Miles Davis and Robert Mitchum

Actor Harry Carey, Jr. met Robert Mitchum on the set of the movie Pursued (1947) and the encounter changed his life. Mitchum was a rising star of a singular, intimidating kind: he carried himself as if he was a force to be reckoned with, not a studio property. Mitchum embodied rebellion by example and showed Carey how to command respect on the set. Carry yourself in a relaxed, nonchalant manner, as if you can take the job or leave it. Avoid eagerness– people will take advantage of you. Ignore the director if he gives you a command – wait for a request. Treat all co-workers with respect, regardless of status or salary. Carey watched in awe as Mitchum hitched home every night from the studio – a star! -- taking rides in any kind of car with all kinds of people.

Mitchum’s lived egalitarianism was a shock to the young actor’s system. Carey was a Hollywood brat who grew up in the studios and so his testimony carries considerable weight:

It's over fifty years later ... and I still haven't met another guy like that in my life. He was just an overwhelming personality. Big. Powerful looking. I mean, I knew Duke Wayne, and Mitchum … was a much more overpowering figure than Duke Wayne was, no question. And Mitchum -- I don't know if they even had the word then -- Mitchum was cool. If they didn't have that expression he must have invented it, because he was just the coolest guy that ever lived. He had his own outlook on life and he didn't let anyone interfere with it. Totally opposite from me.[1]

Mitchum was a new and singular individual force that forced Carey, Jr. to reconsider his own mode of being-in-the-world. And Carey was right that the word “cool” did not yet exist outside of jazz culture.


Miles Davis was in the midst of a successful comeback in 1982 after a six-year self-imposed exile when Bryant Gumbel asked him on The Today Show how he chose a musician for his band. “First thing I look at in a musician is his carriage,” he said in his trademark rasp, “then what he wears, how he talks, how he walks.” To Miles, a person’s bearing, gait, voice, and phrasing were all elements of self-expression: each will tell on you. “And then when he picks up the instrument,” Davis paused, “[I watch] his approach to the instrument.” A certain kind of musician picked up the instrument “like it’s an extension of their body,” and through non-verbal gestures, “you can almost tell how he’s going to play it. 

Miles was looking for a certain relaxed intensity in an individual and his attitude to his music. This phrase – one favored by jazz musicians – remains synonymous with cool. Miles had it. Mitchum had it -- and even played a decent saxophone. Relaxed intensity: the aesthetic of American cool.

Yet no one is born cool and even Miles Davis built his from the inside out. [See Fig. 1] As an 18-year-old trumpeter apprenticing with Charlie Parker, Davis was trusting and eager: he literally carried Bird’s saxophone case and developed a heroin addiction in his wake. Between 1949-1954, Davis was taken advantage of by club-owners and drug dealers (and Bird), and he felt increasingly vulnerable. Even as was creating “cool jazz,” a subgenre with an emphasis on composition and muted tones, Davis began to develop strategies of self-defense. He took a page from Parker and turned his back on audiences or walked off-stage during the solos of other musicians. He developed an intense musical discipline by drawing on the physical regimen of boxer Sugar Ray Robinson, one of his idols. In fact, his musical style – the short, melodic phrases, the impeccable timing, the feints and jabs of his entrances and exits – owes a debt to boxers. By 1954, Miles Davis had kicked heroin and re-emerged as a wiry, fierce musical bad-ass with a pimp walk and a boxer’s don’t-fuck-with-me demeanor.

In so doing, Miles extended the innovative artistic and stylistic strategies of Lester Young, the legendary saxophonist who coined the modern usage of cool. Young was a pure Romantic artist who created a new, lighter sound for the tenor saxophone: “Originality’s the thing…without originality you ain’t really nowhere,” he once said, and about soloing, “I try not to be a repeater pencil, ya dig?” Young was the first performer to wear sunglasses at night and on-stage, a gesture picked up by nearly all jazz musicians. He maintained a relaxed, unhurried attitude and offered only a blank, impassive look to anyone outside the jazz guild. When Young first said, “I’m cool,” it meant, “I’m keeping it together in here against invasive social forces.” Poet Amiri Baraka penned a praise-poem to Young, “Pres Spoke in a Language”:

In the teeming whole of us he lived

Tooting on his sideways horn ....

The slickster walking through the crowd

Surviving on a terrifying wit

It’s the jungle the jungle the jungle

We living in.  

Cool translated to living by your wits and it spoke to Young’s strategies of insulation from a racist society that had always hurt him.[2]

Cool demands a convincing performance. When James Baldwin first traveled out of Harlem in the early 1950s, he was often refused service at restaurants in nearby New Jersey or cursed just for walking in. He needed to control the intense anger he experienced in response to these Northern acts of Jim Crow and he reflected then that “there is not a Negro alive who does not have this rage in his blood.” His choice was either to “live with it [rage] consciously or surrender to it.” To control his rage meant to develop a subjective consciousness at odds with the self-congratulatory complacency of a then-segregated society. Baldwin would keep his consciousness secret and outwardly wear a mask of cool. Baldwin’s friend, Norman Mailer -- always a good cultural reporter -- imagined the psychological work behind the mask of jazz musicians: 

to be cool is to be in control of a situation because you have swung where the Square has not, or because you have allowed to come to consciousness a pain…  a shame or a desire which the other has not had the courage to face.

Like the jazz musicians he admired, Baldwin enacted a public mode of diffidence. African-American cool is a form of Stoicism, of quietist resistance: it was borne of bringing to consciousness emotional experiences (“a pain … shame or … desire”) that white Americans have lacked “the courage to face.”

In effect, the mask of cool represents a certain stylized suffering and compels wonder in an outside observer: Who is this person? What has he or she experienced? As Baldwin wrote of transmuting rage into action and cool: "The most difficult (and most rewarding) thing in my life has been the fact that I was born a Negro and was forced, therefore, to effect some kind of truce with this reality.”

In other words, cool has its costs. It is a performance of emotional self-control that demands the suppression of a range of emotions. In its stylish stoicism there is a mix of hardness and vulnerability. Without the vulnerability, it would be stone cold and unfeeling. For example, once a childhood friend of Miles Davis ran into him outside a New York jazz club where the trumpeter was surrounded by fans. Excited to see him, the friend shouted with joy and ran to embrace him. Miles cut him with his eyes as if he barely knew him. The friend pulled up short, hurt, and Davis gestured for him to wait. After the crowd dispersed, he said, “Don’t ever greet me like that in public again.” Davis needed to maintain his cool mask: it kept people at arm’s length and created an aura of intimidation. “Miles’ disguise would certainly never fool anybody with sense,” James Baldwin once said, “but it keeps a lot of people away, and that’s the point.” The jazz musician’s mask of cool was the public sign of the “truce with reality” each had made in a racist society full of demeaning stereotypes of Black men. 

American cool emerges from jazz because it is the nation’s emblematic art form of individuality: first, you must create a personalized sound; second, the jazz subculture was full of rebel artists of all ethnicities for three generations. Jack Kerouac worshiped Lester Young: he wrote a literary manifesto based on jazz improvisation and calling for “bop prosody” – fiction based on the long, flowing solos of bebop. (see Fig. 2 - Kerouac) Even Bob Dylan, for all his larger debts to Woody Guthrie, Elvis, and Robert Johnson, learned cool by watching Miles Davis:

Miles Davis is my definition of cool. I loved to see him in the small clubs playing his solo, turn his back on the crowd, put down his horn and walk off the stage, let the band keep playing, and then come back and play a few notes at the end. I did that at a couple of shows. The audience thought I was sick.[3] 

When Dylan moved to New York in 1961, jazz was still the city’s hippest subculture and the Beat-influenced readings of poetry-to-jazz changed his songwriting. “My songs were influenced not so much by poetry on the page, but by poetry being recited … with jazz bands.” In the 1980s, Dylan defined himself as “a rock 'n' roller, folk poet, gospel-blues-protestest guitar player,” and perhaps should have amended it to “folk-jazz poet.”

Bryant Gumbel asked Miles Davis in the aforementioned interview whether he wanted his audience to consider his new ‘80s phase as a comeback, a move towards pop, or a return to playing standards? 

“Don’t tell ‘em nothing,” Miles said. “Let ‘em guess: what’s he gonna do next?”

“You like the mystery,” Gumbel suggested.

They like it,” he countered. “I’m cool.” Davis didn’t mean “I’m the man,” but rather, “I’m cool with it either way.” In a lifetime on stage and in the limelight, Davis had perceived the need for audiences to project their own subjective desires onto the mythic figures of art and popular culture, the secular stars of our national pantheon.


[1] Quoted in Lee Server, "'Baby I Don't Care': The Life of Robert Mitchum (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2006), 114-15.

[2]See Joel Dinerstein, “Lester Young and the Birth of Cool,” in Gena Caponi, ed., Signifying, Sanctifying, and Slam-dunking (Amherst: Univ. of Mass. Press, 1999), 239-76.

[3]“Bob Dylan: Not Like A Rolling Stone Interview,” Spin, December 1985, online.

Second-Lining Post-Katrina with the Prince of Wales

Pre-ramble:  There is a second-line parade every Sunday for nine months of every year in New Orleans. It is a four-hour, four-mile long rolling block party: a platform for community, music, dance, theater, self-expression, historical memory, public grievance, ethnic customs, and social bonding that speaks to every idealistic impulse we have for art and culture yet remains uncelebrated even in its own city.  

The term "second-line" often calls forth the jaunty gestures of buzzed middle-aged JazzFesters getting their New Orleans freak on: men in Hawaiian shirts and women in long skirts pointing flower-print umbrellas at the sky while half-spinning in a muddy-line dance to traditional New Orleans songs played by brass bands in military uniform. I'm still shocked at how many New Orleanians have never been on a Sunday second-line parade.

