Saturday, March 6, 2010

The Birth {and Death} of the Cool



Regular readers of the blog may recall that the JazzProfiles editorial staff has a particular fondness and high regard for the writing and the writings of Ted Gioia.

In its estimation, Ted is right up there with Gene Lees, Doug Ramsey, Nat Hentoff and a host of others who have taught us so much about Jazz over the years and enriched our listening experience with their unique insights and knowledge about the music and its makers.

You can imagine our pleasure, then, when we received copyright permission from Ted and his publisher to feature on the site the following chapter from his latest book - THE BIRTH {And Death} OF THE COOL.

Although a portion of the title of Ted’s book refers to one of the most famous records in the history of Jazz – The Birth of the Cool - the work is not about the music of Jazz, per se.  Rather, both figuratively and literally, it is about an attitude or way of being that “Cool” came to signify in American culture and its subsequent demise.

As explained in the publisher’s leaflet:

“It’s hard to imagine that ‘the cool’ could ever go out of style. After all, cool is style. Isn’t it? And it may be harder to imagine a world where people no longer aspire to coolness. In this intriguing cultural history, nationally acclaimed author Ted Gioia shows why cool is not a timeless concept and how it has begun to lose its meaning and fade into history.

Gioia deftly argues that what began in the Jazz Age [Bix Beiderbecke] and became iconic in the 1950s with Miles Davis, James Dean, and others has been manipulated and stretched, and pushed to the breaking point – not just in our media, entertainment and fashion industries, but also by corporations, political leaders, and special institutions.

Tolling the death knell for the cool, this thought-provoking book reveals how and why a new cultural tone is emerging, one marked by sincerity, earnestness, and a quest for authenticity.”

You can obtain information on ordering directly from Speck Press – Fulcrum Publishing by accessing this link: Speck Press or you can order the book from Amazon.

© -Ted Gioia, reproduced with permission. Copyright protected; all rights reserved.


CHAPTER 4 The Progenitor of Cool: Bix Beiderbecke


“Long before it had a name, a cool attitude thrived in the jazz world. But even here—or especially here—the paradox at the very core of cool made itself felt. When jazz first captivated the American public during the 1920s, the most common adjective used to describe this music was hot. Fans spoke of "hot jazz" or sometimes left out the jazz entirely and just called it "hot music." No matter, everybody knew what they were talking about. Louis Armstrong's most famous recording bands of the era were known as the Hot Five and the Hot Seven. Jelly Roll Morton called his band the Red Hot Peppers. Even overseas, when the first great European jazz band was formed by guitarist Django Reinhardt and violinist Stephane Grappelli, the group rose to fame as the Quintette du Hot Club de France.

How could something so hot also be so cool? This music seemed to exist on two levels. There was a surface level, all fire and energy, a sound and fury so direct and unapologetic, so in your face, that all other styles of musical performance of that era seemed restrained by comparison. Yet below this loomed a hidden level, an interior landscape, a reserve behind the hot that imparted an aura of mystery, of cool aloofness to
the whole proceedings. This is signifying at its highest pitch— contrary meanings coexisting in the discourse of African American culture, even when put on the stage as commercial entertainment and polished art. As we shall see, paradox is always at the root of modern cool, and this particular one is the most important of all. It stands out as the alluring contradiction that set everything in motion.

From the start, the white commentators who tried to come to grips with jazz sensed—and were fascinated by—this duality, the cool behind the hot. As early as 1919, when few recordings of African American jazz had been released on the market, Swiss conductor Ernst-Alexandre Ansermet managed to hear London performances by the Southern Syncopated Orchestra, which featured the great New Orleans clarinetist Sidney Bechet. Ansermet was awestruck by what he encountered, and in the article he wrote for La Revue Romande—the first attempt by a serious musical mind to write a real critical appreciation of jazz—he touched on precisely the enigma of this hidden dimension in the music.


