When Jazz Was Cool

Cool turns out to be easier to define, or at least encircle, than many other cultural concepts, not least because it doesn’t seem to exist anymore. In an uncool world, where does a mass audience find jazz?

Written By

George Grella Jr

He stands, primarily illuminated by the light from the screen reflecting off his trumpet. Cigarette smoke curls. It’s almost a cliché, but it’s real, and at the center is an artist who himself famously stood at a diffident point from the mainstream of society. He’s creating music on the spot that, as John Szwed wrote, “helped define the sound of film noir. It made viewers think the genre’s films had always sounded just so, with slow-walking bass beats and muted, slithering horn lines miming the characters on the screen–and underlining their emotions.”

In December 1957, Miles Davis went into Le Post Parisien Studio with film director Louis Malle and, accompanied by the rhythm section (pianist René Urtreger, bassist Pierre Michelot, and drummer Kenny Clarke) from his contemporaneous booking at a Paris nightclub—along with tenor player Barney Wilen—improvised the immaculate score for Ascenseur pour l’échafaud (Elevator to the Gallows). The result is some of the coolest music ever made.

Cool in ways that define and surpass the term. Yes, Miles was there at the start of the style called cool jazz, with the Birth of the Cool sessions, but Miles never played cool jazz in the manner of Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, Paul Desmond, or even the proto-cool of Lester Young. Miles was cool himself beyond all music, and this moment, captured on film, is the ideal portal into this story; it’s the story of how jazz was the embodiment of the cultural idea of cool, and how that all went away.

Cool—you know it when you see it. Although it turns out to be easier to define, or at least encircle, than many other cultural concepts, not least because cool doesn’t seem to exist anymore. Like sonata form, we have the advantage of hindsight with which to analyze the past and the self-consciousness that undermines contemporary attempts at being cool.

Cool turns out to be easier to define, or at least encircle, than many other cultural concepts, not least because it doesn’t seem to exist anymore.

What was cool? Miles, Steve McQueen, Marlene Dietrich, and Humphrey Bogart all both expressed and helped create the modern idea—a combination of social stance, state of mind, and aesthetic. Cool was Hemingway’s grace under pressure, insolence toward authority and conventional wisdom, the confidence and internal equipoise to present oneself as in but not a part of society, to exploit the Man without the Man ever getting his hands on you. Cool was action rather than words, the ability to do something that people, especially men, admired, and to make it seem both easy and alluring to the opposite sex. Cool was looking good without being fancy or fussy, cool was the ultimate response to existentialism.

Cool is an American thing. Its meaning comes out of African-American culture, and it is integrated with the enduring American cultural myth of the outsider. Thematically, that myth is most prominent in the figure of the cowboy, bringing social order and justice (through violence, albeit often reluctantly) to the chaotic frontier. The cowboy was essential to the story of the spread of American civilization, but always stood outside of it—he wanted to be left alone, like Cincinnatus, or else was half chaos himself, like John Wayne in The Searchers.

Cool is an American thing.

The era of the cowboy ended in 1869, when the first transcontinental railroad was completed. The myth has never gone away, however, and it was gradually vulgarized by economics and politics into lotteries and supply-side tax cutting magical thinking. There was a time when the myth was prominently transferred from the legendary white, pastoral countryside to the multi-racial, polyglot urban setting of immigration and striving—hipsters, detectives, criminals, jazz musicians. This was the great era of cool.

The private detective became the new cowboy, Raymond Chandler’s man who walked the mean streets, disdaining authority while valuing honesty, morality, and justice, those positive qualities depending on the same sense of natural law that steered the cowboy. The private detective came out of his office, set some small disorder to right, cleaned up a mess, then retired to his sanctum.

