Cart 0

In Pursuit of Cool

David Berger

I just read David Brooks’ New York Times editorial this morning, How Cool Works in America Today, and was surprised and delighted that he mentioned both Miles Davis and Billie Holliday, and then went on to cite Lester Young as one of the jazz musicians who “brought these influences together that we now call the cool style.” 


Back in the spring of 1963, I celebrated my 14th birthday.  My brother Bobby, whose love of music rivaled my own, bought me a 2-LP set of the Count Basie Decca sides.  Little did I know that these records would have a great impact on not only my music, but my personality. 


I immediately was drawn to the All-American rhythm section: Basie, Freddie Green, Walter Page and Papa Jo Jones.  They were smooth like the ride of a Rolls-Royce.  Actually, I’ve never been inside a Rolls, but that’s what everyone says.  Then there were Buck Clayton and Sweets Edison—I was a trumpet player, and these were two of my idols.  But, as soon as I heard Lester Young’s tenor solo on One O’clock Jump, I forgot about everything else.  He transcended swing music.  In fact, he transcended music.  Where everyone else was hot, he was cool.  And so, I set out to become cool. 


A little bit about Lester: He was from the Midwest and played in his family’s band.  They traveled around playing the vaudeville and carnival circuits.  One day he heard a record of Bix Beiderbecke and Frankie Trumbauer and came under their spell.  In those early days of jazz, there weren’t that many jazz records, so jazz fans and musicians listened to all the records.  It didn’t matter to them if you were white or black.  If it was jazz, it was your music.  At that time, Louis Armstrong was hot and Bix and Tram were cool.  I don’t think that the word “cool” was even used until Lester popularized it in the late 1930s. 


Lester left the family band in 1927 and settled in Kansas City where he joined The Barons of Rhythm, led by Bill Basie, who dubbed himself “Count” to fit in with the Barons motif..  In New York, Fletcher Henderson’s star tenor player, Coleman Hawkins, left for Europe, and Fletcher sent for Lester.  When Lester arrived, the band was not impressed.  His detached, light, subdued emotional style was the antithesis of Bean’s (Hawkins’) overly romantic, big-toned, heavy vibrato sound.  Fletcher’s wife pulled Lester aside and tried to coach him into emulating Bean, but Lester declined and went back to Kansas City, where he re-joined Basie.  One door closes and another opens, or re-opens.


But, here’s the point about being cool.  Everyone thinks it means aloof and stoic.  That’s just part of it.  Cool is about having your own moral code and aesthetic and sticking to it.  Like Raymond Chandler’s detective, Phillip Marlowe, Bogie’s Rick Blaine character from Casablanca, or Clint Eastwood’s film persona (which is clearly modeled after these two).  These are flawed men who live on the outskirts of society, but they know who they are, and stick to it.  They don’t care what others think, or what others think of them.  This was Lester to a tee.


When the Basie band moved to New York in 1937, Lester met up with his soul mate, a young singer named Billie Holliday.  Never lovers, they were brother and sister for life.  Just look at Billie’s expression during Lester’s solo on Fine And Mellow on the 1959 TV show The Sound of Jazz.  It was Lester who named her Lady Day, and she named him Prez.  In those days Franklin Delano Roosevelt was our president, and the president was the tops, the most respected, greatest American. 


While White America was listening and dancing to Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw and the Dorseys, musicians were listening to and copying Basie, Ellington and Lunceford.  Louis Armstrong spawned a generation of great soloists in his image.  Prez and Lady Day stood out in their defiance of Pops’ hot aesthetic.  I once described the difference between Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holliday with this analogy: Ella Fitzgerald is like when you are invited to a party, and you go to ring the doorbell, but before you touch it, Ella opens the front door, hugs and kisses you and leads you into a large room filled with revelers.  She wants you to have a good time.  In fact she insists that you do.  Billie Holliday is like: you heard there is a party at her house, so you ring her doorbell, and no one answers.  The door is unlocked, so you enter.  The place appears empty, but you can hear the faint sounds coming from a back room.  As you get closer, you can smell the aroma of reefer.  The door is ajar, so you push it open.  Without looking up, Billie hands you a joint and says, “I knew you’d want to be here.”  Now that’s cool.


