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Birth of the Cool: Beat, Bebop, and the American Avant-Garde

Lewis MacAdams

Birth of the Cool: Beat, Bebop, and the American Avant-Garde

Author:Lewis MacAdams
Publisher:Free Press

By Daniel Piotrowski | Posted 4/4/2001

Although the book takes its title from a Miles Davis album and features a photo of Jackie McLean on its cover, Birth of the Cool is not a book about jazz. Rather, it is an insightful, fast-paced look at the fascinating American artists of the mid-'40s to the mid-'60s that weaves in the cultural and political context of the era. In short, it's about the origins of the coolness phenomenon.

More than a history of scenes and movements, Birth is about people--in particular, the individuals now considered the avatars of coolness. Birth's greatest attribute is the way it strings together its mini-biographies into one narrative. Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, et al. may have lit the cool torch, but it wasn't theirs to keep. Others--Jackson Pollock, Allen Ginsberg, John Cage, John Cassavetes, William Burroughs, Andy Warhol--would grab it and enjoy their moment as the hippest of the hip, regardless of art form. Birth doesn't just tread the familiar ground of their fame but focuses on its subjects backgrounds as artists before they broke through to public awareness.

MacAdams, a fiftysomething born around the same time as "cool," links coolness with underground cachet, as he points out in the preface: "As soon as anything is cool, its cool starts to vaporize." Thus, while the book centers on celebrities, artists who played minor parts in the cool revolution are also remembered. For every Jack Kerouac or Marlon Brando, there are undersung artists such as Julian Beck and Judith Malina (both of New York's Living Theater) and percussionist Chano Pozo.

Not surprisingly, given the notions of cool that prevail to this day, Birth is male-dominated and New York-centric. But the book's biggest failing is its brevity. The best thing one can say about the generally superficial biographies is that they are relatively in-depth for their length (learn as much about Pollock in 30 pages here as in the current film about his life). And the numerous photographs, while making for a very aesthetically pleasing book, impose further limits on MacAdams' powers of explanation. Still, it's a start. On the whole, Birth is an excellent primer that draws indispensable links and conclusions about modern artistic appreciation.

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