This knowledge gap is rooted in something I once called "aesthetic racism." I refer to the disrespect of African-American culture, both in and of itself, and its ethnocentric relegation to something less than art or culture, even amongst scholars and intellectuals. Euro-Americans love it, sing it, and dance to it, but consider it -- if they ever do – as fun or as funking it up. Modernist scholars remain vaguely informed of the artistic innovations of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington (as historically contextualized) and such aesthetic racism is prevalent.

This is a class as well as a racial divide. As one veteran second-liner reflects, "Only certain people participated -- it was street people of a lower socioeconomic class. Middle class black people, bourgeois black folks, didn't embrace that. They were trying to emulate the white culture ... so that [second-lining] was too Africanized [for them]. Too uncouth. To see a bunch of black folks out there buck jumping, as we called it, was embarrassing to them."

My intent here is to raise consciousness while shedding light on the failures of multiculturalism, a rubric that continues to allow for the specious magical utterance of "diversity" without requiring any cultural or aesthetic work. This essay takes seriously Kenneth Burke's key phrase about the function of literature – that it is "equipment for living" – since Albert Murray appropriated it as the key objective of African-American music and ritual. Here's how I translate "equipment for living":

What is the psychological gear I put on to get out of bed in the morning? Through what aesthetic and physiological means do I enjoy and affirm my daily existence? With what frameworks do I understand my place in the community and the world? What existential resources do I depend upon? Which aspects come from my community, my ethnic group, my nation, my family, my neighborhood, my self?

So what is a second line? It's a rolling block party, a cultural institution, a community event that carnivalizes and colonizes the public sphere, a weekly celebration of neighborhood or clan, a walkabout for urbanites.

A definition, then. A second-line parade is what I call a "mobile block party" that lasts four hours (by police permit) and travels five miles into and through the streets of black New Orleans. Each one is organized and sponsored by a Social Aid & Pleasure Club (SA & PC) -- there are about sixty, each with dues-paying members – and each one has a certain Sunday reserved between Labor Day and the end of May. "Route sheets" are printed, distributed and e-mailed throughout the city, alerting people to the four or five stops to join the parade. At each, there will be tailgate grills smoking up sausage, chicken, and pork chops; make-shift bars on top of pick-up trucks with alcohol; women circulating with trays of homemade sweet potato pie and brownies. Along the way, coffin-sized coolers are dragged to provide beer, water, and wine-coolers to the weary and sweaty.

Music is provided by a hired brass band, the engine of the second-line. They are out front with the resplendent members of the SA & PC leading the parade, and in front of the band there extends a twenty-yard roped off area in which the members dance with and against each other. When parading, everyone is supposed to dance or, at the very least, roll wid it. As a phrase, this refers both to a certain physiological set of gestures and movement -- a sort of slight head-tilted rolling dance-walk – as well as the philosophical import of maintaining one's spiritual balance in the face of social and economic pressures.

Participation is the rule -- not spectating or just walking. On larger second lines, like The Revolution or Black Men of Labor, the mass of people might extends for a quarter-mile; on smaller ones, for two blocks or so. In any case if you want to near the band, you need to dance or get out of the way.

Here I sketch and analyze the role, function, and experience of second-line parades, a cultural form created by and for working-class African-American New Orleanians. Then I make a case study of a specific second-line parade: the 77th annual Prince of Wales Social Aid and Pleasure Club on Dec. 18, 2005. This is an old-school essay in the participant/observer tradition.


Link to full PDF of article. (XX pages, opens in new window)

To Face The Music

A month after I moved to New Orleans in summer 2003 for a job at Tulane, a new friend who had become my local emissary brought me to my first second line. A second line parade is a weekly celebration of life and local black culture, a platform for self- and collective expression, a walkabout for urbanites. By the end of the first hour on that beautiful sunny Sunday September afternoon I was buzzed and happy and dancing next to the tubas. I'd already heard the brass band drop into the dirge "A Closer Walk With Thee" and re-boot with "I'll Fly Away." That's what happens at jazz funerals but this was a second line:  as a jazz scholar and English professor, I had to find out how this weekly ritual had come to exist here under the radar. The answer turned out to be pretty straightforward. Despite the familiar ring of the phrase "second-line" and a century-long tradition in working-class African-American neighborhoods, most white New Orleanians have never even seen a second-line and the police chronically treat them as hostile street actions.

At that first parade, there was a sprinkling of white participants, mostly hipsters, scholars, local musicians, and a few tourists. Since Katrina, there's been an uptick in middle-class interest and a given second-line may be nearly 20% white. Still, few of the white onlookers enter the parade —chant, dance, rock their bodies, shake their booties—although participation is encouraged, if only by example.

Some people just walk along and enjoy the rolling block party as a tourist attraction, but some have a second-line conversion experience. David Simon, the creator of The Wire, had one, and that seed is currently bearing fruit as Treme, the show he's currently filming in town. "I remember stumbling into my first second-line parade maybe 20 years ago," he said. "The Treme Brass Band went up Orleans Avenue to Claiborne Avenue, then stopped under the I-10 bridge. The echo was fantastic. They went past the Lafitte projects and people came out of their homes to join in. I was all the way up in Mid-City before I realized I'd walked 30 blocks and would have to walk all the way back. I didn't know exactly what was going on, but I was hooked."

And the beat goes on. Every Sunday the band lays down the jazz, funk, and hiphop rhythms for the resplendent club members inside the ropes to lead the celebration. Neighbors stand on their porches or come out onto the so-called "neutral ground" (i.e., the commons) to wave, dance, and watch the parade go by, or to roll wid it awhile. At four or five stops at bars, the band and clubbers wet their whistles while tailgate grills smoke the scene with the tender mercies of street-pork, make-shift bars on truck cabs grease the human wheels, and the Pie Lady and Fruit Guy circulate to sweeten the breaks. Then it's back to livening up the otherwise grim city streets.

Link to full PDF of article. (XX pages, opens in new window)

Albert Murray, American Metaphysician

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In early 1996, Albert Murray agreed to talk to me for a half hour about my dissertation research in his Harlem apartment after a short phone conversation and it quickly turned into an epic four-hour mentor–disciple discussion about music, dance, and vernacular American culture. I was then building a theory of jazz and industrialization on two of his critical terms from Stomping the Blues: first, the idea of African-American music and dance as “survival technology” (or “survival technique,” one of his favorite expressions); second, his concept of “locomotive onomatopoeia” as an American musical grammar, in that by stylizing train rhythms and sounds, musicians created a foundation for vernacular popular music. Duke Ellington told Murray once: “Jazz is [often] a matter of onomatopoeia,” and so the question is, as he said to me, “What are you imitating?” My hypothesis was that during the “Machine Age” of art, jazz musicians were imitating and stylizing factory and urban rhythms, transmuting them into the primal human pleasures of music and dance. Murray saw merit in my theory “because it [jazz] has the onomatopoetic quality built in … and because it’s flexible enough to adapt to it.”

That was all the encouragement I needed and a good thing, too, since within ten minutes this initial exchange dissolved into the controlled whirlwind of Albert Murray’s intellectual universe. “Hector Boletho,” he suddenly cried out happily and waved me over to the stepladder near his bookshelves and up, up, up, “second shelf from the top, thin volume named Leviathan,” and there was an essay, “The Sound of the Zeitgeist,” about the symbolic revolution of the saxophone in the 1920s. Then we spoke of ritual and he roared, “Suzanne Langer, Philosophy in a New Key, 1942, third shelf,” then onto American existentialism, “Hemingway, Winner Take Nothing, nineteen and thirty-three, bottom shelf.” Murray told me his five-stage theory of art, from a new form’s near-sacred aesthetic power to its declension into simple recreation. Art is about transcending something, he suggested, while deep play is abouttransmuting something. At the time, I thought it was an interesting synthesis of Nietzsche and the Tao Te Ching.

Two hours later, after an exchange about our mutual admiration for jazz legend Lester Young, Murray stood up on his four-pronged silver cane and said, “It’s time we had some Armagnac.” I didn’t know what Armagnac was at the time. We walked over to a rolling bar and he opened up three or four small jewel boxes. Each had a small, engraved silver chalice representing each of his books. He pointed: Which one did I want to drink from? I was too honored to speak but managed to point at Good Morning Blues, the autobiography he wrote with Count Basie. Murray drank from The Seven-League Boots, his most recent novel in the Scooter saga.

Albert Murray’s subject was affirmation vs. existential angst: His field of study was art and aesthetics. He was at heart a metaphysician, something that would have been more clear if he called The Blue Devils of Nada something like Blues and Nothingness to contrast it with Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. Their subject matter was the same. As early as 1953, Murray and his friend Ralph Ellison mocked existentialism as highbrow “survival technique” for an intellectual elite. In an exchange of letters, they discussed blues as itself an existential art form, but one with universal appeal as it came from the daunting challenge of overcoming slavery and racism.

For Murray, the blues and jazz, Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner and Joan Didion, Ellington and Bessie Smith are all on a continuum of survival technique: They are existential innovators creating affirmative culture for everyday people to interpret their lives. And that’s just his American cast. Murray was the hippest intellectual of the twentieth century: The narrative structure of his novels came from combining Thomas Mann’s epic novels with Ellington’s compositional method; his prose voice jazzed up James Joyce by way of Count Basie’s rhythm section; his theory of affirmation in Afro-US music came from Kenneth Burke via Andre Malraux. This cast all appears by name in Stomping the Blues and yet the color line in scholarship frames Murray as a Black intellectual writing on one side of the color line. This Jim-Crowing of American cultural analysis hurts all concerned.

For something as misunderstood as African-American expressive culture, Stomping the Blues (1976) exploded into an analytical vacuum. Murray looks at the blues as if it is a jewel: a chapter on the genre name itself, then on the blues as sung, the blues as played in jazz, the blues as danced, the blues as ritual, and finally, the blues as liturgical music for the Saturday Night Function (in contrast to the gospel used for the Sunday Morning Service). Murray narrates the work in prose as exuberant as Basie’s “Jumpin’ at the Woodside” and punctuated with jubilant photos that send each point home. If Kenneth Burke defined “the symbolic act as the dancing of an attitude,” this was Murray’s book-length study of the blues as such. The book draws on Burke right off the bat, transmuting Burke’s idea of literature as “equipment for living” to music.

