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Birth Of The Cool: Beat, Bebop, and the American Avant Garde Hardcover – February 5, 2001

3.6 out of 5 stars 7 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com 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

From Publishers Weekly

Tracing the inception and progression of an artistic movement via a series of fluid portraits, MacAdams delivers a fascinating study of the subcommunities comprising the 20th-century phenomenon of cool. A prot?g? of the movement and a writer for Rolling Stone and LA Weekly, MacAdams discusses cool's journey from the avant-garde underground in the 1940sAwhere it primarily took the form of bebop, pre-Beat, Beat and Abstract ExpressionismAthrough its mainstreaming during the folk and pop-culture movements spearheaded by Dylan and Warhol. Along the way, he splices in bits of the theory of cool, considers the political sensibilities of the cultural vanguard and displays a sweeping, nuanced knowledge of his subject. Particularly strong is his account of how the movement became politicized early in the Cold War when, in protest against air raid drills, New York theater folk joined activists in refusing the role of Cold Warrior demanded of every citizen. MacAdams's lively prose does occasionally fall prey to the lure of hackneyed phrasing. Partially as a result of his repetition of the word "cool," the narrative sometimes seems slightly sloppy, na?ve, uncool. Other disappointments concern certain omissions, most glaringly in the field of experimental writing and women. (He mentions Billie Holiday and Juliette Greco, shows their pictures and moves onAbad form for a work that endeavors to represent the underrepresented.) Overall, though, MacAdams's rendering of cool culture fleshes out the broad picture with insider details that should attract jazz and painting fans in the mood for an illuminating, fun read. Photos. (Feb.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Free Press (February 5, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0684813548
  • ISBN-13: 978-0684813547
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 0.8 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #963,144 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By A Customer on January 10, 2001
Format: Hardcover
There is a new commercial on the air right now for, of all things, the new domain .tv. It is simply a procession of images: a dog, a skier, a fat guy in a swimming pool. The voice-over is simply a guys saying "cool," ot "not "cool" whenever a new image is revealed. as I watched it, I couldn't help but think, "what the hell happened to cool." When pretty much everything is cool, nothing is.
Lewis MacAdams' book is thus pretty timely. He takes us back to the guys who really were cool. They were outlaws, outside the mainstream. Most people thought they were freak, but they didn't care because they were cool.
Anyone who has read Macadams' poetry or journalism is awaere of his talents. It is about time he put them to something larger.
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Format: Hardcover
Lewis MacAdams does an adequate job of detailing the "birth of the cool" providing biographical sketches of many of the coolest people to have lived. The list includes Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Lester Young, Jackson Pollock, and the Holy Trinity of Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs, among others. MacAdams book is a great introduction to all these figures, although I suggest after reading this book you will seek to delve deeper into the lives, art, music, and writing of everyone detailed in the book.
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Format: Hardcover
Reviews of this book on this site have characterized it as sloppy, uninformed, and even erroneous in certain historical details. I would have to agree that the book is breezy at times, and at its worst is slapdash in its treatment of what is probably one of the most important cultural phenomena of the past fifty to sixty years, i.e., the development and growth of the idea of "cool" as a form of cultural currency. Despite the misgivings, though, I think this book's themes are right on the money. Read in conjunction with other more attentive books about the phenomenon in question (and/or the historical period), this book can be a door-opener or a good supplement, depending on your point of view.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I took great delight in reading this book. I like how the author lead us down different yet connecting paths. A thoroughly enjoyable and informative read.
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