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[A]lmost from the start, a few musicians were experimenting with ways of tempering the intensity of jazz. They did this by a variety of methods. Sometimes they tinkered with the beat, or imposed tight formal structures on the music, or worked on new ways of constructing phrases. They might adopt cerebral poses or confess their deepest emotions with heart-on-sleeves intimacy. But no matter the stratagem, the goal was always the same: to lower the temperature of the music and bring out different qualities in jazz—expressive elements that might be lost in a hotter, more unfettered performance style.
    -ESSAY: A history of cool jazz in 100 tracks (Ted Gioia, 5/14/09,

We all recall the great scene from Animal House:
D-Day: War's over, man. Wormer dropped the big one.

Bluto: Over? Did you say "over"? Nothing is over until we decide it is! Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? Hell no!

Otter: Germans?

Boon: Forget it, he's rolling.
And, as a veteran of many arguments in fraternity house basements, I'm a big believer in cutting a guy some factual slack when he really gets on a roll. Sometimes you have to let a fella go where the internal logic of his polemic leads, even if reality doesn't strictly conform to his conceptual framework. In such situations, the speaker ought to be judged on the basis of his performance and the joy that both he and his listeners take from it. By that standard, The Birth [and Death] of the Cool is terrific.

Ted Gioia is the brother of the poet and former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, Dana Gioia and is nearly an endowment in his own right. In addition to authoritative books about jazz and blues he runs several book review websites and the great resource, [how'd he squeeze that domain name?]. He's even recorded piano jazz cds of his own. In Birth [and Death] he gives himself a break from the almost reference book nature of his earlier work and indulges himself in a wide-ranging argument about "the cool." His position is, basically, that the Cool bubbled up into mainstream America via: jazz musicians like Bix Beiderbecke, Lester Young, and Miles Davis; actors like James Dean and Marlon Brando; and writers like the Beats. And that it shaped the culture for fifty or so years but is now in eclipse, in no small part because it became so mainstream and commercialized. There is a great deal of enjoyment to be had and knowledge to be gained as you follow him down this trail. With discussions of music that range from Jolson to the Sex Pistols and of comedy from Red Skelton to Lenny Bruce back to Bill Cosby and various stops in between. Let yourself go with his flow and you'll enjoy the ride.

Now, as I say, I'm not going to quarrel with the particulars here--like the idea that Al Jolson, a Jewish cantor's son in blackface singing the songbook of Stephen Foster, represented authenticity :)--but I do think there are one or two important things we can add to Mr. Gioia's thoughts on the cool. In this regard, one challenge that we face is that he never offers a concrete definition of "cool." The following is about as close as he comes, first in the positive, then in the negative:
Cool was defined by its reliance on image and irony, by its artifice and playful fluidity. It was marked, above all, by an outward focus on trends and fashions. The notion of lifestyle--a term that hardly existed outside of academic literature during the first half of the twentieth century--became of paramount import during the Age of Cool, and the idea that once could shape one's persona and way of living as though they were works of art (a foreign concept to most people during the Great Depression) became widespread. Postcool, in contrast, is built on a new earnestness and directness, a celebration of simplicity and authenticity. Irony is out; plainspokenness is in. The natural and down-to-earth are preferred to the glitzy and fashionable. The real is valued above the contrived, honesty above artifice. Communications--from the simple text message to the spin-doctoring of prominent pundits on the boob tube--are quicker and to the point. Postcool is less exciting than cool, but more practical and results oriented. It's less malleable and fluid, but far more predictable in its behavior patterns.