Murray has few peers with respect to the social function of the artist’s role in a democracy. His work belongs in any conversation that runs from Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, and Alexis de Tocqueville through to John Dewey and William Carlos Williams, and his writings on American identity will endure and (I believe) be found prescient. He was a pluralist. When he famously claimed our culture is “incontestably mulatto,” he meant two things: first, that there is no American culture without African-American music and dance, humor and language, aesthetics and kinesthetic; second, that every American is multicultural based on the foundational intermixture of the nation and on ongoing cultural exchange. All of Murray’s nonfiction books braid three things: American vernacular art and aesthetics; the philosophy of the blues (broadly conceived); and the African-American struggle for social equality. In terms of the latter, as Eric Foner has shown, this struggle has defined and re-defined the very word and concept of “freedom” since the Civil War.

Albert Murray confidently theorized the two formative aesthetic elements of what W. E. B. Du Bois called “the gifts” of the slaves to American culture. First and foremost, the affirmative impulse in the groove that pulsates and rejuvenates the spirit, from ragtime to hip-hop. “Everybody profits by the affirmative outlook the slaves had on life [to survive],” he said. Second, the quality of improvisation—the room for individuality—in each musical form, often called “the break” in jazz. This was the main thrust of artistic analysis in The Hero and the Blues: When the band drops out, the musician faces the void just as a writer faces a blank piece of paper, except in public and in real time. Right then the musician has to spontaneously compose something worthy of getting himself, the band, and the audience over to the other side. He looked up to see if I understood and then jumped through time and space back into Harlem in the 1930s to drive home his point: “every day is like either … cut your throat or be down at the Savoy [Ballroom] by 9:30.” In other words, the importance of music and dance to African Americans, and by extension to everyone willing to participate, is that musicians and dancers collaborate in this rejuvenatory ritual. Together, everyone stomps their blues away.

At one point, Murray criticized his disciple Wynton Marsalis’s epic composition Blood on the Fields for the overly somber movements that represent slavery. “You gotta have some affirmation in there. You a colored boy,” he looked up as if Marsalis was sitting there with us, “[and] black folks gotta cut loose sometime.” I would add: Everyone has to cut loose sometime. And everyone mostly cuts loose to music indebted to African-American methods of musical practice. This is not a black-white cultural thing in terms of critical engagement, and yet we have made it so.

Just before I left I asked Murray for his thoughts on the concept of cool; I was just beginning my inquiry into its origins in jazz culture. “Cool is just the stylization of everyday life,” he said simply. Did he mean something along the lines of what Willie “The Lion” Smith once said about James P. Johnson’s elegant physical gestures, “that every movement was like a picture”? Like that? He nodded, exactly. Then he repeated the leitmotif of the entire afternoon: “Remember: The first object of aesthetic statement is to affect the mind.” I understood: none of this is simply about style or fun, vanity or virtuosity. It is embodied philosophy enacted as a form of cultural leadership.

Albert Murray was (and is) a hero of the blues.It is up to scholars, intellectuals, and Americans of every ethnicity to catch up to his pluralist vision of the embodied philosophies of Afro-US music and dance. It is a global legacy by which the human race continues to stomp its blues away, individually and socially, whether we call the music blues or funk, techno or soul, Afrobeat or hip-hop.

RIP Albert Murray, may you dance in peace.

Women & Cool

From the catalog of American Cool (Prestel)

Bassist Esperanza Spaulding from the catalog. (Detail)

Bassist Esperanza Spaulding from the catalog. (Detail)

Recently I assigned my class on the history of cool to ask ten friends to name a contemporary male and female icon of cool and one male student simply called out, “Women aren’t cool”— and no woman (or man) rose to contradict him. In contrast to the enormous economic and professional progress made by American women, social pressure remains so strong in terms of body image, motherhood, and deference to men that Hollywood has not produced a single lasting cool female icon in the past generation. Of the actresses who emerged in the early 1990s with the moxie to walk the line of regular gal and bad-ass, there was a cohort including Winona Ryder, Jennifer Lopez, Cameron Diaz, Lucy Liu, Drew Barrymore, Halle Berry, and Uma Thurman. Each of these actresses let the industry shape their careers or cuddled up with the media, became Cover Girls or self-destructed. Nor did they receive the kinds of opportunities granted to the generation of actors opposite them: Benicio Del Toro, Johnny Depp, Robert Downey, Jr., Matt Damon and Brad Pitt. And they took comparatively few chances compared to, say, Faye Dunaway, Susan Sarandon, or Julianne Moore.


Until the 1970s, cool was a masculine sensibility represented by such figures as Miles Davis and Frank Sinatra, Clint Eastwood and Johnny Cash, Steve McQueen and Lou Reed. A quick list of the core qualities of classic cool -- toughness, rebellion, detachment, self-possession, mystery, a capacity for violence – reveals a rap sheet often unavailable to women. "If a woman acted like Miles Davis, people would think she was autistic or something," author and activist Rebecca Solnit once told me. A cool woman exhibits a certain fierce independence through a signature style, of course, but the qualities of say, a Thelonious Monk or Benicio Del Toro – "the aloof unavailability part, the nonreactive part, the non-warmth" – are denied to women since "that's often a dude thing," Solnit said. For this reason, cool has received pushback from Bell Hooks (We Real Cool) and Susan Fraiman (Cool and the Second Sex), since these macho qualities often have negative effects on women and families. Even today, when Hollywood explores cool within a female framework, the plot focuses more on the dilemma of a protagonist torn between being nice and popular or bitchy and sexy (e.g., Heathers, Mean Girls, Clueless). How is (or was) a rebel woman to find her way?


Social equality does not move in a linear progression and historical movements work through eras of ebb and flow. More cool women emerged in the modernist 1920s -- Dorothy Parker, Bessie Smith, Mae West, Louise Brooks, Zora Neale Hurston, Georgia O’Keeffe – than in the postwar era. Just as Betty Friedan showed in The Feminine Mystique, due to the immense social pressure on women to think of themselves as wives and mothers, there were few defiant American women in the postwar public sphere. During the 1960s, the political energies of the womens’ movement stirred up tangible, overt social upheaval rather than underground rebel energy. So with the important exception of jazz singer-activists such as Nina Simone and Abbey Lincoln, the shift did not occur until the 1970s.


The new female rebels came through rock-and-roll, the primary artistic form and forum of ‘60s rebellion: Bonnie Raitt, Patti Smith, Deborah Harry, Chrissie Hynde. Raitt apprenticed with Fred MacDowell and became the first white blueswoman earth-mother; Smith’s androgynous punk aesthetic brought together Beat poetry, rock-and-roll, the womens movement, and “the female longing for everything,” as one rock critic reflected. Deborah Harry and Chrissie Hynde were the first women bandleaders and they seemed to be born rebels: Hynde was a singer-songwriter biker chick from Ohio who transformed British punk according to her pop sensibility and fierce sexuality; Harry challenged men from within a coy, ironic glamor, a playfully aggressive punk sex bomb. Their commitment to art and style blasted open cultural space for all the riot grrrls and divas that followed.


Cool women still emerge mostly from popular music, an artistic forum where they literally must take and hold center stage. Besides Missy Elliott and Selena, Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth and Tina Weymouth of the Talking Heads are certainly cool artistic icons, equally influential if less nationally iconic. Yet rarely does a website or article call attention to a woman’s cool. In fact, I first saw "cool" applied to Kim Gordon in an interview from May 2013, a full generation passed the prime of Sonic Youth, and then in a follow-up article, “Cooler-Than-Ever Kim Gordon Stuns in Elle.” In fact, to judge from current trends, women will more likely chart a rebel course out of comedy than through the Hollywood grinder or music: Tina Fey, Amy Pohler, Sarah Silverman. 


Yet the future of American cool is in the hands of women since female identity and potential is in its iconic infancy. It is not simply that young women are more driven, passionate, and hungry for knowledge and achievement than young men, although this is obvious to any professor. It is more the case that women have barely scratched the surface of an expanding realm of female identity.


In the next generation, it is likely women will outnumber men for lasting iconic effect and innovative artistic impact. From a younger cohort, Esperanza Spalding, Janelle Monae, Pink and Jennifer Lawrence have already staked emotional and artistic claims on new ground. Rachel Maddow, Tina Fey, Ani DiFranco, Connie Britton and Michelle Obama are all primed to create a lasting impact on culture as they decide on their next creative phases.


American Cool is in a state of transmutation. Either American women will stake a claim to the concept -- if they find it worth saving – or it will fade into irrelevance.



The Mask of Cool


Between 1938-1952, five African-American writers killed off the figure of Uncle Tom with can only be called literary executions, beginning with Richard Wright's Uncle Tom's Children (1938). Chester Himes literally buried Uncle Tom with a full funeral in "Heaven Has Changed" (1943) and Ralph Ellison killed him off symbolically in the opening chapter of Invisible Man (1952). Duke Ellington's objective for his Los Angeles revue Jump for Joy (1941) was to "take Uncle Tom out of the theatre and eliminate the stereotyped image that had been exploited by Hollywood and Broadway." Uncle-Tomming was a form of masking one's feelings and thoughts in front of whites and it was a key survival strategy in the Jim Crow era. These artistic executions signaled a symbolic repudiation of the racial order in the way that cultural change often precedes social and political shifts. In the generation before the civil rights movement, a new mask emerged from jazz culture to replaced Tomming: the mask of cool. In analyzing these stories, I show how emotional masking works in American society and how – and why – cool first emerged among African-American men.