The detective’s foe is the criminal, also an outsider, and while a vehicle for vicarious thrills, the criminal is too extreme for most to emulate, especially the urban, bourgeois movie-goer and consumer. Occupying an enticing, ambiguous, and tenuous middle ground, flirting with criminality while seeking to carve his own community out of society, was the hipster. Norman Mailer, in his 1957 essay “The White Negro,” called him “the American existentialist […] the man who knows that if our collective condition is to live with instant death by atomic war … or with a slow death by conformity with every creative and rebellious instinct stifled […] the only life-giving answer is to accept the terms of death, to live with death as immediate danger, to divorce oneself from society, to exist without roots, to set out on that uncharted journey into the rebellious imperatives of the self. […] One is Hip or one is Square […] one is a frontiersman in the Wild West of American night life, or else a Square cell … doomed willy-nilly to conform if one is to succeed.”

As easy as it is to mock Mailer’s mysticism and his generalizations about and privileged romanticization of race relations in America, he does get at some key perceptions regarding the idea of cool in the overall culture: “In such places as Greenwich Village … the bohemian and the juvenile delinquent came face-to-face with the Negro, and the hipster was a fact in American life. If marijuana was the wedding ring, the child was the language of Hip […] in this wedding of the white and the black it was the Negro who brought the cultural dowry. Any Negro who wishes to live must live with danger from his first day, and no experience can ever be casual to him, no Negro can saunter down a street with any real certainty that violence will not visit him on his walk. The cameos of security for the average white: mother and the home, job and the family, are not even a mockery to millions of Negroes; they are impossible. […] jazz … spoke across a nation, it had the communication of art even where it was watered, perverted, corrupted, and almost killed, it spoke in no matter what laundered popular way of instantaneous existential states to which some whites could respond, it was indeed a communication by art because it said, ‘I feel this, and now you do too.’”

Braid that all with the purifying and regenerative power of violence in the American cultural narrative, and what Mailer identified as the hipster’s self-conscious aspiration to the concept of criminality—the romance of the outlaw without actually being Jean Genet, the idea of making one’s own rules and laws, the vicarious thrill of the criminal or anarchist in narratives. Peter Gunn, now remembered mainly for Henry Mancini’s swaggering, driving big band score, was a private detective, a figure we can also see as an embodiment of American hipster as existential hero, operating at the edge of, if not outside, the law while forming his own, if temporary, concept of order and justice.

The hipster aspired to the state of the black jazz musician, who could easily be beaten up by white cops outside the very club he was headlining, as happened to Miles Davis. The jazz musician was the soloist, creating, responding to, and communicating mood and idea in the moment, the improvisation itself—especially in bebop and after—an existential art.

TV is now enjoying a vogue of being cool, but the great era of TV cool was the 1950s. You could catch Miles and John Coltrane on TV, and jazz was all over its soundtracks. That and the movies were the mediums with the broadest and deepest reach in popular culture, and they brought jazz to millions in America and around the world. It wasn’t that they had to convert audiences into thinking jazz was cool, it was that jazz was inherently cool and hip, and movies and television used that to signify their own place on a spectrum of style, and even rebellion.

Jazz movies had jazz soundtracks, of course, and ones like The Benny Goodman Story and The Gene Krupa Story were Hollywood productions around popular figures. But other movies, important movies with lasting appeal and meaning, had jazz soundtracks, because the filmmakers needed the music to underline that the characters, elements, and themes were cutting edge.

Here is a partial list of movies with jazz soundtracks. Many of them are easy to find on all-time great lists, and certain of them remain not only satisfying but also at the forefront of aesthetic possibility: Breathless, Black Orpheus, Knife in the Water, The Hustler, La Notte, Sweet Smell of Success, Touch of Evil, On the Waterfront. Leonard Rosenman’s score for Rebel Without a Cause wasn’t jazz, but the soundtrack to the documentary The James Dean Story definitely is jazz. (It was composed by Leith Stevens, who wrote the soundtrack for The Wild One with Marlon Brando. More on him below. Some of the music was arranged by Johnny Mandel and Bill Holman, and featured trumpet solos by Chet Baker.) On television, there was Peter Gunn, 77 Sunset Strip, M Squad, The Untouchables, Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer, and The Naked City.

