The Origins of Cool in Postwar America

University of Chicago Press
Free sample

Cool. It was a new word and a new way to be, and in a single generation, it became the supreme compliment of American culture. The Origins of Cool in Postwar America uncovers the hidden history of this concept and its new set of codes that came to define a global attitude and style. As Joel Dinerstein reveals in this dynamic book, cool began as a stylish defiance of racism, a challenge to suppressed sexuality, a philosophy of individual rebellion, and a youthful search for social change.

Through eye-opening portraits of iconic figures, Dinerstein illuminates the cultural connections and artistic innovations among Lester Young, Humphrey Bogart, Robert Mitchum, Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, Jack Kerouac, Albert Camus, Marlon Brando, and James Dean, among others. We eavesdrop on conversations among Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Miles Davis, and on a forgotten debate between Lorraine Hansberry and Norman Mailer over the "white Negro" and black cool. We come to understand how the cool worlds of Beat writers and Method actors emerged from the intersections of film noir, jazz, and existentialism. Out of this mix, Dinerstein sketches nuanced definitions of cool that unite concepts from African-American and Euro-American culture: the stylish stoicism of the ethical rebel loner; the relaxed intensity of the improvising jazz musician; the effortless, physical grace of the Method actor. To be cool is not to be hip and to be hot is definitely not to be cool.

This is the first work to trace the history of cool during the Cold War by exploring the intersections of film noir, jazz, existential literature, Method acting, blues, and rock and roll. Dinerstein reveals that they came together to create something completely new—and that something is cool.
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About the author

Joel Dinerstein was the curator of American Cool, an acclaimed exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, and the author of its accompanying catalog. He is also the author of the award-winning Swinging the Machine: Modernity, Technology, and African-American Culture and Coach: A History of New York Cool. He is a cultural historian and professor of English at Tulane University.
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Additional Information

Publisher
University of Chicago Press
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Published on
May 17, 2017
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Pages
576
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ISBN
9780226453439
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Language
English
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Genres
History / General
History / United States / 20th Century
Literary Criticism / American / General
Music / Genres & Styles / Jazz
Music / History & Criticism
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Content Protection
This content is DRM protected.
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Eligible for Family Library

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Born of African rhythms, the spiritual "call and response," and other American musical traditions, jazz was by the 1920s the dominant influence on this country's popular music. Writers of the Harlem Renaissance (Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Zora Neale Hurston) and the "Lost Generation" (Malcolm Cowley, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein), along with many other Americans celebrated it--both as an expression of black culture and as a symbol of rebellion against American society. But an equal number railed against it. Whites were shocked by its raw emotion and sexuality, and blacks considered it "devil's music" and criticized it for casting a negative light on the black community. In this illuminating work, Kathy Ogren places this controversy in the social and cultural context of 1920s America and sheds new light on jazz's impact on the nation as she traces its dissemination from the honky-tonks of New Orleans, New York, and Chicago, to the clubs and cabarets of such places as Kansas City and Los Angeles, and further to the airwaves. Ogren argues that certain characteristics of jazz, notably the participatory nature of the music, its unusual rhythms and emphasis, gave it a special resonance for a society undergoing rapid change. Those who resisted the changes criticized the new music; those who accepted them embraced jazz. In the words of conductor Leopold Stowkowski, "Jazz [had] come to stay because it [was] an expression of the times, of the breathless, energetic, superactive times in which we [were] living, it [was] useless to fight against it." Numerous other factors contributed to the growth of jazz as a popular music during the 1920s. The closing of the Storyville section of New Orleans in 1917 was a signal to many jazz greats to move north and west in search of new homes for their music. Ogren follows them to such places as Chicago, New York, and San Francisco, and, using the musicians' own words as often as possible, tells of their experiences in the clubs and cabarets. Prohibition, ushered in by the Volstead Act of 1919, sent people out in droves to gang-controlled speak-easies, many of which provided jazz entertainment. And the 1920s economic boom, which made music readily available through radio and the phonograph record, created an even larger audience for the new music. But Ogren maintains that jazz itself, through its syncopated beat, improvisation, and blue tonalities, spoke to millions. Based on print media, secondary sources, biographies and autobiographies, and making extensive use of oral histories, The Jazz Revolution offers provocative insights into both early jazz and American culture.
In any age and any given society, cultural practices reflect the material circumstances of people's everyday lives. According to Joel Dinerstein, it was no different in America between the two World Wars-an era sometimes known as the "machine age"-when innovative forms of music and dance helped a newly urbanized population cope with the increased mechanization of modern life. Grand spectacles such as the Ziegfeld Follies and the movies of Busby Berkeley captured the American ethos of mass production, with chorus girls as the cogs of these fast, flowing pleasure vehicles.