This band's music represented, in Ansermet's words, a "mysterious new world," and though the conductor tried to analyze the songs played by the Southern Syncopated Orchestra, he was forced to admit that "it is not the material that makes Negro music, it is the spirit." He reached for a clumsy mixed metaphor combining the cool and the hot in his attempt to explicate meanings only partially glimpsed: "It seems as if a great wind is passing over a forest or as if a door is suddenly opened on a wild orgy." Yet Ansermet did not shy away from grand pronouncements. He proclaimed that Bechet was an "artist of genius," predicted that this music might be "the highway the whole world will swing along tomorrow," and even offered high-flown comparisons to Mozart and Haydn.

Ansermet apparently tried to talk to Bechet to find out more about the hidden sources of this multifaceted music. What did he learn? Bechet was the prototype of what would later be called cool. On the surface, he was genial and conciliatory. He "is very glad one likes what he does," Ansermet explained, and the conductor noted, "What a moving thing it is to meet this very black, fat boy." But when he tried to break through this surface cordiality, Ansermet got nowhere. He writes, in evident despair, that Bechet "can say nothing of his art" except that "he follows his ‘own way."'1

Just as white writers tried to probe the cool underbelly of jazz, white jazz musicians were especially interested in cultivating it. The term cool jazz would not become widely used in the jazz world until the fifties, but when later commentators tried to write its early history, they inevitably traced this music back to the most celebrated white jazz player of the twenties, cornetist Bix Beiderbecke who, more than anyone, deserves the title of founding father of cool jazz. In this fascinating figure from the Jazz Age, we encounter all the inner contradictions of cool personified.

Someday a great psychologist will write a study of the psyche of the white jazz musicians from the early and middle decades of the twentieth century; in many ways they are the forerunners of the personality type that became dominant among the baby boom generation in the late sixties. The white jazz player is the outsider among outsiders, but has voluntarily chosen this double exclusion, even takes satisfaction in its far remove from social norms and expectations. He roots for the underdog and the misunderstood, and he often sees himself in these terms, even if his own background marks him as a child of privilege. He likes the improvisatory aspects of his chosen art form and brings the same celebration of spontaneity to his life, which is often as experimental as his music. At least it is in his eyes— the more straitlaced would simply see his offstage behavior as wasted and debauched. But for the jazz player, the creative ferment on the bandstand inevitably carries over into day-to-day life, and his ways of dealing with circumstances and situations radiate an artistic quality that persists even amidst dissipation and squalor. He flouts the rules, which he sees as applying to others, not him. He values experiences the way a banker hordes capital. Even if he achieves great success— a rarity, but possible in the case of a few white jazz players such as Stan Getz or Chet Baker or Bill Evans—he still feels like an outcast beyond the scope of mainstream society.


Bix Beiderbecke was the first great white jazz player and the most fascinating case study of them all. During his lifetime, the newspapers almost completely ignored his artistry, but after his untimely death, a host of writers were drawn to his tragic tale. Little wonder it served as inspiration for a successful novel, Young Man with a Horn by Dorothy Baker, and later a movie, or that more than a half dozen biographies have been published focused on an artist whose whole recording career spanned a mere six years. He captivates our attention, not just for his artistry, but also because so much in Bix anticipates the future. Too many later jazz players would unconsciously follow the same path, a self-destructive rise and fall, not because they had studied Beiderbecke's life and times—far from it—but seemingly due to some inner momentum of the jazz lifestyle and the ways it intersects with surrounding social norms and institutions.

To those who knew him, Beiderbecke was larger than life. Yet so much of his story, as it is commonly told and mythologized, would have been commonplace in the late sixties. A youngster finds himself at odds with the values of his bourgeois family, his rebellion facilitated by their doting indulgence. He has run-ins with school authorities and sometimes with the law. Parents and grown-ups want him to pursue a stable career, but he prefers to find himself, to follow his own muse. He experiments with illegal substances, which eventually prove more harmful than he realizes. He shocks the older generation with his transgression of community mores. He embraces the most raucous and uninhibited music he can find, not just for how it sounds, but also as a symbol of his way of life. How much things change over a half century! Beiderbecke's friends saw him as one of a kind—Benny Goodman wondered which moon he came from,2 and Jimmy McPartland called him a mystery3—but he would have been a familiar type on a 1960s college campus.