An anecdote about Louis Armstrong will serve to open a window onto the matrix of  Uncle Tomming and the social changes wrought by civil rights. By 1957, even the editors of Jet magazine had called Armstrong an "Uncle Tom"; the magazine claimed he bore some responsibility for reassuring the world that "the Negro's lot in America is a happy one." That year, while on tour in South Dakota, there were riots to prevent the Little Rock 9 from integrating the public schools of Arkansas. For refusing to support the students, Armstrong called President Eisenhower "two faced" and claimed he had "no guts." Many whites were outraged at Armstrong's insubordination; many Blacks were surprised by his political consciousness. It was as if the Uncle-Tom mask had spoken outside of expectations. "It's getting so bad a colored man almost hasn't got any country," Armstrong told a reporter while on tour. "The way they are treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell." Armstrong was masked so convincingly as an Uncle-Tom that when the AP editor read his reporter's interview, he insisted Armstrong sign the article to ensure its validity.

"Solid," Armstrong wrote across the bottom, "don't change a single word."

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American Cool: The Four Eras

The Roots of Cool: Before 1940
The stage was set for the emergence of cool as a cultural phenomenon in the early 1940s by a series of sweeping transformations in the first decades of the twentieth century. The figures in this first section were not called cool in their day but were leading exemplars of new energies that were changing the social contours of American life. A fresh rebelliousness was revealed in the new film capital of Hollywood, in modernist literature and art, in emerging youth entertainments, and in a new music called jazz. The advent of technologies such as radio, film, and the automobile and the increasing diversity in America’s booming cities accelerated the pace of change. Though Prohibition in the 1920s sought to regulate American morality by ending the consumption of alcohol, this period saw the expression of a new independence among young people and others historically on the margins of public life. In particular, both African Americans and women sought and began to attain freedoms long denied. Cool has long denoted a person’s sense of calm and composure. Charismatic individuals such as those featured here contributed greatly to the changing mores in American society before World War II. Cool came to serve as the concept and emblematic term of a new rebel sensibility.


The Birth of Cool: 1940–1960
Being cool was a response to the rapid changes of modernity: it was about maintaining a state of equipoise within swirling, dynamic social forces. The legendary jazz saxophonist Lester Young disseminated the word and concept of cool into jazz culture in the early 1940s, and it quickly crossed over as a rebel masculine sensibility. When Young said, “I’m cool,” he meant, first, that he was relaxed in the environment and, second, that he was keeping it together under social and economic pressure as well as the absurdity of life in a racist society. This mask of cool emerged as a form of American stoicism and was manifested in jazz, film noir, Beat literature, and abstract expressionism. In jazz, a generation of younger musicians rejected big-band swing entertainment to create bebop, a fast, angular, virtuosic style that moved jazz out of dance halls and into nightclubs. In Hollywood, film noir represented postwar anxiety in through crime dramas shot through with working-class existentialism and the fear of women’s sexual and economic power. Among Beat writers and abstract painters, cool referred to a combination of wildness and intensity in men unconcerned with social conformity. Starting from jazz, cool was a rebel sensibility suggesting that an individual’s importance could be registered only through self-expression and the creation of a signature style. By 1960 cool was the protean password of a surging underground aesthetic.

Cool and the Counterculture: 1960–1980
In the 1960s and 1970s, to be cool was to be antiauthoritarian and open to new ideas from young cultural leaders in rock and roll, journalism, film, and African American culture. Cool was a badge of opposition to “the System,” by turns a reference to the police, the government, the military-industrial complex, or traditional morality. Using drugs such as marijuana or even LSD was an indicator of risk taking and expanding one’s consciousness; not experimenting with drugs suggested a fear of opening one’s mind or perspective, of being “uptight” or “square.” The same was true of sexual exploration, social protest, and ethnic politics. The aesthetic of stylized understatement still held power, yet cool itself morphed under the era’s social upheavals. The counterculture valued being authentic and emotionally naked: being cool meant a person was “out-front” with others and comfortable in his or her own skin. For African Americans, what had once been suppressed under the mask of cool transformed into defiant civic engagement in music, sports, and politics. “Cool” meant to communicate a set of emotions without losing control, and rock and roll was the art form (and forum) best suited for this shift, especially for women. Patti Smith, Bonnie Raitt, Deborah Harry, and Chrissie Hynde all carved out new iconic stances, styles, and voices for independent women who were sexy on their own terms. Cool became the supreme compliment for creative public figures who broke new cultural ground and maintained their personal integrity over time.

The Legacies of Cool: 1980–Present
In 1980s America, the selling of rebellion as style became ingrained in cool. From highbrow fashion to mass-culture video games, product designers, advertisers, and consumers embraced the cool aesthetic. Selling out was no longer a curse and youth culture increasingly embraced the pursuit of wealth. In the 1990s, many essays proclaimed that cool was dead, yet the concept retained its rebellious vitality and re-emerged from many disparate quarters. From hip-hop to Seattle grunge, from skateboarding and extreme sports to the web's explosion of nerd cool, from graffiti to MTV, cool icons were central to the vitality of new cultural forms and African American culture remained central to its growth. By the 1980s cool also had an easily recognizable history, and many figures from its past—like heroes from a bygone era—continued to resonate widely. Indeed, new icons of cool often built careers that owed much to earlier exemplars. In globalization, cool continues to play a large role in the world’s understanding of America and in Americans’ own sense of national identity. The cultural concept of cool may be America’s chief cultural export.

Lester Young and the Birth of Cool

The origins of cool are in 1940s jazz culture and the legendary tenor saxophonist Lester Young coined it first to refer to a state of mind. When Young said, “I’m cool" or "that's cool," he meant “I'm calm," "I'm keeping it together," or "I'm relaxed in this environment, and in my own style." African-American cool can be seen as an ideal state of balance, a calm-but-engaged state of mind between the emotional poles of "hot" (excited, aggressive, intense, hostile) and "cold" (unfeeling, efficient, mechanistic). Jazz musicians often use the concise phrase, "relaxed intensity," as a synonym for cool. In effect, cool meant then what "chill" means now.


Young's strategies of style were as influential as his artistic innovations. His renowned use of hip slang influenced jazz culture, Beat generation writers, and the counter-culture of the 1960s. He wore shades on-stage at night and indoors as a marker of cool defiance and self-insulation. His renowned sense of humor and trademark pork-pie hat, and silent, expressive sadness generated so much jazzlore he remains a model of the hip jazz musician. He expressed his inner pain artistically and wore blank facial expression to resist the white gaze such that he embodied two aspects of cool that seem contradictory:  artistic expressiveness and emotional self-control.


Four core African-American concepts merge into the concept of cool and all still influence contemporary usage. First, to be cool meant to maintain a relaxed attitude in performance of any kind, whether on-stage or walking in public. Second, to be cool was to project emotional self-control as if wearing a "cool mask" in the face of hostile, provocative outside forces. Third, to be cool was to create a unique, individual style -- or sound -- that communicated something of your inner spirit. Fourth, cool was an artistic ideal of emotional communication within an artistic field of rules and restraint (such as jazz or art or basketball).  Then and now, cool is also just the word used to express aesthetic approval of any impressive performance ("cool!"). 


Lester Young created the "cool" saxophone style and he is the father of the "cool school" of jazz. His ground-breaking swing-era records were made with Billie Holiday or the Count Basie Orchestra. Young was Holiday's musical soulmate and they bestowed the nicknames on each other that stuck for life: she dubbed him "Pres" because he was "the president of all saxophone players," and Young dubbed her "Lady Day." He burst into recorded jazz history in 1936 with a revolutionary and modern tenor sound:  fast, floating, airy, clean, light.  His combination of lightning speed, blues feeling, rhythmic balance, precise articulation and inexhaustible melodic ideas made him something like the Michael Jordan of jazz.  Dizzy Gillespie called it a "cool, flowing style" to emphasize the long, fluid phrases, strategic use of silence and space, and rhythmic mastery.


 Young's whole life was self-consciously dedicated to being original on the Romantic model -- in his music, in his mannerisms, in his style of detachment –as if being original was the vital force of life itself.  He was 'cool' – calm and imperturbable. Jack Kerouac worshiped Lester Young and his heirs Miles Davis and Charlie Parker disseminated the term and concept of cool itself. Bandleader Johnny Otis wrote that simply that Young "is the one figure who stands above the entire field of music as the guiding spirit of African American artistry." Young was a musical genius with a legendary sense of humor who influenced hundreds of musicians during the most dynamic years of the Great Migration from South to North, a dynamic time when American race relations were undergoing a radical shift.


Here I explore the West African, African-American, and Anglo-American roots of cool, and Young's synthesis of these cultural materials in its creation.



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From The Blackwell Companion to American Cultural History, ed. Karen Halttunen (2008)



Modernism has always been a contentious term and remains more a cultural field than a historical period. For more than two generations, it was a relatively stable category defined by literary (and artistic) works between 1910-1940 that featured radical experimentation with language, multiple points of view, and innovative narrative structures, all unified solely by the artist's aesthetic vision. This traditional artistic modernism emerged as both a critique of conformist bourgeois life and an inquiry into the subjective nature of reality employing Freud's keys for unlocking the layers of consciousness. American modernism has long since been de-centered and pluralized along lines of class and identity; in just the past few years, it has been variously approached as "border modernism," "primitivist modernism," "diasporic modernism," "pulp modernism," and "Machine-Age modernism."

