Finger Snapping CoolSaturday, October 08, 2011
Jazz musicians were probably the first people to use the word cool who weren't talking about the weather.
Joe Goldberg from essay The Birth of the Cool in The Catalog of Cool.
"Man, if you have to ask what jazz is, you'll never know."
"Jazz singing is like pornography. You can't say what it is, but you know it when you see it."
The Blues is basically a strict poetic form combined with music. It is based on rhymed couplet, with the first line repeated. For example Billie Holliday sings:
‘My man don’t love me, treats me awful men,
Oh, he’s the lowest man I’ve ever seen.’
That is one stanza of Blues. A full Blues is nothing more than a succession of such stanzas for as long as the singer wishes. Did you notice that the Blues couplet is, of all things in iambic pentameter?
This is about as classic as one can get. It means that you can take any rhymed couplet in iambic pentameter – from Shakespeare, for example – and make a perfect Macbeth Blues:
‘I will not be afraid of death and bane,
Till Birnam forest come to Dunsinane.’
The Joy of Music, Leonard Bernstein, A Panther Book
Today Saturday, my granddaughter Rebecca and my cool friend Graham Walker sat down in the den to watch Westside Story (1962 directed by Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise with music composed by Leonard Bernstein). We had a lot of fun. Rebecca and Graham bantered back and forth while I watched and remembered what it had been like back in 1962 when I had seen the film and immediately bought two jazz versions one by Oscar Peterson (Ed Thigpen on drums, Ray Brown on double bass) and the other was by Andre Previn (Red Mitchell on double bass and Shelly Manne on drums).
It was at about that time that I listened to Willis Conover’s one hour jazz program on my short wave (remember that?) radio regularly. In fact in those early 60s the US State Deparment’s entry into the rest of the world was through the back door of jazz. Russian “communists” and South American leftists abandoned their negative feelings towards the US and capitalism and demanded more jazz, preferably of the American kind. In fact one of my two favourite jazz albums of all time, The Dave Brubeck Quartet’s Jazz Impressions of Eurasia and Duke Ellington’s Latin American Suite where the recorded record of their tours sponsored by the US State Deparment.
It was sometime in the mid 60s that I heard the Dave Brubeck Quartet play at the Instituto Americano Mexicano de Relaciones Culturales in Mexico City. I am sure that the audience included spies from both countries checking us out. I saw many other groups like Chico Hamilton’s and the Modern Jazz Quartet in similar sponsored tours. American jazz opened doors and penetrated all ideologies.
Some months ago returning from the Abbotsford Air show with Graham Walker and Sean Rossiter I asked Rossiter why this was no longer the case. He explained that in our present world there is no music that is purely American that could be exported in the way jazz once was.
In the late 50s I would not have been caught dead listening to the hot jazz of Louis Armstrong. I was too stupid and too young and I considered the man to be a has been. Even worse was Harry James. My idols were the Dave Brubeck Quartet and any group with Gerry Mulligan. Some say that this jazz, cool jazz (a sort of post be-bop) was called cool so as not to be associated with Armstrong’s hot kind. Cool came into the English and we acted cool, dressed cool and spoke cool. Being a beatnik was cool as was drinking terribly strong and bad coffee.
|Photo by Richard Avedon
Watching Westside Story and seeing all those boys, spics, wops and whites but no negroes (pardon me but want to be part of those times here) snap their fingers and walk and dance while seeing to their duck cuts was cool. Watching them slip the comb in the right back pocket was cool, too. There is no way that Rebecca could have understood.
Jerome Robbins’ choreography was instantly recognizable as jazz dance. I would suspect that jazz dance has been superseded by modern dance. The dancing of this film was comforting but dazzling to me. And it was today, reading my NY Times Sunday (it arrives on Saturday night) that I found whence this comfort comes. In a review of André Aciman’s Alibis –Essays on Elsewhere reviewer Teju Cole writes:
We enjoy with him [Anciman] the satisfactions of coincidences, and (to put it as he might) of dreaming of pasts in which we dreamed of the future from which we are now dreaming of the past.
Those skinny pants and Robbins’s choreography would never have translated to the baggy oversize pants of our day’s hip-hop.
|Four of my coolest
I do believe that one’s notion of what is cool is extremely personal. If I were to pick the coolest film of all time (which at the same time contains some of the coolest jazz/music of all time, the sound track is played by Stan Getz and the music is composed by Eddie Sauter) it would have to be Arthur Pen’s 1965 Mickey One with Warren Beatty. That this cool jazz album ( same name as the film and prominent in my collection) followed the previously just as cool 1961 Focus with Stan Getz and a string orchestra with music composed and arranged by Sauter himself just reinforces for me Getz’s coolness.
By the time I arrived in Vancouver in 1975 Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew (1970) had for me deconstructed cool jazz so that it would never ever return except in my own living room where I played my cool jazz records on the ultimately cool Acoustic Research turntable, Acoustic Research amplifier and Acoustic Research AR-3A speakers. I find it impossible to believer that if everybody (and that is everybody) listens to music now on that ever cool iPod, iPhone or iPad there is no way it can be cool. For me cool has to have a whiff of snobbish exclusivity!
By 1977 I had found the cool Classical Joint on Carrall Street which I would frequent on Thursday nights because that ever cool a lot sax player, Gavin Walker was in command with a core group that always allowed for cool intercessions by musicians who would come in and sit in.
Patrons drank illegal dark coffees (laced with Irish whiskey) and smoked cigarettes. Walker smoked mentholated Kools. This man, most uncool sucked on a pipe. When the Joint closed in the mid or late 80s cool was out, except of course in my living room. My Acoustic reseach speakers had been stolen so I had them replaced by the almost equally cool JBL studio monitors.
I looked for an old book I had purchased back in the 80s called The Catalog of Cool. In it I had found that Art Bergmann’s Young Canadians Hawaii album had made the list of cool punk groups of the 70s and 80s.
During my many years of associating with author William Gibson I noticed that he stopped using cool and started using the expression hip. At that point I realized that I was getting old and that cool was over. I was never a hipster and I hated Howl.
I hope that some day my Rebecca will come to understand what all that finger snapping was all a about and she might even say ( I will be pushing daisies by then), “My papi was a cool daddy-o.”