimum, which gives them poise in a world where they have no authority" (my italics). It's hard to imagine a better first definition of cool. This poise was manifested locally in the homespun existential philosophy of the poet's neighbors and publicly in the comedian Bert Williams's performance of his signature song "Nobody." Bert Williams was the most famous black entertainer of the early twentieth century and the first to draw large white audiences. As half of the famous vaudeville duo Williams and Walker, he helped tone down the wilder minstrel antics into a "cooler [style that] more realistically mirrored actual black behavior," according to Mel Watkins. "Nobody" was an ode sung by a downtrodden man in tattered clothes who claimed "nobody did nothin' for him," and Bert Williams made of it a meditation on the basic rights of food, shelter, companionship, and love, managing to "express the existential desire to be treated as a person." "Nobody" was a huge hit at the turn of the century. William Carlos Williams expressed wonder at the performer's ability to bring dignity to "saying nothing, dancing nothing ... [to] 'NOBODY,'" and how he amplified the message in dance: "waggin', wavin', weavin', shakin' ... bein' nothin' — with gravity, with tenderness." The poet saw beneath the mask to a core affirmation at the heart of African-American ritual, the goal of imparting a sense of "somebodiness."

Ralph Ellison maintained that blackface minstrelsy was a popular masking ritual that allowed for a "play upon possibility" for white men. The vicarious masking allowed white performers to act silly and irrational — and to express joy through movement — without sacrificing their public face and role responsibilities. Underneath the burnt cork, they found an escape from the work ethic, from Christian ideals of saintly behavior, and from Republican virtue; on stage, white minstrels displayed a more tolerant humanness for their working-class and immigrant audiences. Minstrelsy provided therapeutic relief from a society whose then-heroic model required a combination of rational thinking, virtuous public behavior, and repressed emotion — an emotional "iron cage." Although minstrel shows depicted African-Americans as happy-go-lucky slaves fit only for the hard work and dependence of plantation life, certainly whites were bestowing a twisted compliment on the African-American cultural elements they mocked, if only in the sense that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Eric Lott calls this conflicted admiration of black music, dance, humor, and kinesthetics the "love-and-theft" of African-American culture. In even more generous terms, Ellison suggested simply that "[in] America humanity masked its face with blackness."

Why is this phenomenon related to cool? First, because the demise of minstrelsy and the beginnings of jazz overlap in the first three decades of the century; second, because white audiences brought minstrel-derived frames to their experience of the new urban music and its musicians. Louis Armstrong did not have to "black up" (as it was called) yet he wore the smiling mask of the happy-go-lucky darky on stage throughout his life. His mainstream success was probably dependent on allowing audiences to hold onto their ideas of white supremacy while enjoying his music as entertainment rather than as art. Gerald Early identified these historical tensions: "Did the whites love Armstrong for his undeniably powerful musicality or because he was a one-man revival of minstrelsy without blackface? ... Could his genius be contained only by having it entrapped in a halo of intolerable nostalgia, of degrading sentiment about darkies on the southern campground?"

Jazz musicians helped destroy these plantation images, but it was a slow process since the business of American popular entertainment was for so long Southern business. The very names of 1920s jazz bands and venues tell the story of how these stereotypes migrated: every city had a Cotton Club or a Plantation Club, a Kentucky Club or a Club Alabam; black bands drew on minstrel archetypes for their names, such as McKinney's Cotton Pickers, the Dixie Syncopators, or the Chocolate Dandies. Plantation themes often served as the content for much of the entertainment at Harlem's world-famous Cotton Club. "The whole set was like a sleepy-time down South during slavery," Cab Calloway recalled, "[and] the idea was to make whites who came feel like they were being catered to and entertained by black slaves." The two highest-earning black orchestras, Cab Calloway's and Duke Ellington's, set national standards of jazz and jive, of new African-American economic success within predictable plantation-derived tableaux. Most Americans believed in the reality of these racial types as co-invented by Northern minstrels and Southern slave owners to emphasize black inferiority, and perpetuated both by pseudo-scientific theories of racial hierarchy and Hollywood imagery.

Hiding one's feelings under "the grinning black mask" was a survival skill of great importance to all black males up through World War II. A black man could easily get lynched for pretending to be on equal terms with a white man under almost any circumstances. Cab Calloway's drummer Panama Francis remembered a man who used to come see his band every week in his Florida hometown and put a hole in his bass drum. The man always gave him five dollars to fix it, but the drummer hated the ritual humiliation. "I used to get so mad, but I had to smile because back in those days, you had better smile, so I smiled; but I didn't like it too well." In 1941, black sociologist Charles S. Johnson designated this emotional masking with the formal term "accommodation" to a white social order. Colloquially, it was known as "Tomming."


Excerpted from "The Origins of Cool in Postwar America"
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Copyright © 2017 The University of Chicago.
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Table of Contents

Prelude: Paris, 1949,
Introduction: The Origins of Cool,
1 Lester Young and the Birth of Cool,
2 Humphrey Bogart and the Birth of Noir Cool from the Great Depression,
3 Albert Camus and the Birth of Existential Cool from the Idea of Rebellion (and the Blues),
4 Billie Holiday and Simone de Beauvoir: Toward a Postwar Cool for Women,
5 Cool Convergences, 1950: Jazz, Noir, Existentialism,
A Generational Interlude: Postwar II (1953–1963) and the Shift in Cool,
6 Kerouac and the Cool Mind: Jazz and Zen,
7 From Noir Cool to Vegas Cool: Swinging into Prosperity with Frank Sinatra,
8 American Rebel Cool: Brando, Dean, Elvis,
9 Sonny Rollins and Miles Davis Sound Out Cool Individuality,
10 Hip versus Cool in The Fugitive Kind (1960) and Paris Blues (1962),
11 Lorraine Hansberry and the End of Postwar Cool,
Epilogue: The Afterlives of Postwar Cool,

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