Birth of the Cool

MacAdams, Lewis

Published by Scribner, 2002
ISBN 10: 0743207785 / ISBN 13: 9780743207782
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Synopsis: A stunningly illustrated cultural history of the American underground in the forties and fifties and of the artists at its core - Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, William Burroughs, Jackson Pollock, and more. The idea of 'cool' is one of the most pervasive forces in modern culture - but what is it? Where does it come from? Who invented it? Birth of the Cool is the first serious examination of how cool came about - its meaning, its heroes and its place in the world, from the gritty avant-garde fringes of the culture in after-hours joints in Harlem and cold water flats on the Lower East Side, to the centre of the mainstream. Focusing on New York from 1948 to 1965 and bringing together the era's most evocative black and white photographs, Lewis MacAdams takes us from the jazz joints where Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker invented bebop to Jackson Pollock's studio; from William S. Burrough's frenetic experiences on the road to the Black Mountain School of Zen.

Review: Lewis MacAdams says it bluntly in his book's preface: "Anybody trying to define 'cool' quickly comes up against cool's quicksilver nature. As soon as anything is cool, its cool starts to vaporize." With that, he still manages to weave a complex ode to all forms of cool in The Birth of Cool, a book that swings through the highs and lows of bebop and beat without ever losing its intrinsic coolness. MacAdams's background as a poet and film historian enables him to smoothly blend personal histories, public awareness, and political context into a fascinating exploration of the many facets of cool. He begins with the individuals who created bebop: Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bill Evans, Billy Eckstine, and Thelonious Monk. Relatively minor incidents, like Gillespie stabbing Cab Calloway in the butt with a carpet cutter, are played against a larger framework of astonishing new works that Parker and Gillespie created and the enormous cultural changes brought about by these few folks. As the story moves forward into the 1950s, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Arshile Gorky and the beginnings of modern art are examined. Pollock's comment that "technique is just a means of arriving at a statement" seems like something that could have come from any of the artists, musicians, or writers covered in this book. The early years of the Beats get surprisingly little coverage, beginning with William S. Burroughs being "born weird" and ending with the accidental death of Joan Vollmer. The lives of Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and Neal Cassady are returned to in later chapters that cover the introduction and adoption of Zen and the final blending of bebop and Beat into one inseparable cultural unit.

With numerous photos and pleasantly glossy paper, The Birth of Cool is a dense book that is both entertaining and depressing. MacAdams has managed an homage to cool that temporarily conquers that "quicksilver nature" and gives us a lasting look at a nearly indefinable era. --Jill Lightner

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Bibliographic Details

Title: Birth of the Cool
Publisher: Scribner
Publication Date: 2002
Book Condition: Very Good
Edition: First Edition.

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