Yet it was African American culture, Dinerstein argues, that ultimately provided the means of aesthetic adaptation to the accelerated tempo of modernity. Drawing on a legacy of engagement with and resistance to technological change, with deep roots in West African dance and music, black artists developed new cultural forms that sought to humanize machines. In "The Ballad of John Henry," the epic toast "Shine," and countless blues songs, African Americans first addressed the challenge of industrialization. Jazz musicians drew on the symbol of the train within this tradition to create a set of train-derived aural motifs and rhythms, harnessing mechanical power to cultural forms. Tap dance and the lindy hop brought machine aesthetics to the human body, while the new rhythm section of big band swing mimicked the industrial soundscape of northern cities. In Dinerstein's view, the capacity of these artistic innovations to replicate the inherent qualities of the machine-speed, power, repetition, flow, precision-helps explain both their enormous popularity and social function in American life.

When Dave Hickey was twelve, he rode the surfer’s dream: the perfect wave. And, like so many things in life we long for, it didn’t quite turn out----he shot the pier and dashed himself against the rocks of Sunset Cliffs in Ocean Beach, which just about killed him.

Fortunately, for Hickey and for us, he survived, and continues to battle, decades into a career as one of America’s foremost critical iconoclasts, a trusted, even cherished no-nonsense voice commenting on the all-too-often nonsensical worlds of art and culture. Perfect Wave brings together essays on a wide range of subjects from throughout Hickey’s career, displaying his usual breadth of interest and powerful insight into what makes art work, or not, and why we care. With Hickey as our guide, we travel to Disneyland and Vegas, London and Venice. We discover the genius of Karen Carpenter and Waylon Jennings, learn why Robert Mitchum matters more than Jimmy Stewart, and see how the stillness of Antonioni speaks to us today. Never slow to judge—or to surprise us in doing so—Hickey powerfully relates his wincing disappointment in the later career of his early hero Susan Sontag, and shows us the appeal to our commonality that we’ve been missing in Norman Rockwell. With each essay, the doing is as important as what’s done; the pleasure of reading Dave Hickey lies nearly as much in spending time in his company as in being surprised to find yourself agreeing with his conclusions.

Bookended by previously unpublished personal essays that offer a new glimpse into Hickey’s own life—including the aforementioned slam-bang conclusion to his youthful surfing career—Perfect Wave is not a perfect book. But it’s a damn good one, and a welcome addition to the Hickey canon.
NPR Best Books of 2017

In this sweeping history of popular music in the United States, NPR’s acclaimed music critic examines how popular music shapes fundamental American ideas and beliefs, allowing us to communicate difficult emotions and truths about our most fraught social issues, most notably sex and race.

In Good Booty, Ann Powers explores how popular music became America’s primary erotic art form. Powers takes us from nineteenth-century New Orleans through dance-crazed Jazz Age New York to the teen scream years of mid-twentieth century rock-and-roll to the cutting-edge adventures of today’s web-based pop stars. Drawing on her deep knowledge and insights on gender and sexuality, Powers recounts stories of forbidden lovers, wild shimmy-shakers, orgasmic gospel singers, countercultural perverts, soft-rock sensitivos, punk Puritans, and the cyborg known as Britney Spears to illuminate how eroticism—not merely sex, but love, bodily freedom, and liberating joy—became entwined within the rhythms and melodies of American song. This cohesion, she reveals, touches the heart of America's anxieties and hopes about race, feminism, marriage, youth, and freedom.

In a survey that spans more than a century of music, Powers both heralds little known artists such as Florence Mills, a contemporary of Josephine Baker, and gospel queen Dorothy Love Coates, and sheds new light on artists we think we know well, from the Beatles and Jim Morrison to Madonna and Beyoncé. In telling the history of how American popular music and sexuality intersect—a magnum opus over two decades in the making—Powers offers new insights into our nation psyche and our soul.

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