International modernism, by contrast, suffers no such identity crisis. Surveys of Eurocentric modernism still provide a sweeping portrayal of modernist thought and culture, but focus almost exclusively on Europe; the United States plays only a small but vital role. For example, William R. Everdell's The First Moderns (1997) begins in Vienna and depicts that city's intellectual ferment in the fields of literature, architecture, physics, psychology, and mathematics, before following key figures to Paris, London, and Berlin. Modris Eksteins’ Rites of Spring (1989) picks up the thread in 1913 Paris, and immediately establishes the concurrent modernisms of art, technology, and politics just before World War I exposed German nationalism and the shock of modern warfare. In the dynamic physical display of Russian ballet, the spatial reorientation of Cezanne and the Cubists, the Futurists' embrace of machine technology, and the rage for ragtime dances, Eksteins reveals the diffuse desires of those attempting, in Gertrude Stein's term, to "kill off the nineteenth century." In these histories, the US provides the innovations and inventions of industrial capitalism and its responsive cultural forms: skyscraper cities, assembly lines, sleek powerful cars, jazz rhythms, and African-American kinesthetics (physical movement).

The analogous texts on American modernism are two anthologies. One maps the impact of technology across the spectrum of the arts, from George Antheil's Ballet Mecanique to Busby Berkeley's musicals (Ludington 2000); the other explores race, class, and gender responses to the quicksilver shifts in markets and production, equating modernism with the embrace of mobile identities (Scandura and Thurston 2001). Both works focus on individual negotiations of the massive social changes in the half-century between 1890 and 1940: the demands of the industrial workplace; immigration and urbanization; ethnic consciousness and labor rebellion; adaptations of the body to machines; the emergence of a national media culture. Such experiential modernism registers "the simultaneous disenchantment and reenchantment of the world ... both anaesthesia and shock, boredom and exhilaration" (Stewart 2001: 22).

Before the late 1980s, three generations of scholars treated artistic modernism as the leading edge of necessary cultural rebellion, featuring a heroic individual Euro-American rising up against both the middle-class materialism of Victorian society and the standardization of mass, industrial society (Crunden 2000). That nearly every scholar and artist still seems attracted to the modernist mantle of self-liberation, autonomous creativity, and cultural rebellion has created a scholarship of inclusion under various hyphenated modernisms. Only with the emergence of postmodernism did it become possible to critique modernism (Ross 1986; Harvey 1989; Jameson 1991).

Philosopher Robert B. Pippin reduced modernism to the question of "autonomy," as first theorized by Kant and expanded by Nietszche (Pippin 1988). Being modern involved the challenge of establishing one's own beliefs through introspection and reflection, and crafting an identity without recourse to family background, religious precepts, or social convention. Such an ethos of individualism was at odds with Victorian notions of "order" that valued hierarchy and stability, utility and rationality, tradition and social progress. As late as 1910, the dominant artistic values of Euro-American white elites could be summed up as the pursuit, in Matthew Arnold's famous aphorism, of "the best that has ever been thought." This intellectual master narrative assumed a seamless connection back to the works of antiquity, and offered individuals either self-mastery through wisdom or the reward of Heaven.

To be modern was to reject the wisdom of the ancients for self-authorization through experience. For such mid-nineteenth century figures as Whitman, Baudelaire, Nietzsche, and Dostoevski, an objective, transcendent ideal of beauty gave way to a relativist notion of the sublime (Calinescu 1988). Exposing one's self to the world -- unaccompanied, unprotected -- became the objective of the artistic (or intellectual) life; experiences became the equivalent of deeds. The self-conscious modern artist came into being as a seeker after new truths -- a rebel, a pathbreaker, the avant-garde of an army-not-yet-born.

Certainly the novelists of Stein's Lost Generation -- Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Dos Passos, among others -- conceived of themselves in these terms. Their canonical works narrated the search of self-conscious bohemians for a floating community of cosmopolitan free-thinkers; their drunken adventures validated a free-spirited lifestyle achieved through engaging the dark side of life spurned by bourgeois Victorian society (sexuality, transience, criminality, substance abuse, poverty). Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises became a handbook for young (white) Americans, a bohemian romance whose characters' absurd conversations mitigate their deferral of middle-class life. Valorizing unproductivity was an exemplary strategy for disaffected modernist youth and the novel's reception sheds light on the generation gap between Victorian and modern. Its characters "begin nowhere and end in nothing," wrote one critic; it was a "most unpleasant" reading experience; "the lives of a group of people [are] laid bare, and … it does not matter to us'" (Wagner-Martin 1998). For Victorian-era literati, the disaffected moderns were adjudged as immoral rebels without cause or purpose.

By way of contrast, the same ethos of autonomy has turned modernist female artists such as O'Keeffe, Kahlo, and Stein into contemporary icons of liberation; concurrently, feminist theory, studies of sexuality, and recuperative work on HD, Amy Lowell, and Marianne Moore have liberated individual female artistic projects from once male-dominated canons (Rabinowitz 2001; Scott 1990). Christine Stansell has shown that the prototype urban bohemia, Greenwich Village, was first settled by female intellectuals from across the nation, creating a café society animated by a love of talk, sexual freedom, and socialist politics (Stansell 1999). At the level of popular culture, modern feminism had "theatrical roots" in the iconic actresses, dancers, and singers who performed the spirited self-sufficiency denied by society, from Sarah Bernhardt to Isadora Duncan to chorus girls. The chorus girl in particular has received attention as an agent mediating the rationality of modernization, mass production, sex, and hedonism for both men and women (Mizejewski 1999; Glenn 2000).

Scholars have achieved no consensus on what modernism is, when it began, what methods its artists shared (beyond self-conscious experimentation), or what role American modernists played in international modernism. Some argue that American modernism was simply constructed out of the self-promotion of its artists, critics, scholars, and camp followers (Poirier 1992); others that it is a habitus, a structural field equivalent in importance to Victorianism or the Enlightenment (Hoffman 1992). While many scholars understand the 1950s and 60s as a continuation of modernism (or "high modernism") via the Beats, Abstract Expressionists, and Black Mountain artists, others -- myself included -- argue that the events of 1945 marked the birth of postmodernism. Beckett differs from Joyce and Pynchon from Stein because artistic responses to the failure of technology, progress, and rationality between 1890 and 1940 must be distinguished from later responses to the Holocaust, Hiroshima, and the arms race.

Four themes mark a distinctively American modernism: the opposition of urban, cosmopolitan culture to the perceived repression of small-town society; the artistic tension between cultural nationalism, self-actualization, and ethnic and gender consciousness; the emergence of popular cultural expressions that mediate modernity, from film to the blues; and, finally, the dialogic relationship of technological "speed-up" and African-American culture. Narratives of modernism now revolve as much around the broader incorporation of Americans into modern society as around specific literary figures.


Modernism, Modernity, Modernization


Marshall Berman first aligned modernism with "modernity" and "modernization" in his landmark meditation, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity (1982), and this matrix remains a fruitful mode of inquiry. Modernization concerns rapid technological change in industrial society. Conceptually, new inventions and networks challenge the idea that human life is static and produces concrete objects that compel individuals to "keep up with the times"; further, man-made improvement weakens the religious enterprise. New technologies are alternately thrilling -- as when they serve leisure and consumption -- and terrifying, as when they disrupt traditional aspects of human life. The Italian Futurists were the first intellectuals to celebrate technology and considered "the beauty of speed" in trains and cars the first new modern aesthetic experience, which added to "the world's splendor." Humans would acquire a "new mechanical sense," they believed, and enjoy "a fusion of instinct with the efficiency of motors" (Marinetti 1909: 21) In more mundane fashion, the ownership and handling of an automobile gave Americans a sense of control concerning industrial transformation. As Sinclair Lewis wrote of his emblematic middle-class American materialist, "To George F. Babbitt … his motor car was poetry and tragedy, love and heroism" (Lewis 1922: 24).

On the one hand, machines replaced human labor, resulting in "technological unemployment," and an identity crisis for men in particular (Smith 1993). The "control revolution" subjugated the average worker to alienated repetitive work, the invasive supervision of efficiency managers, and corporate surveillance (Kanigel 1999; Beniger 1986). Yet the American hunger for "the technological sublime" brought crowds to World's Fairs and technological expositions, to railroad fairs and skyscraper sites and air shows (Nye 1994). In the wake of the first World War's destruction, Europe found in American culture a fast-paced, machine civilization and new forms of industrial organization (Fordism) and efficiency (Taylorism). What the French called "Americanisme" in the 1920s, Thomas P. Hughes has called "the second discovery of America" (Hughes 1989).

Many scholars date the emergence of modernism according to Virginia Woolf's cryptic reflection, "In 1910, human nature changed." The more useful declaration came six years later from Henry Ford, the representative figure of the era: "History is more or less bunk." Raised in the Midwest within Victorian ideals of utility, rationality, and progress, Ford created the means to destroy that mindset by doubling the wages of his workers and building an affordable car. The Model T virtually created contemporary American society and its car culture: its suburbs, fast-food, and mobility; its teen-aged rebellion, rituals for adulthood, and sexual mores. "Fordism" may have been the global model of vertical corporate integration, yet by the mid-1920s, Ford himself was nostalgic for the stability of his childhood: he built a museum and a model small town to encourage Americans to return to the alleged virtues of small-town life while publishing pro-Fascist, anti-Semitic rants and moving towards fascism. Ford stood at the crossroads of modernism and "anti-modernism," Jackson Lears's term for the nostalgic yearnings of upper-class elites for the order and spirituality of small-town pastoralism and exotic religions  (Lears 1981; Susman 1984).

         Modernity, then, concerns the individual experiences of the transformation from an agrarian society into an urban, mass society. The shift entailed a gradual loss of secure identities previously embedded in local social institutions: church and religion, family and community, class and geography. Individuals became just another element in the flow of industrial society, as much as capital, raw materials, or mass-produced goods. The grounds for identity shifted to new forms of popular culture, such as dime novels, radio dramas, films, mass consumption, and the urban, industrial landscape.