Like Lester, Billie exudes coolness in every way.  She imbues the lyrics to each song with pain, sadness and deep joy—all at once.  But you have to pay attention.  She’s not going to force it on you.  For me, she is the greatest female singer of all time.  Hands down.  Not even close.  Because she transcends the music.  You know how Frank Sinatra is believable as the guy in the lyric he is singing?  Billie is all that, plus she is cool.  The coolest. 


My trumpet teacher, Jimmy Maxwell, knew her, so I once asked him what she was like.  He said that she was a compulsive liar—typical junkie behavior.  I shouldn’t have asked.  She had a horrible childhood and was very damaged.  Racism hurt her in so many ways.  After her short stint with Basie, she joined Artie Shaw’s band.  I’m sure the money was great, and she wasn’t a star yet.  She told Shaw that she had to quit because she couldn’t deal with the overt racism she faced while traveling with his white band on the road.  So she returned to New York and became a star.  One door closes…


Getting back to me, I was 14 when I became aware of Prez and Lady Day, and I wanted to be just like them—well, without the drugs and alcoholism.  Being a white, Jewish kid growing up on Long Island, this could be a stretch.  I let certain words and phrases creep into my vocabulary, like “cool” and “solid,” and “eyes.”  Prez would say, “Do you have eyes?”  Which meant, do you want to do something?  I didn’t go as far as calling my male friends “Lady Schwartz” or “Lady Chip”.  Prez called everyone “Lady this” or “Lady that.”  He had his own style of dressing which included his trademark porkpie hat—hence, Mingus’ tribute to him, Goodbye Porkpie Hat.  It’s taken me a while, but I’ve definitely come around to wearing porkpie hats.  Definitely my style. 


But these are the superficial trappings of cool.  There is a famous interview with Prez where he says, “I’m not a repeater pencil.”  In his language, that means, he doesn’t repeat himself or anyone else.  He celebrates his originality at all times.  This can mean taking a lot of lumps.  When he was drafted into World War II, he was caught smoking pot and imprisoned in Leavenworth.  When I was in high school, my band director, Herb Schoales, told me that when he was in the army, he was stationed at Ft. Leavenworth.  He played trombone in the swing band there.  Once a week they did a radio broadcast and would send a garbage truck into the prison to “kidnap” Prez.  The radio announcer would name the title of the songs and the soloists.  When Prez would solo, he would just say, “You know who.” 


Both Prez and Lady Day were incredibly influential on younger musicians and singers.  What would Anita O’Day be without Lady Day?  I’m currently arranging a show of the music of Stan Getz, Al Cohn, Zoot Sims and Gerry Mulligan, all four of whom were disciples of Lester.  Each had his own style, but you can hear Lester in each one.  What made each of them great is that they learned the big lesson from Prez: Be yourself. 


There is often the pressure to change with the times, especially when you have a long career.  I heard an interview with Duke Ellington near the end of his career where he was asked why he continued to feature the clarinet in his band, when the clarinet was no longer popular in jazz.  The Maestro responded that he was not interested in current styles—they come and go, but, if something is great, it is great forever.  Duke Ellington was not only cool, he was elegant.  And noble.  They didn’t call him “Duke” for nothing.

Older Post Newer Post

  • 아시안커넥트 on
    아시안커넥트 회원가입
    아시안커넥트 추천
    아시안커넥트 안전 도메인
    아시안커넥트 안전검증
    아시안커넥트 먹튀검증
    아시안커넥트 우회주소 추천인 TM66
    실시간스포츠중계 추천인 TM66 ?[EMV%20FIELD]EMAIL[EMV%20/FIELD]&cat=Techniques+culturales&url=

  • 온라인카지노 on
    안전 카지노사이트_
    온라인카지노 추천_
    바카라사이트 추천_

  • 온라인카지노 on
    안전 카지노사이트_
    온라인카지노 추천_
    바카라사이트 추천_

  • 온라인카지노 on
    안전한 카지노사이트 추천
    안전한 바카라사이트 추천

  • john heintz on

    Thanks again, DB.Your mentioning particular recordings took me to the Youtube versions and an hour of wonderful music I hadn’t heard for years. Beautiful, human performances, lightly touched at all by post-production, just THERE.

Leave a comment