Above all, Beiderbecke anticipated the later rise of the cool in the remarkable malleability of his life. As I suggested above, cool became a dominant social paradigm because it was a game everyone in America could play, at least to some degree. Whether they were rich or poor, black or white, young or old, cool offered a path—or at least a few steps—toward the sublime. Who better to prove this than Bix Beiderbecke? He was Everyman, but with a horn in hand.

Born in Davenport, Iowa—the heart of Middle America, only a few hundred miles from the geographical center of the continental United States—on March 10, 1903, Bix faced all the typical constraints that turn-of-the-century America imposed on its youth. He was the grandson of immigrants, surrounded by a social milieu full of middle-class rectitude and striving, but with little opportunity for individuality and self-expression. Grandfather Carl Beiderbecke had abandoned his plans to be a Lutheran minister in West Prussia and instead settled in Davenport, where he married Louisa Piper, another immigrant, newly arrived from Hamburg. Bix's parents, Bismark Herman Beiderbecke and Agatha Hilton, remained in Davenport, as did much of the extended family. Here Bix could easily have lived and died, following in the footsteps of his grandfather the grocer or his father, who dealt in wood and coal.

The young Beiderbecke's personal attributes were modest. His health was poor, his grades were worse, his work ethic almost nonexistent. His looks were anything but glamorous— the inevitable adjective one would apply to his appearance is baby faced. His one gift was for music, and he did almost everything possible to squander it. He never learned to read music with any skill or to even play the horn with proper fingerings. He would rather drink than practice. Not much opportunity for fame and fortune seemed in store given these predispositions, which might have predicted a nondescript life of insignificant proportions or out-and-out failure. And to become a legendary jazz musician would seem an impossible dream for this cherubic white boy surrounded by the cornfields of Iowa.


And yet...Beiderbecke broke through every one of these constraints and reinvented his life in stylish, sometimes outrageous ways on the largest stage imaginable. He not only transformed himself, but exerted a magnetic pull on those around him. The significant term that comes up in their accounts is idol. Describing his first encounter with Beiderbecke, a moment he calls "one of the great thrills of my life," saxophonist Bud Freeman exults, "Our eyes seemed to meet. Here I was facing this great genius I so idolized."4 "I worshipped the man," clarinetist Pee Wee Russell proclaimed.5 And Russell was no wide-eyed fan, but roomed with Beiderbecke, traveled with him, drank and performed with him. "Bix was a boyhood idol of mine," Ralph Berton has offered, "whom I had for one brief spring, summer and fall the privilege of worshipping at point blank range (somewhat to his vexation)."6

"Anecdote grew upon Bix like ivy on a wall," Berton continues. "His most ordinary words and acts often took on a fabulous, legendary quality.. .There was something about Bix that was enigmatic, edged, baffling—that made you want to do something about him, you couldn't say exactly what." Berton might have added the word cool to the list of adjectives he conjures up for the cornetist, but as we have seen, it didn't have the same meaning back in the Jazz Age as it does today. Yet Beiderbecke, more than anyone of his generation, would define the attitude and lifestyle that would become known as cool.

Various tales culled from the many Beiderbecke left behind define different aspects of the cool ethos in formation. Eddie Condon tells of Beiderbecke making dismissive comments on the need for schooling and education, and Condon responding by trying to point out the cornetist's ignorance: "’By the way,' I said, ‘Who is Proust?' He hit a chord, listened to it, and then said, casually, ‘A French writer who lived in a cork-lined room. His stuff is no good in translation.' I leaned over the piano. 'How the hell did you find that out?' I demanded. He gave me the seven veils look. ‘I get around,' he said."7 The nonchalance, the conveyed sense that much was going on below the surface under the tip of the oh-so-cool iceberg, Beiderbecke throwing off comments and chord voicings with equal disdain, his ambiguous boast that he gets around.. .We don't even need to be told that the complete English translation of Proust's masterwork A la recherche du temps perdu had not even been published in the United States at the time of Beiderbecke's death to appreciate the rich new character type, the cool cat, on display for Condon's edification.