Watching these movies and shows, viewers caught:

The NBC series Johnny Staccato (it ran 27 episodes from 1959 to 1960), which starred John Cassavetes as the title character, a jazz pianist who worked on the side as a private detective to make ends meet. Episodes featured the likes of Shelly Manne, Red Norvo, and Barney Kessel (all, interestingly, cool jazz players). The hip, swinging soundtrack came from Elmer Bernstein.

Before the Johnny Staccato gig, Cassevetes made his film Shadows. The story involves three siblings, two of whom are jazz musicians, all of whom are part of the Beat Generation. Charles Mingus provided the soundtrack.

Godard’s Breathless features Martial Solal’s jazz score, which alternates between swaggering big band passages and Solal, on piano, playing the insinuating theme. The protagonist Michel, played by Jean-Paul Belmondo, wants to be like Humphrey Bogart, an archetype of American cool. The movie itself, and the French New Wave movement in general, stands on the shoulders of American film noir and the cool stance.

Something of a one-man planet of cool, David Amram played jazz on the French horn and was not only a pioneer of the Third Stream movement, but one of the few who successfully integrated jazz and world music into composed forms and structures. He was either a friend and/or colleague of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Davis, Mingus, Aaron Copland, Dimtri Mitropoulos, Leonard Bernstein, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Langston Hughes (a partial list). His film scores include Splendor in the Grass, The Manchurian Candidate, and Pull My Daisy (a Beat film narrated by Kerouac).

Marlon Brando, there at the dawn of cool in The Wild One, and later starring in A Streetcar Named Desire with Alex North’s score, was the lead in Last Tango in Paris (1972). Last Tango has a great, burning jazz score from Gato Barbieri. Brando is at the center of the picture below, sandwiched between Stevie Wonder and Dick Gregory. This was taken in 1978 at the end of The Longest Walk, a 3,800 mile protest March from San Francisco to Washington, D.C. Muhammed Ali sits at far left, and at the far right is David Amram, perhaps catching a glimpse of cool disappearing over the cultural horizon.

A group photo from 1978 at the end of The Longest Walk, a 3,800 mile protest March from San Francisco to Washington, D.C. Muhammed Ali sits at far left, and at the far right is David Amram. Marlon Brando is at the center, sandwiched between Stevie Wonder and Dick Gregory.

A group photo from 1978 at the end of The Longest Walk, a 3,800 mile protest March from San Francisco to Washington, D.C. Muhammed Ali sits at far left, and at the far right is David Amram. Marlon Brando is at the center, sandwiched between Stevie Wonder and Dick Gregory.

This was pop culture with mass dissemination and appeal. More people watched John Cassevetes play the piano and solve crimes to a jazz soundtrack than ever buy a jazz record nowadays. Overseas, the French New Wave was consciously trying to create a new idea of cinema, and for that they turned to jazz. Just Roger Vadim alone used jazz for And God Created Woman, Dangerous Liaisons (that one was Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers), and No Sun in Venice, with the Modern Jazz Quartet. In Poland, director Jerzy Skolimowski (who once said about movies, “There must be boxing, there must be jazz, there must be a cool guy who has a scooter and meets pretty girls, and from time to time has some reflections”) hired Krzysztof Komeda to make the jazz score for Innocent Sorcerers. Komeda, possibly the most important European jazz musician, went on to score important Polish movies in the late 1950s to mid-1960s. More than just the style of the music, it was an existential political statement, a vote for intellectual and aesthetic conscience in a totalitarian society. Jazz was not just cool, it was the sound of freedom.

Jazz is no longer popular which ensures a niche in the landscape tiny enough to be inherently cool.

Jazz still is cool, almost by default. It’s no longer popular, which ensures a niche in the landscape tiny enough to be inherently cool. Hip things are happening in the music, but it’s so under the radar that painfully un-hip squares like John Blake at CNN turn out sesquiannual complaints about how jazz lost its audience, how you can’t hum along with the tunes anymore, how jazz should be more like the smooth R&B I hear when I’m driving in my Lexus—now that’s cool!