Yet the shift to a postcool mentality is not without its downsides. Above all, many problems are created when society loses its cool. The directness and bluntness of postcool life are only a step away from outright hostility and confrontation.
The first thing that stands out about the icons of cool that Mr. Gioia cites is that their estrangement from themselves and their adoption of artificial personae and unorthodox lifestyles exacted a rather heavy toll. Beiderbecke died young from alcohol abuse after being institutionalized several times. Young was dead by 50, his skills spent years earlier, having destroyed himself with alcohol and dope and suffered a nervous breakdown. Davis famously kicked his heroin addiction but used other drugs and alcohol, was abusive towards women and died of complications from AIDs. Indeed, jazz performers of the cool era are generally linked with mental illness. The bisexual Brando was a notorious mass of appetite and Dean (gay) was dead at 24. Meanwhile, you'd have trouble coming up with a more screwed up bunch than Kerouac (cirrhosis, dead at 47), Cassady (dead of an overdose by 42), Ginsberg (gay lover of both who had his mother lobotomized and was institutionalized himself), and company. Taken together, it seems entirely fair to say that however we define the outward appearance of cool, what it masked underneath was pretty uniformly a raging set of self-loathing, self-destructive pathologies. No one was ever less cool than those who pretended to be.

Though he does not discuss this in the book, Mr. Gioia gives a hint at the reasons these folk were so unhappy in the quoted passage about postcool above. When he says that postcool is less exciting and elevates predictability as a value, what we're really talking about is a resurgence of traditional morality and Western Culture. One of the most revealing moments in the history of the cool came courtesy of Brando's character in The Wild One:
Mildred: What're you rebelling against, Johnny?
Johnny: Whaddya got?
This sense of casual and mindless nihilism was reflected too in the title of the Dean vehicle, Rebel Without a Cause. Perhaps the cool was ultimately nothing more than rejecting thousands of years of accumulated Judeo-Christian tradition and wisdom while making it seem like no big deal. In turn, the postcool is nothing more than a return to basics and a rejection of the fundamentally reactionary posture of the cool. As Mr. Gioia notes, this rejection is obvious in Bill Cosby's impatience with Ebonics and other forms of black self-degradation. But it is also clear in the success of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the anti-tobacco crusades, "Just Say No," abstinence programs, broken-windows policing, three strikes laws, and the like. And it is fueled not just by the disasters the cool folk made of their own lives but by related phenomena like the crack and AIDs epidemics. We have seen the cool, the rebellion against conventional lifestyles, and it does not work.

Finally, it seems possible to identify the final nail in cool's coffin. If there was any life left in the notion that multiculturalism/counterculturalism and inherently unpredictable behavior patterns might be socially good the last breath was snuffed out on 9-11. It's one thing when your rejection of American values puts you in a grave at an early age, but quite another when the rejection of those values is seen putting thousands of innocent victims in theirs. The cool may have elevated image above all else, but the one image it couldn't withstand was of the Towers coming down. That characteristically ironic pose of the cool--rebelling against the mores and morals of your society but acting like it doesn't matter--was suddenly cast in a much different light, as an implicit collaboration with the hotter types who would likewise destroy our culture but make no pretense about what a big deal it is. In a certain sense that may be unfair, after all, none of the avatars of cool ever flew a loaded passenger plane into a building. But, on the other hand, how many kids died and how much damage was done to our inner cities because they helped make heroin and coke seem "cool"?

So when Mr. Gioia worries that a postcool society will run hotter than a cool one, he is certainly right. The postcool requires a return to moral judgment and a robust defense of the culture against those who assault it from within as well as from without. The recognition that cool's spirit of live and let live, the modus vivendi strain in liberal thought, is nothing more than a recipe for death and cultural suicide, does provoke a hostile response. We're cool with that.