         Modernity further signifies the sensory (and cognitive) adjustment to new experiences of space and time, speed and movement, self and other (Kern 1983). Bodies adjusted to fast, impersonal transportation networks (rail, auto, air), to communication networks that separated the message from the sender (telegraph, telephone), and to new visual regimes rendered through film, aerial perspectives, or abstract art. The so-called "speed-up" of modern life produced apocalyptic fears of sensory overload, and the "shocks" of these new experiences were theorized by sociologists such as Karl Marx, Georg Simmel, Thorstein Veblen, and Walter Benjamin (Frisby 1986; Adams 1931). With such radical shifts in sensoryscapes, work, leisure, personal contact, and the rate of change, the individual consciousness could hardly remain trapped in nineteenth-century ways of seeing.

Modernism applies to the artistic and intellectual representation of the experiences of modernity and modernization, the search for "new aesthetic vocabularies" to represent "the innovative terms of industrial life" (Kasson 2000: 154). To be "modern" is to undergo perpetual change. And because the modern self has been battered and moved about, modern artists and writers break words and images into fragments (Cubism, "The Waste Land"), creating art and literature that demand constant attention to produce coherence. Shifts in daily rhythms, sensory perception, and the speed of information led to shifts in conceptions of time, the self, and the nature of experience.

Until recently, modernism was configured primarily through literature for a number of reasons: the prestige of literature in the humanities; the historical significance of the 1920s for the nation's emergence of the United States as a world power; the cultural changes of the 1920s, as reflected in novels that maintain their cachet in high school and college curricula (The Great Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises, The Sound and the Fury, Dos Passos' USA trilogy); the built-in ending to the "roaring twenties" with the crash of 1929; the romantic self-promotion of the Lost Generation through memoirs and novels; a kinship between writer, critic, and scholar through cultural rebellion and "the virtues … of difficulty" in teaching inaccessible texts (Poirier 1992).  Malcolm Cowley first codified the mythology of the Lost Generation of writers in Exile's Return (1934): born between 1891-1905, their education focused on European history and literature; but after World War I, "civilization" became a pejorative term, and they took refuge in  cosmopolitan bohemia in protest against the "Babbitry" (Lewis' term) or the "booboisie" (H.L. Mencken's).

Hugh Kenner's A Homemade World (1975) was a landmark work. First, he identified the styles, influences, and formal intentions of the best modernist poets (Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot) and prose stylists (Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald). Second, he identified their common intention of liberating words from their technical function (i.e., signifier from signified) in order to "reconstellate" them on the page. Third, he invoked technology as an equivalent form of artistic creation, calling the discovery of flight by two bicycle mechanics a modernist act of creative transformation. In fact, Lindbergh's solo flight over the Atlantic excited Europeans more than any single cultural event of the 1920s (Eksteins 1989), and linked the "homemade world" of American vernacular technological innovation with the "homemade" poetics of Hemingway and Faulkner.

Invention and self-invention travel hand in modern glove. In fact, modernism involves a dialectic between technological development and self-development; technology was the driving force of the European avant-garde's call for an anarchic vision of a new society. This dialectic became entrenched in World War I, the first modern war: modern in its mass slaughter, its use of transportation networks across Europe (in trains, cars, and planes), its communications networks (radio, telegraphs, telephones), and its technological development of new weapons (machine guns, hand grenades, chemical warfare) (Kern 1983; Fussell 1975). The Great War thus brought together modernization (technological change and adaptation), modernity (new sensory experiences of time and space), and modernism (aesthetic reflections upon these changes), and disillusioned a cadre of American modernist writers who served in the war. Yet the modernism of literary salons, the Lost Generation, the "little magazines" (e.g., Harriet Monroe's Poetry), and the Harlem Renaissance still maintains a stronghold on the discourse. Ann Douglas' Terrible Honesty (1993) attempted to synthesize the concurrent revolutions of modernism and modernization in a panoramic exploration of the "mongrel Manhattan" of the 1920s. Ranging over a hundred modern lives, Douglas showed that immigrants, women, and urbanized Americans aspired to an energized personality in order to compete with New York’s technological displays and its sped-up, jazzed-up tempo of life.

The totemic mechanical agent of liberation was the train, and from 1900 to 1920, literary characters -- in Sister Carrie (1900) and Winesburg, Ohio (1919), for example -- leave town by train to become modern, acquiring a mobile identity and aspiring towards autonomy. Those who stay behind remain stuck in traditional lives governed by church, family, community, sexual repression and bitterness. Similarly, the immigrant's experience is modernist inasmuch as the process of claming an American identity requires self-transformation and a break with the past. Ezra Pound's artistic appeal to "Make it new!," reflects relentless social and global change that makes every person anew, and not solely by artistic means.


Self and Subjectivity


The making of the modern individual involved a radical shift in the experience of time, as theorized by William James and Henri Bergson. Time itself was one of the first industrial commodities, divided into minutes and sections, appended to the human body by chain and pocket, imposed on all Americans by a de facto act of the railroads in 1883.  In various cultural forms, artists depicted protagonists taking their bodies back from clocks, factories, and the rationalization of industrial life. For each person to have a separate, subjective consciousness -- the core of Bergson's durée or Jamesian "flux" -- meant that "reality" itself might be plural and not objective, might be determined by agency as much as social role, and might include the irrational and unconscious as constant (and even useful) elements of consciousness.

Stephen Dedalus' prototypical modernist statement in the opening chapter of Ulysses (1922) speaks to this sense of time:  "History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake." History was an ideological foundation of the Victorian social order, an evolutionary narrative that moved from primitive to civilized societies through the Enlightenment idea of "progress." History narrated the triumph of science and rationalism over superstition and emotionalism, setting up the dualism of white European male rationality against the natural, emotional "Others" of women and the darker races.  Dedalus's one-liner illuminates the modernist turn to self-awakening through the rejection of social definition, the embrace of subjectivity, and the potential for ethical individuality. As mirrored in a letter home from a British soldier -- "the whole of the past, as far as I can make out, is down the drain" – the nightmare of history led to a postwar embrace of immediate sensory experience wherein "the 'I' became all important" (Eksteins 1989: 211).

Contrast modernism to realism, the dominant literary mode of the late nineteenth century, as it reflected the hopes for stability of an empowered middle-class. Realism features an omniscient narrator with moral authority, characters that worry more about fitting into the social order than finding themselves, and an audience with an assumed dualistic moral sense. James's concept of "stream of consciousness" destabilized that objective, external observer and its stable social order by elevating interior consciousness; his concept was carried to Europe by his student Gertrude Stein, who from her Paris salon influenced James Joyce and others (Crunden 1993). Stream of consciousness precludes the authority of a third-person narrator and disrupts the rational thought process depicted in proper grammar and syntax. The external observer for a bourgeois society based on rationality and productivity gives way to a map of the interior consciousness marked by a constant flow of desires, sense-perceptions, impulses, memories, and fantasies, mirroring Freud's theories of the unconscious.

Faulkner wrote The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying after reading Ulysses, novels informed by the ideas of Bergson and James (according to Faulkner), and inconceivable within a realist framework: there is no narrator, no morality, no judgment of character, no point. In As I Lay Dying, reality can only be constructed by the reader's collation of the characters' responses to the last days of Addie Bundren. Each character's internal monologues contains local history, personal memory, identity and projection, unspoken and thwarted desires; each chapter adds to the reader's knowledge of region, clan and county. Faulkner's method is kaleidoscopic: a single action is split into a mosaic of experience. "My ambition is to put everything into one sentence," Faulkner once wrote, "not only the present but the whole past on which it depends and which keeps overtaking the present, second by second" (qtd. in Kenner 1975: 198). By rendering the internal monologue in vernacular language, Faulkner validates the oral storytelling traditions and rural Southern white dialect he inherited and transmuted into his own artistic language.

In applying Sherwood Anderson's advice to engage his "postage stamp of native soil," Faulkner captured the spirit of cultural nationalism in American literary modernism. In similar fashion, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Hemingway, and Stein attempted to honor vernacular language, oral traditions, ethnic and regional cultures (Pavlic 2002). But the relationship between writer, race, and geography -- and the nightmare of history -- translated differently for ethnic groups. When African-American songwriters Fats Waller and Andy Razaf crafted "What Did I Do to Be So Black and Blue?," they asked a modernist question from a modernist position: self-referential, detached, outside of stable traditions, buffeted by forces, injured by the nightmare of history that has bruised you black and blue. What are you going to do, now that you're black and blue? Sing it out of your system, show the forces acting upon your life as a roadmap for others, sing it so it becomes part of everybody's system.

This is, more or less, the history of this song. It was originally a lament sung by a dark-skinned woman about internal color bias within African-American communities, as performed by Ethel Waters in a 1929 Harlem revue entitled Hot Chocolates. Seemingly overnight, it became a vehicle for dozens of black performers and a signature song for the young Louis Armstrong. Armstrong dropped the verse about color bias and made it a self-affirming plaint for all African-Americans. Twenty years later, the narrator of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (1952) invokes the song in the novel's prologue as a catalyst for his rebellion, claiming "this music demanded action." Ellison regarded Armstrong as a trickster (or shaman) for the African-American community, and his deft mixture of deference and empowerment -- Uncle Tomming on stage but sending out coded resistance -- suggest an alternative modernist route than those of middle-class Euro-Americans (Appel 2002; Dinerstein 2003). Similarly, James Baldwin singled out Billie Holiday as a poet who guided audiences through the processes of what Toni Morrison calls "re-memory": "When I say poet ... I'm not talking about literature at all. I'm talking about the recreation of experience, you know, the way that it comes back. Billie Holiday was a poet. She gave you back your experience" (qtd. in Pavlic: 257). Holiday's best work invoked tones, textures, cadences, and phrases that inflected the English language to serve as coded markings of African-American past and possibility.