The ultimate test of cool, of course, is the ability to maintain the pose even in the face of physical danger, and Beiderbecke had mastered this even before James Dean was born. Mezz Mezzrow offers an account of Beiderbecke almost being hit by a train while in pursuit of liquor buried near some railroad tracks. With Mezzrow and Russell in pursuit, Beiderbecke takes them on a wild journey through fields, over a barbed-wire fence, and finally to the buried treasure. Mezzrow continues:

Sure enough, he dug out a jug, handed it to Pee Wee, and started back. But as we were hopping the fence Pee Wee got stuck on the wire and just hung there, squealing for help and hugging the jug for dear life. If he let go of that crock he could have pulled him­self loose, but not Pee Wee—what's a guy's hide compared to a gallon of corn? By this time Bix, hav­ing staggered down to the railroad tracks, found he had a lot of sand between his toes, so he sat down on the rail and yanked his shoes off to empty them. Just then we saw a fast train coming round the bend. All of us began screaming at Bix to get the hell out of there, but he thought we were just kidding him and he threw stones at us. That train wasn't more than a hundred feet away when he finally woke up to what was happening. Then he just rolled off the track and tumbled down the bank head first, traveling so fast he didn't have time to snatch his shoes off the rail. Those funky Oxfords got clipped in half as neatly as if they'd been chopped with a meat-cleaver. "That just goes to show you," Bix told us, "it's dangerous for a man to take his shoes off. First time I took those things off in weeks and you see what the hell hap­pens. It just ain't safe to undress."8


So many stories have gathered around Beiderbecke over the years that they have almost obscured the real story: his music. A cornet solo may seem less cinematic than a looming train accident, but the horn is what allowed Beiderbecke to transform himself from Davenport ne'er-do-well to New York sophisticate. In account after account, those who knew this artist remarked that music was his overriding passion, the magnetic force around which his existence revolved. "Music was the one thing that really brought him to life," Mezzrow would later comment. "Not even whiskey could do it, and he gave it every chance." 9 Wingy Manone makes the same point: "He was always talking music, telling us, 'Let's play this chord/ or 'Let's figure out some three-way harmony for the trumpets after the job tonight/ It seemed to us he didn't want us to enjoy life."10 How odd that Bix Beiderbecke, the man who destroyed himself through his out-of-control lifestyle and the shaper of the cool attitude in the American psyche, should be recalled by those who knew him best as preventing others from having fun...because he was so fixated on his craft. The bad boy of jazz may not have had the patience to study music, he merely obsessed over it.

It is here, in his music, that Beiderbecke's role as progenitor of the cool is most assured. His friend Ralph Berton put it best: "Bix was one of the rarest artists our American culture ever produced: inventor of a new music sound, cool, lonely, inward-looking, as lonely as his own soul must have been in its solitary chamber...born far out of his time."11 Cool jazz could hardly be said to exist before Beiderbecke. The very phrase might even have seemed an oxymoron to the first generation of jazz fans, akin to "peaceful bare-fisted boxing" or "nonalcoholic moonshine." Jazz was the hottest style of music on the planet, and the great cornetist/trumpeter of the era, Louis Armstrong, was trying to make it even hotter. If you could measure Armstrong's fiery horn lines on the Scoville scale, they would rank somewhere north of the jalapeno and habanera. His solos, rich in syncopation and spiced with high notes and flashy phrases, would exert an influence over all later jazz. Yet this was more than just the personal magnetism of Armstrong's virtuosity—he also seemed to capture the very essence of the jazz art form, which has always tended toward explosiveness, intensity, and high drama.