Grade: (A-)


Ted Gioia Links:

    -AUTHOR WEBSITE: Conceptual Fiction
    -AUTHOR WEBSITE: New Canon
    -AUTHOR WEBSITE: Great Books Guide
    -WIKIPEDIA: Ted Gioia
    -Ted Gioia (BlogCritics)
    - How Musicians Invented the Antihero: In this section from my new book 'Music to Raise the Dead', I probe the hidden musical origins of Hollywood protagonists (TED GIOIA, NOV 29, 2023, Honest Broker)
-ESSAY: America’s Culture Is Booming. Really.: Yes, the legacy institutions are shrinking. But thousands of small players in music, publishing, and the arts are powering a new golden age of artistry. (Ted Gioia, February 18, 2023, Free Press)
    -ESSAY: A history of cool jazz in 100 tracks (Edited by Ted Gioia, 5/14/09,
    -ESSAY: Al Jolson: A Megastar Long Buried Under a Layer of Blackface (Red Gioia, 10/22/00, NY Times)
    -ESSAY: Cursing, Catholic Style (Ted Gioia, 8/04/09 , Inside Catholic)
    -ESSAY: Miles' New Band . . . 50 Years Later (Ted Gioia, 5/25/08, Blog)
    -ESSAY: Beiderbecke, Leon 'Bix' (Ted Gioia, Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians)
    -ESSAY: Thoughts on Jazz Ted Gioia, 1/03/05, All About Jazz)
    -EXCERPT: The Africanization of American Music from The History of Jazz
    -ESSAY: The Red-rumor blues (Ted Gioia, April 23, 2006, LA Times)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: Birth [and Death] of the Cool with Ted Gioia (Authors on Tour)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: Book Talk Podcast - Ted Gioia (Stephen Usery, 1/03/09, WYPL: Book Talk)
    -NEWS RELEASE: Noted Jazz Author Ted Gioia Launches With 3,000 Pages of Unique Jazz Content (URL Wire, 1/10/08)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: with Ted Gioia (WHYY's Radio Times with Marty Moss-Coane Podcast, October 27th, 2008)
    -PROFILE: Changing His Tune: A jazz expert turns to simpler songs (Cynthia Haven, March/April 2007, Stanford Alumni Magazine)
    -PROFILE: The Long, Hard History of the Work Song (Jazz Notes, September 3, 2006, NPR)
    -INTERVIEW: with Ted Gioia (JazzWax, 10/16/08)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: Work Songs with Ted Gioia (The Story: NPR, 12/26/06)
    -INTERVIEW: Dave Brubeck: The Music: The Critics: Ted Gioia (Hedrick Smith, PBS)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: Delta blues with Ted Gioia (Marc Steiner Show, June 30, 2009)
    -ARCHIVES: Ted Gioia (
-REVIEW: of Delta Blues: The Life and Times of the Mississippi Masters Who Revolutionized American Music by Ted Gioia (Ben Ratliff, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Delta Blues (Walter Biggins, Jackson Free Press)
    -REVIEW: of Delta Blues (Bob Ruggerio, GetLit)
    -REVIEW: of Delta Blues (Mick Brown, Daily Telegraph
    -REVIEW: of Delta Blues (The Southernist)
    -REVIEW: of Delta Blues (Billy C Farlow, Swampland)
    -REVIEW: of Delta Blues (BookBag)
    -REVIEW: of Delta Blues (Saul Austerlitz, Boston Globe)
    -REVIEW: of Delta Blues (The Economist)
    -REVIEW: of Delta Blues (The Atlantic)
    -REVIEW: of Delta Blues (Lee Prosser, JazzReview)
    -REVIEW: of Delta Blues (Rolling Stone)
    -REVIEW: of Delta Blues (Timothy J. O’Brien, Southwest Journal of Culture)
    -REVIEW: of Delta Blues (Publishers Weekly)
    -REVIEW: of The History of Jazz by Ted Gioia (Peter Keepnews, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of History of Jazz (Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW: of History of Jazz (Journal of American History)
    -REVIEW: of History of Jazz (Stanley Dance, Jazz Times)
    -REVIEW: of Healing Songs by Ted Gioia and Work Songs by Ted Gioia (Ivan Hewett, Daily Telegraph)

Book-related and General Links:

    -REVIEW: of Birth of the Cool by Elizabeth Armstrong (Benjamin Schwarz, Atlantic)
    -REVIEW: of The Blue Moment: Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue and the Remaking of Modern Music By Richard Williams (Sholto Byrnes , New Statesman)