Arguably, Holiday's contemporary global popularity depends upon the grain of a voice that captures the underlying tensions of modernity: the loss of cohesion and stability balanced by the promise of autonomy and the thrill of self-liberation. In consciously attempting to synthesize Bessie Smith's vocal power and Louis Armstrong's subtle phrasing, Holiday's work illustrates how African-American artistic subjectivity first emerged in the blues, a form that has only begun to receive its due as a modernist expression in the past generation (Baker 1984). First, the vernacular artistically formalized in "the blues" consciously defied "Standard English," cultural elites, assimilationist rhetoric, and the Christian themes of the spirituals. Second, blues functions almost entirely through lyrics focused on "the all-important 'I,'" through blunt talk of sexuality, oppression, and transgression. Third, along with the jazz soloist, blues marked the emergence of both an introspective African-American artistic consciousness and African-American music itself as a "counterculture of modernity" (Gilroy 1993).


Modernism and the Other


American modernism marks the intersection of conflicting histories difficult to synthesize. In The Modernist Nation (2004), Michael Soto ambitiously attempts to unite the objectives of the Lost Generation, the Harlem Renaissance, and female modernist writers and artists around the concepts "generation" and "renaissance." Soto presents four unifying, intertwined narratives for modernist artists: rejection of one's philistine upbringing and symbolic rebirth for purposes of self-definition; the creation of a formulaic "bohemian narrative" that naturalizes (and nationalizes) cultural rebellion; the valorization of the artistic imagination against the rational planning of a utilitarian, industrial society; the search for models of cultural nationalism in other colonized or emergent  literatures (e.g., such as Irish and Russian). For the purposes of rebirth and rebellion, the language of American modernism is jazz: it provides the new rhythms, the slang, the improvisational method, the subculture of performance (in dance), and the sense of being modern or at least "hip to the [new] lingo" (Soto 2004).

In the 1910s, a generation of young Euro-American elites rejected the waltz, quadrille, and European dances for ragtime dances such as the turkey trot, the grizzly bear, the fox trot, and the buzzard lope. The formal, public performance of these dances made Vernon and Irene Castle national icons and international stars (Erenberg 1981). Their best-selling book of dance and refined manners diluted African-American kinesthetics and marked the first "white-facing" of African-American modernist cultural production. When Henry May identified the first stage of American modernism in the five-year period from 1912-1917, he correlated the significance of the kinesthetic revolution implicit in these dance crazes with more familiar artistic and intellectual influences (James, Freud, Veblen, and Frank Lloyd Wright), singling out the shimmy, a dance that later gave Mae West her first national success (May 1959). In effect, the shimmy gave the lie to the civilizing process, especially as The Castles and Mae West committed classic acts of "love and theft": stealing African-American expressive culture while dishonoring their artistic producers (Lott 1993).

European social dance and kinesthetics were repudiated and have not returned; whether this was an act of primitivism or modernism remains an ongoing debate, but the answer seems obvious -- it's both -- when speaking of a popular revolution both with regard to the aesthetics of movement and in the recognition of sublime response to propulsive rhythmic music. Music and dance of the African diaspora broke down set forms of European pattern dances such as the waltz, liberated parts of the body for individual creative expression, encouraged a playful eroticism, and brought a new sense of spatial orientation to self-awareness. The rhetoric of "getting primitive" protected Americans from honoring non-white cultural production and functioned as a conduit for Euro-Americans to imagine a different relationship to their bodies (Torgovnick 1997). Ragtime and jazz dances paralleled the influential work of Franz Boas' The Mind of Primitive Man (1911), which disrupted nineteenth-century dualism: Boas argued that "primitive" cultures indeed practiced logic and reason, and had their own systems of ethics and aesthetics; conversely, "modern" Europeans practiced tribal rites and customs, and rationalized violence and superstition through irrational beliefs.

 Yet a lively debate remains regarding whether the Harlem Renaissance marked the advent of a "New Negro" artistic formation -- an ethnic literary aesthetic -- that successfully broke down ingrained ideas of African-American artistic ability or intellectual equality (Lewis 1981). Did it transform the white gaze of African-Americans, destroy plantation stereotypes, and move Euro-Americans closer to believing in social equality? Yes. Did it produce literary and artistic work that stands alongside the best Euro-American cultural production as modernist work? Yes. Did it leave a legacy that has provided a corrective in the modernist discourse? Yes. Houston Baker has grouped blues, literature, and minstrelsy all together as cultural acts of "maronnage" (after "maroon" societies of runaway slaves) that resist dominant social codes and reinscribe resistant ideas in both popular and highbrow cultural forms (Baker 1989).

The second major site of "primitivist modernism" was Mexico. As a contact zone for modernists from O'Keeffe, D.H. Lawrence and Mabel Dodge Luhan to the Beats, Mexico presented writers and artists with images both to critique a runaway technological society and to imagine an Edenic pre-industrial innocence (Crunden 1993). In Mexico and New Mexico, artists believed they could still find a sense of place, community, stable rituals, and unself-conscious behaviors, while maintaining a distance of exoticism. Such projections took almost no account of the cultural production of Mexican and Mexican-American modernists, and scholars have returned the voice of "the Other" to a "border modernism," pairing primitivist texts of D.H. Lawrence, Hemingway, and Willa Cather with "native" voices such as Americo Paredes (Schedler 2002).

Such questions would seem to point to a debate about defining American culture, but the term "culture" has become so contentious within the humanities that questions of identity nearly always override it. The definition of culture shifted during the modern period from cultivation through arts and education -- classical music, ballet, philosophy -- to patterns and behaviors in everyday life transmitted intergenerationally (Hegeman 1999). Boas provided the ethnographic model brought about the emergence of cultural relativism through the work of his influential students (e.g., such as Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, and Zora Neale Hurston), and anthropology became the first intellectual field in which women participated as near-equals (Deacon 1997).

Scholars have recently called for a remapping of "American literature" towards a post-colonial, post-nationalist "literature of the Americas."  A major aspect of that project would be Hispanic modernism, a six-stage model mirroring the European cultural arc from 1890 to 1940 (Calinescu 1987), including Diego Rivera's monumental murals of Ford's River Rouge plant and Frida Kahlo's self-reflexive paintings of Mexican identity; the illustrations of Miguel Covarrubias and Marius de Zayas, along with the polyethnic cosmopolitan community around Alfred Stieglitz's 291 group (and in Harlem); Americo Paredes's ethnography on South Texas and its legacy in borderlands studies. It would also include major postmodern Latin American writers such as Marquez, Borges, and Llosa, who were indebted to Faulkner for bringing the modernist interplay of time, memory, identity, and geography to peripheral, insulated communities (Cohn 1999).


Technology and the Body 


"The machine" (so called) remains a complex, contradictory metaphor at the heart of modernity. All at once, "the machine" was an artistic model of efficient creativity, a metaphor for relentless, impersonal forces, and an invasive system of surveillance and repression. Francis Picabia painted human figures as machines or mechanical principles, such as "The Picture of an American Girl," which was a sparkplug. Technology is the Other of modernism in such representative works as Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927), Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936), and Huxley’s Brave New World (1932). Yet William Carlos Williams defined a poem (positively) as "a small (or large) machine made out of words," Le Corbusier defined a house as  "a machine built for living,", and Margaret Bourke-White created an aesthetic grammar of machine beauty. Alfred Stieglitz's photograph, "The Hand of Man," gets to the heart of this tension: it depicts a train rounding a bend at full steam, juxtaposing human physical labor in a natural landscape to the vitality of machines in an industrial landscape.

The train was the prime mover of modernity, "the primary metaphor of modernity and its metonym" (Scandura and Thurston 2001: 25). The modern American tempo of life arguably derives from train rhythms and its embodiment of machine aesthetics as both object and network (and thus the introduction of terms such as traffic, flow, precision, and efficiency). For rural Americans, the "metropolitan corridor" of every small town was the train station, telegraph shack, and factory warehouse districts on the outskirts of town (Stilgoe 1983). Every major American poet celebrated the colonization of the landscape by train and Whitman granted it pride of place in modernity: "Type of the modern--emblem of motion and power--pulse of the continent."

The experience of looking at landscapes from a train window helped create a new visual regime for the camera eye, framing fast-moving landscapes and a plethora of images into a modern flux without sensory overload.  Riding the train also provided precedent for the consumer society: a passenger is both a parcel carried by a train and a consumer staring at a constant stream of new objects from a safe, vantage point. As commodity and consumer, the train provides the conditions for a de-based relationship to nature. This experience trained audiences to watch films, the primary medium by which Americans adjusted to the shocks of modernity. The train itself was the biggest action star in silent film, framed not only for its power and speed, but as the vehicle for the hero's arrival; The Big Train Robbery (1903) taught directors cinematic technique for capturing a moving object (Kirby 1997).  Railway passengers of the 1830s frightened by speeds of twenty miles per hour clearly had a different relationship to their bodies than Americans who now drive at eighty miles an hour while eating a sandwich and listening to heavy metal.

In the late nineteenth century, the prevalent metaphor of the body shifted from organic and religious models to "the human machine" (Rabinbach 1990). Mirroring the industrial division of labor, the body was seen as an aggregation of separate parts in an interlocking system. Early research on the body-as-machine came from British studies of the laboring body under duress, and studies of human and animal bodies-in-motion.

Electricity in particular -- the machine as energy network -- became a metaphor for energizing the body, as early as Whitman's "I Sing the Body Electric"; sexual devices such as electric belts (for male virility) and the first vibrators date from the late nineteenth century (de la Pena 2003). The electric landscape of Manhattan, Chicago, and Coney Island was the cultural ground of modernism: it elevated advertising into the sky, celebrated technology for pleasure and awe, and trained the eye to revel in simultaneity, fragmentation, and montage, instead of rejecting such visual cacophony as chaos (Nye 1997).

