Saturday, 23 January 2010


By a curious sort of syncopated synchronicity, since I had just read and written about Richard Williams' The Blue Moment, BBC4's Arena broadcast a film by Anthony Wall titled Cool, which attempted to trace the birth and growth of 'cool' jazz, and then trace its influence on everything else termed cool in the late 50s and early 60s.

The programme was lovely to watch, with extended passages of music ranging from Charlie Parker at his best to the Modern Jazz Quartet playing Bach. In the musical sense it was quite straight-forward, moving from be-bop to Antonio Carlos Jobim and Stan Getz. The programme seemed to dance around one obvious idea, which was that from Miles Davis' The Birth Of The Cool onward, the point may have been as much to create a jazz acceptable to a wider (read, white) audience as to explore wider avenues of music. It was almost literally an attempt to take Charlie Parker's music and sell it to the mainstream. I noted while writing about The Blue Moment that it was Bill Evans who was picked to write the liner notes for Kind Of Blue, and in the end it was Dave Brubeck, and Getz, not Davis or Coltrane who became the 'crossover' artists to the mainstream. The doc shows this clearly, as early as 1954 Time Magazine raves about cool jazz in California, appointing it the new capital, later they would back Brubeck in particular. The USIA would send Brubeck abroad, as they promoted the AbEx painters, to demonstrate the strength of American culture; the world loved it, but the government was reluctant, it seemed to send black artists abroad.

But by the time the bossa nova became dominant, you could argue the whole 'hip' era had floundered, and was about to be replaced by the rock counterculture. By the beginning of the JFK years, cool was the Rat Pack, Hugh Hefner's playboy with his jazz tapes, sports cars, and martinis, that sort of thing--very boring, mainstream hipness.

What were mainstream listeners hearing in the 1950s? My mother, for example, listened to the music of her childhood, ballads, and show tunes. My dad had a few records, The Ink Spots, Julie London, Lena Horne, the latter two likely as much for the way the singers looked on the covers as they way they sang. Oh yes, and Richard Rogers theme music from Victory at Sea! The birth of rock n roll in the 50s was a reaction to the blandness of this; the young audience did not turn to be-bop, nor to its cool successors. Be-bop itself was a challenge to the mainstream bands who had picked up and dominated jazz--an attempt to play music so creative it would be too difficult to copy.

And interestingly, that was the way jazz moved after the cool era: Coltrane, Roland Kirk, Ornette Coleman, Pharaoh Sanders et al challenging listeners again, and Miles electrifying his band and moving quickly from the post-Blue In A Silent Way to Bitches Brew, which combined rock sound with funky bottom and free jazz explorations. It wasn't music impossible, and led to jazz rock and eventually modern 'urban' music.

But in the wider sense of what cool jazz's influence on 'cool' society was, the programme was less sharply focused. The conflation of hip and cool, the hedging of the relation of either concept to mainstream society in general, reminded me of Matthew Sweet's programme on noir, which moved between pulp, hard-boiled, and noir as if all three meant the same thing. One problem was timing: the big influence on the abstract impressionist painters, for example, was be-bop; they should have set the shots of Pollock painting to Charlie Parker. It's Parker who's referenced in the Kerouac reading you hear; he made a record reading behind Steve Allen's piano, but his second was with Parker disciples Al Cohn and Zoot Sims. All white guys, note. That's where the hipsters were at the start of the 50s, and by the end of the decade, when Coltrane is playing with Miles, those hipsters are already part of the mainstream; their influence is always being diluted. When you watch the MJQ play Bach, you see how they're trying to get the longhairs in both 1950s senses of the word, it's impressive but it isn't challenging, which is what, by definition, the hipster was supposed to be. We may go back now and impute artistic importance to these musicians which they richly deserve, but it may be a greater leap of retrospective faith to see them as culture changers. In fact, they may have had a greater influence in Europe: though its obvious every time you look at Belmondo that's its the style, not the substance, which the French adore, and the style is far more James Dean than John Coltrane.


john harvey said...


Nice piece, of course, but although I can see the logic of the link you make between Parker and Pollock, where's the evidence for that? Yes, O'Hara and some of his painter pals frequented the Five Spot, but that was Larry Rivers, Grace Hartigan et cetera. Pollock was at Eddie Condon's and the jazz he liked to listen to most was Dixieland.

Unknown said...

Watch Shirley Clarke's documentary about Ornette Coleman, "Ornette: Made in america" here

Michael Carlson said...

just noticed your comment, John,and while I don't doubt Pollock may have preferred Dixieland, the film of his painting would syncopate better to be-bop, no? and certainly that was what the beats were grooving to.