Just what is “Cool”?

Most of you have heard the classic Miles Davis Nonet recording “Birth of the Cool”. Miles was certainly cool. The music remains cool to this day. We all know someone who is cool, and can keep his cool. And we probably know someone who may occasionally lose their cool, or blow their cool. It happens. But, just what is “cool”? Where did it come from? How do you get some? It would be cool if you told us… and you might win tickets to our Birth of the Cool concert on April 17. Learn more below.

Miles Davis portrait by Palumbo

Miles Davis by Palumbo | cc-by-sa-2.0

In Lewis MacAdams book, Birth of The Cool, he writes, “…Douglas H. Daniels, a Lester Young biographer, claims Young coined the phrase “that’s cool.” He adds, “Jackie McLean, the great bop alto player, agrees. “Anyone who tells you otherwise is bullshitting,” he warned me. “Lester Young was the first.”

But the album title, “Birth of the Cool” is most often attributed to Capital Records arranger-conductor Pete Rugolo, seven years after the music was actually recorded. The music, long before it was dubbed “cool”, was first played before an audience in 1948 at the Royal Roost, where the band alternated sets with the Count Basie Orchestra.  In Ted Giota’s article about the nonet, he quotes Nat Hentoff, “At the time, the Royal Roost was probably the only nightclub in the country that would have taken a chance with this new and forbidding type of jazz,” and goes on to describe how Miles actually used a sign to promote the writers and arrangers for the band, in an era when leaders were the stars. That was cool. Basie had other words for it. It was “slow and strange” according to Count Basie, but it was “good, real good.”

"Classics in Jazz" album artNot enough people agreed with Basie to keep the Royal Roost gigs going, but Miles was able to keep the music alive. He lead a trio of recording sessions from 1949-1950, incorporating a variety of ensembles, which were subsequently released as a series of twelve 78 singles. In 1953 an eight tune 10″ vinyl album was released titled “Classics in Jazz”.

Birth of the Cool album/CD artIt was four years later, in 1957, when eleven tunes were reissued by Capitol Records as a 12″ LP titled “Birth of the Cool”. By this time the influence of the sessions on the 16 musicians who made up the various nonets had spread wide and far as they formed their own ensembles. By this time the title “Birth of the Cool” is an acknowledgement of the influence of the sessions and the various musicians who had gone on to form their own ensembles. By then, “cool”  had spread wide and far.

Have you figured out what “cool” is yet? Maybe check out Ted Giota’s History of Cool Jazz in 100 Tracks for inspiration. Or, consider what blues historian and Down Beat writer Pete Welding had to say in the line notes of the 1989 CD release, “Let’s reaffirm something here: catchy album title notwithstanding, the music of Miles Davis Nonet is anything but cool. Controlled, lucid, tightly focused, succinct – yes. It’s all these and more. But cool in the sense of being dispassionate or otherwise lacking in the fundamental emotional character one always associates with the best jazz, no!”

So, you tell us about “cool” in the comments. We’ll randomly draw* one winner to receive a pair of tickets to the April 17 SRJO performance of “Birth of the Cool”.

Tickets are still available:

UPDATE: Call the KPC box office for tickets: 425-893-9900 (less than 50 remain!)

Sunday, April 11, 2010  3:00 p.m.
Kirkland Performance Center, Kirkland (map)
Saturday, April 17, 2010  7:30 p.m.
Nordstrom Recital Hall (Benaroya Hall), Seattle (map)

*What is Cool? Official Rules: This online sweepstakes is open only to residents of Washington State. One comment entry per person, please. Commenters must include an email address to be eligible for the prize drawing. The What is Cool? Sweepstakes closes on April 10, 2010, at 8 p.m. PDT. The winner will be notified by email on April 10 and will have 48 hours to claim the prize before an alternate winner is selected.

UPDATE: The “What is Cool” poll is closed to encourage commenting!

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5 responses to “Just what is “Cool”?

  1. What’s fascinating to me is how persistent the use of “cool” has been–from its origins (by whomever) several decades ago to today: it’s still being used in a variety of settings by the millennials [digital natives]. I suppose it is similar to a lot of slang, originating by wanting to say something but using the opposite [e.g., “cool” ~ [really means] “hot [stuff]”; “bad” ~ “[really] good”; …]

  2. For me, the word “cool” has lots of energy around it: interesting, fascinating, new, different, creative, tasteful, artful, subtle, real, not flamboyant. Something “cool” demands attention and respect and suggests, especially when it refers to music, gives me a feeling of joyful anticipation.

  3. Being “cool” means having enough confidence to challenge or go beyond what is considered normal.

  4. Being cool is not giving a rip about anyone else’s approval.

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