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.