Compare this with Beiderbecke, whose music was "like a girl saying yes," in the words of Condon. Rex Stewart, who was playing with the celebrated Fletcher Henderson Orchestra when it lost a legendary battle of the bands with Beiderbecke and Jean Goldkette's "Famous Fourteen," later recalled: "You know I worshipped Louis at that time, tried to walk like him, talk like him, even dress like him...Then, all of a sudden comes this white boy from out west, playin' stuff all his own. Didn't sound like Louis or anyone else. But just so pretty. And that tone he got knocked us all out."12 Again and again, we hear contemporaries of Beiderbecke talk about his tone, the distinctive sound quality he got from his horn.

The poor recording technology of the twenties did not do justice to Beiderbecke's artistry, so dependent as it was on aural nuances. Yet those seeking to understand the cool ethos need to seek out three performances, three short tracks that established the cool as a viable path for a creative mind operating in the midst of the hectic American Century. In "Singin' the Blues" from February 1927 and "I'm Coming Virginia" from May of that same year, Beiderbecke essentially invents the lyrical jazz ballad style, a new approach to improvisation that aims more to move the listener's heart than the dancer's feet. The cornet solo lines bob and weave and float over the rest of the band, which is struggling to move beyond the oompah 2/4 time of traditional jazz and embrace a more modern aesthetic. There is still an edgy jazz quality here, spiced by the syncopations and blues notes of the New Orleans and Chicago traditions, out of which Beiderbecke built his sound. But there is something else, a looser conception, more relaxed and tender, that breaks free of precedents and instead looks toward the future. And not just the future of jazz...the later evolution of popular music would change as a result of this intervention.


Sometimes this transformation would take place in response to an artist's direct contact with Beiderbecke—as one sees, for example in the work of Bing Crosby, who worked alongside Bix in the Paul Whiteman ensemble and adopted many of the cornetist's innovations in his own crafting of a new pop singing style. "The first thing you have to understand about Bing Crosby is that he was the first hip white person born in the United States," Artie Shaw would later explain to Crosby's biographer Gary Giddins; much of this coolness—both in its musical and nonmusical dimensions—resulted from the personal influence of Beiderbecke.13 In other instances, Beiderbecke would impact the later course of American music through more indirect lines of influence, especially through the work of his frequent collaborator, saxophonist Frankie Trumbauer, who would serve as a role model for Lester Young, the most important cool jazz player of the late thirties and forties.

The third Beiderbecke track that signals his break with the jazz tradition is one on which he, strangely, does not touch his horn. Beiderbecke would leave behind only one piano recording, and even that single testament of his keyboard work would never have come to us if his friend and bandmate Trumbauer had not prodded him to give it a try during a September 1927 session in New York. Even today, jazz critics still argue about "In a Mist," as this song was named. Some refuse to accept that this peculiar track has anything to do with jazz. Others hail it as a visionary musical landscape, a snapshot of a future jazz that might have been, if only...If only Beiderbecke had lived longer, if only he had applied himself to formal musical studies, if only other players had been advanced enough to follow up on his leads. But none of these might-have-beens came to pass. As a result, "In a Mist" is a one-of-a-kind performance, unlike any other jazz composition of its era.


Yet if we fast-forward several decades, we can see that Beiderbecke was exploring the same pathways that the cool jazz musicians of the fifties would later travel. Here are the same impressionist harmonies, reminiscent of Debussy's and Ravel's classical music, that jazz pianists and composers would adopt during the close of the Eisenhower years. Here is the attenuated sense of rhythm, more floating than driving, and with a less overt use of syncopation, that reminds us of so many jazz performances from the second half of the twentieth century. While other jazz keyboardists of the twenties hold on to the heavy stride beat they inherited from ragtime, Beiderbecke hears another way of integrating the left and right hands. Here he crafts a unique sound that has freed itself up from cliché, from the expectations of dancers, from the heavy anchor of the ground rhythm. The mood captures perfectly the paradox of cool, offering both an emotional immediacy yet also an impenetrable aloofness—a formula that defies precise formulation yet is so pervasive in later pop culture. The music invites us into the composer's inner sanctum, yet vigilantly defends a psychological border beyond which the listener is not allowed to pass. "In a Mist"—the title is apt. For instead of the clang and clash of typical 1920s jazz, we have something less clearly defined, seen through a glass darkly, yet cool and brisk, invigorating in its willingness to go against the crowd.