This has been going on for some time. There’s a story about Miles being approached by a fan during the ‘60s, when his music was loping ahead of every genre and convention. “Man, I could get with you back in the ’50s, but I can’t get with what you’re doing now,” the fan said to Miles, who responded, “Well, you want me to wait for you?” This may be apocryphal, and the historical truth of it matters not compared to the thematic truth, which is that the cutting-edge proceeds to cut, trailblazers continue to show us their backs as they move forward into the unknown, and for an important period of time, the movies sought to be at the edge, and so they sought out jazz.

Jazz didn’t let down listeners or the culture, the culture let down jazz; the culture got square. Look around for something cool, there’s almost nothing left. There are certain things that are considered cool, like industrial and graphic design, but those are inextricable from materialism and consumerism, the predominant -isms of our culture, the very type of thing from which cool in the past had deliberately separated itself. There are figures in pop culture who at times impress cool upon the world at large, like George Clooney and Walt Frazier, but they move in and out with seasons and events, and are far from constant presences in our minds and in the culture as a whole. President Obama is perhaps the only true cool person left, certainly showing that quality through the years of the most frenzied racist response to his very existence.

Jazz didn’t let down listeners or the culture, the culture let down jazz; the culture got square.

Perhaps cool is turning out to be a historical curiosity. It came out of African-American culture, which has always been at the leading edge (as well as heart) of American culture, and it specifically came out of jazz, which—even when it was popular—was counterculture before there was even a mainstream popular culture, with nice vines and reefer a part of the scene for musicians and music lovers alike.

Then came WWII and a host of social changes: continued African-American migration from the South, women in the workplace (and armed forces), the GI Bill. There was money, ideas, a sense of independence, and a massive number of Americans who had been under the authoritarian command of the military and left wanting to be “free fucking agents,” in the words of Beat poet Jack Spicer. Add to that the contemporaneous rise of consumer culture and the mass culture of television to amplify it, and a handful of giant figures bestride the pop culture landscape in the form of musicians and movie stars, and you had cool as a thing to emulate and aspire to, a thing that seemed almost within reach. But with the corrosive power of water, capitalism eventually subsumes everything. A reaction to the last, decadent stages of the tail end of cool, punk was commodified immediately. “You say you want a revolution,” was used to sell Nikes, and, largely because of Steve Jobs, making money through technology became the cool thing to do. Everyone has a hoody because rich man Mark Zuckerberg has a hoody, but Mark Zuckerberg isn’t cool; wearing a hoody doesn’t make you cool. James Dean is long dead, and James Deen is a pornstar. Humphrey Bogart weeps, while Mr. and Ms. Businessperson drive down the highway in their leased luxury coupe, searching for music that rewards their own success.

In an uncool world, where does a mass audience find jazz? We don’t go to the movies anymore, the movies come to us, on demand, more and more frequently pre-packaged for an audience that seeks the comfort of their anesthetic pleasure of choice. Contemporary hipster soundtracks reflect what has happened to that social group—no longer outsiders, their lifestyle of exacting consumer choice is as conformist as it comes. Exceptions cannot help but stir a feeling of nostalgia for what has been left in the past. In the great tradition of jazz soundtracks and the brilliant political paranoia of The Manchurian Candidate and The Parallax View comes Darcy James Argue’s Real Enemies. Made to be experienced live in a theater, accompanied by a film that is a fascinating exercise in propaganda by innuendo, assertion, and insinuation, the music runs with smooth intelligence through vignettes about government mind-control experiments, the Kennedy assassination, the faked moon landing … oh, it wasn’t faked? Are you sure? Ensembles and solos make meaning out of action, trying to make sense of the bewildering flow of information. It’s not meant to please; it’s meant to seduce, exactly what coolness is supposed to do. It’s enough to warm an old hipster’s heart.