This should have been the start of Beiderbecke's great years. And, for the briefest of spells, it seemed as if his moment had arrived. A few weeks after this recording, the cornetist was invited to join the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, the most popular commercial band of its day (that year alone, Whiteman had eighteen hit recordings). Yet this ensemble was not a full-fledged jazz outfit, and much of its reputation was built on intricate charts that flummoxed Beiderbecke, who was still a poor reader of music. The financial aspects of this relationship were no doubt more to his liking: Beiderbecke was now paid
$200 per week. This might have been the middle of the band's pay scale, but a sizable salary at a time when the average American family made $1,300 per year. Even so, too much of Beiderbecke's earnings went to support his drinking habit.


Before the close of 1928, Beiderbecke found himself a patient at River Crest Sanitarium. He had passed out during a concert in Cleveland and was in such bad physical condition that he was unable to leave town with the Whiteman band. When Beiderbecke returned to New York, the bandleader insisted that his star soloist receive medical care and even arranged for his hospitalization. Beiderbecke may have been just twenty-five years old, but he was already a wreck. He suffered from fatigue, pneumonia, alcoholic polyneuritis, malnutrition, and delirium tremens. Soon after his release, Beiderbecke returned to Davenport for a month of rest and recuperation surrounded by family and friends in his hometown.

Beiderbecke returned to New York in March 1929, but his playing from this point on no longer showed the confident, carefree artistry that had characterized his finest earlier work. Just looking at him, people could tell something was wrong. He had pains in his lower limbs and started walking with a limp. In time, he would use a cane—an ominous sign for a young man in his twenties. He suffered from cramps as well as memory lapses, shortness of breath, shakes, and convulsive movements that disturbed his sleep. He looked pale and was chain-smoking; worst of all, he was drinking excessively again. By September, Beiderbecke was back in Davenport, trying once again to regain his lost health. He was institutionalized at the Keeley Institute in Dwight, Illinois—the Betty Ford clinic of its day—where he remained for five weeks.


While Beiderbecke was undergoing treatment, the rest of the country witnessed the stock market crash, the symbolic starting point of the Great Depression. Beiderbecke, who was in no shape to rejoin Paul Whiteman, saw his own earning power plummet. Even under the best of circumstances, these would be difficult years for jazz artists. But Beiderbecke was now entering his final tailspin, and earning a livelihood required him to leave Davenport behind and return to New York, where all his best intentions were soon overcome by easy access to alcohol. The official cause of his death, on August 6, 1931, was pneumonia. But more than a decade of heavy drinking and a lifestyle out of control were the real culprits. As a result, the father of cool jazz never lived long enough to see how his musical stylings would influence later jazz artists. And, even stranger, how his eccentric, out-of-this-world personality would be echoed in the experimentation and attitudes of the baby boomer generation.”


NOTES: Chapter 4 - The Progenitor of Cool: Bix Beiderbecke
1.    Ansermet, "Bechet & Jazz Visit Europe, 1919," 115-122.
2.    Sudhalter, Lost Chords, 29.
3.    Lion, Bix: The Definitive Biography, 29.
4.    Freeman and Wolf, Crazeology, 11.
5.    Hilbert, Pee Wee Russell, 44.
6.    This and below from Berton, Remembering Bix, xii.
7.    Condon, We Called It Music, 121.
8.    Mezzrow and Wolfe, Really the Blues, 79.
9.    Ibid., 79.
10.  Manone and Vandervoort, Trumpet on the Wing, 60.
11.   Berton, Remembering Bix, 401.
12.  Sudhalter, Evans, and Dean-Myatt, Bix: Man and Legend, 185.
13.  Giddins and Schoenberg, "Jazz Dialogue."