Modernism involved the adaptation of all bodies to technological society, a process theorized usefully in Sara Danius' The Senses of Modernism (2002). Danius argues that new machines and inventions extend the capabilities of the human body not only through prosthesis, but also through aisthesis, the "interiorization" of technological modes of perception. In the first volume of Remembrance of Times Past, Marcel hears his beloved grandmother's voice on the phone for the first time and has a disturbing epiphany: he hears some old woman, her voice wracked with pain and age. Until the telephone, there was no voice without presence, no message without embodiment; previously, whenever Marcel heard his grandmother, his perceptions were informed by love, devotion, history, and memory. Marcel assumes there's an impostor in his grandmother's body and rushes to her house, where he finds her engrossed in the newspaper. But his perception of his grandmother has already been irrevocably altered; before him sits an old woman. Here is the human eye in the process of becoming a "camera eye": more efficient at gathering sense data but sundered from the organic experience, now just one sense among many within a new division of perceptual labor

Such ambivalence towards machines was mediated through spectacle, such as watching planned train wrecks or turning gear-wheels into ferris wheels. At Coney Island, the pressures of industrial change were transmuted into titillating pleasure: coal carts and tracks became roller coasters; electricity lit up a phantasmagoric skyline; speed and torque created a hedonistic sense of disorientation that bordered on the psychedelic (Kasson 1978). New terminology reflected mechanical metaphors for action, emotion and cognition: a person got "steamed up" or "off-track" or "in gear" (all originally references to trains) (Tichi 1987). In silent film, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd functioned as scapegoats of modernity. Their manic antics and metropolitan meanderings reflected their own modern disorientation as they negotiated machines, crowds, and authorities; victims of social and technological forces, they were constantly in motion (Basalla 1981). In these ways, individuals engaged technology abstractly through what art historians call "machine aesthetics": speed, flow, power, drive, repetition, and precision (Smith 1993).

In jazz, blues, and swing, African-American music and dance captured the pace and power of the industrial soundscape and assimilated machine aesthetics into dynamic forms of popular culture. American college students of the 1920s and female laborers pressed jazz and its dances into service for their own cultural rebellion, rejecting the concept of "sin," especially as it related to sex and the body (Peiss 1986). Whether in ragtime dances, the Charleston (1920s), tap dance or the lindy hop (the 1930s), African-American dance was a participatory modernist art form. The rhythmic drive of all jazz until 1945 came from the "techno-dialogic," an artistic engagement with machine rhythms and industrialization, as African-American musicians developed a musical grammar through "locomotive onomatopoeia" (i.e., the rhythms and sounds of trains) (Dinerstein 2003; Murray 1976). Since the function of social dance in African-American culture is the integration of music, movement, culture, and social forces into "participatory consciousness," black culture became a global lingua franca, reproducing new musical idioms, slang, fashion, and generational identity throughout the past century (Keil and Feld 1994).

Finally, modernism involved a crisis of cultural authority heightened by the emergence of the first national advertising agencies, which filled the mediascape with sophisticated imagery for national brands that continually stimulated desire and consumption (Marchand 1985; Leach 1993; Lears 1994). Concurrent to artistic modernism, consumerism advanced a paradigm shift in the modal self, from Victorian "character" to modern "personality" -- the self as commodity in the urban marketplace (Susman 1984). As images of success, beauty, pleasure, and even piety were drawn from popular culture and generated for commercial ends, the "mediated self" comes into being via mass culture (Gabler 1998). The modernist ethos of rebellion became entrenched in contemporary consumer culture, and what began as adversarial combat with history and tradition has since become rhetorical sloganeering for multinational corporations. Autonomy, choice, rebellion -- these terms register as a permanent ideological matrix of consumer society.


Coda: Modernism and Postmodernism


What cohesive set of Western or American values could remain after the Holocaust and the dropping of the atomic bombs – even to rebel against? In the immediate aftermath of World War II, American intellectuals and writers embraced existentialism while the first postmodern writers -- Beckett, Borges, and Nabokov – created labyrinthine narratives centered less on self and subjectivity than on the inadequacy of language to represent postwar reality.

In The Post-modern Condition (1984), Lyotard theorized that all European modernism worked within four underlying narratives, all of which were secularized Christian myths of redemption: (1) the Enlightenment ideal of linear progress through knowledge leading to the good society; (2) the goal of autonomy, after introspection and inquiry into the dark recesses of the self; (3) the Marxist promise of the revolutionary struggle of the proletariat; (4) the capitalist narrative of the good society through market forces, enlightened self-interest, and global economic harmony (Lyotard 1978; Calinescu, 1989). The capitalist narrative retains its power and influence (Fukuyama 1990) and Marxist analysis still informs modernist scholarship in the humanities (Jameson 1983), but no sense of universalism frames postmodernism. Instead, all sets of values are assumed to be rationalizations of power, and stability is always relative, whether of self, language, or society (Harvey 1989).

In Brian McHale’s elegant distinction, whereas modernism concerned epistemology, postmodernism is about ontology (McHale 1987). The artist is no longer a guide towards authentic self-knowledge but an assembler of forms into pastiche, its meaning left to the consumer to interpret. In the architecture of Frank Gehry, hiphop musical collage, and the "media assemblages" of Pynchon, artists mix high, low and pop culture, seed their works with genres and cultural quotations, and celebrate irony, camp, gaudiness, and self-reflexivity. In postmodernism, rebellion was simply one pose among many, no more or less valuable than cynicism, stoicism, or romanticism (Hassan 1971). Randomness and instability were celebrated as agents of change – in chaos theory, in self-experimentation, in the pursuit of novelty – and therefore, the antithesis of self and society became moot. Postmodernism reflected a more playful engagement between artistic production and popular culture, and art was no longer envisioned as a privileged critical vantage point.

Perhaps the most significant failed project of modernism was that of the authentic self. Modernist artists saw themselves as guides to a future unburdened by the chains of the past and redolent with sex, pleasure, and meaningful introspection. Such transgression against Victorian morality and order is now the rhetoric of self-actualization as it is used to fuel consumerist ideology; its familiarity reflects the unintended triumphs of modernism. From the vantage point of postmodernism, the goal of autonomy without consequent attachment to community or politics seems self-indulgent, hedonistic, or simply performative. Postmodern critics accuse modernist artists of lacking politics, promulgating a naïve idea of progress, and supporting a vague humanism and universalism that indirectly supported colonialism (Ross 1986; Williams 1989). The challenge of understanding the legacy of American modernism now turns upon the debate over its success or failure in creating large-scale social change.

Late, Late Night

Originally published in New Orleans magazine, 2006.

The lively crowd I walked into at Molly’s at the Market one Monday night at 3 a.m., after the Saints kicked dirty-bird butt, was a rare and beautiful thing. Most post-Katrina Mondays Molly’s has been more of a krewe of tew – I only know because this is a regular one-beer drop-by for me after my midnight jazz show on WWOZ (now housed by the French Market.) This night, the bar is filled with loaded fans and happy television production workers. I talk with an assistant producer at CNN and an ex-native happy to return and share the camp-meeting feeling of the Superdome revival … in a late-night world often colored by soundless ESPN, Molly’s may be the last bar in America without a TV.

 Playing pool at the Old Point Bar once with jazz drummer Calvin Weston two years ago, I heard the surprise in his voice when he said, “People think New York’s a 24-hour city. This is a 24-hour city.” Well, things ain’t what they used ta be – as Duke Ellington once swung that commonplace thought into philosophy – and we lack the tourists, the workforce, the population, and the devil-may-care (but we done forgot) spirit of that all-night time. Still, if you’re looking for food, company or trouble – or all three – check the directory for drug stores and gas stations, and come with me to where the late, late-night swamplight shines. This is still a bohemia where many joints are officially open “till” – a non-word that somehow sums up the city’s anarchical impulses.

 Start with what you know: the Thursday-night Vaughan’s Lounge ritual with Kermit. He’s often on tour these days but his replacements have been stellar – whether trombonist Corey Henry’s hellacious band or Troy Andrews’ Orleans Avenue. Located deep in the Bywater, Vaughan’s is the 1970s bar of your dreams – if you remember the ‘70s, that is, or your dreams. If you don’t, it’s a laid-back, old-school, bi-level neighborhood joint with cheap drinks, Mardi Gras tinsel and a dance floor next to the bandstand. The music runs 11:30 p.m.-2 a.m. (give or take), the big pot of rice & beans shows up around 11 p.m. (give or take), and the easy low-key hang runs until 5 a.m. (give or take). It gets way too hot in here, but that only increases the social circulation, sending folks onto the outside benches that wrap around the corner bar. This last visit, the Troy (Trombone Shorty) Andrews band pelted the room with power ballads grafted onto jam-band funk for the first set (not a good thing) then settled into a tighter, jazzier second set. There were two highlights. First, a bullfight-themed brass-blasting “St. James Infirmary,” with Cab Calloway hi-de-hi-de-hi-de-hos and Andrews leading the audience in call-and-response. Then, in the midst of a generic funk groove, two black women slid off their barstools and sync’d into an Electric Slide in front of the band, one so fluid and shimmying that people burst into applause twice ... and when the band locked into the women’s moves, quoting Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love,” everyone gathered ‘round and the house got its collective freak on.

 Heading back toward the Quarter, the late, late-night life is down to the stalwart Markey’s Bar (winds down between 1 and 3 a.m.) and the Mardi Gras Zone, a former bead warehouse that’s in the process of morphing into a 24/7 super-grocery. Down the left side of the bunker my female companion drifted, fingering beads, wigs, boas, hardware and paintball supplies, and then we came down the right side to stare incomprehendingly at the full line of dairy products, the fruits and vegetables, the bread and cheese. The Zone’s owner hopes to fill the gap left by the loss of neighborhood supermarkets (e.g., Robert’s on St. Claude), and as Bill and Ginger told us, every week a rack of masks goes out and a new cooler comes in. Wine, beer, fish and cheese are all on the way. Along with the Walgreen’s on St. Charles, the Zone’s all there is now for that late beer-groceries-and-Advil run.

 Besides, it’s down the block from Mimi’s, where the boho spirit reigns at 3 a.m. over food industry workers just off-shift, E/R medical personnel, subculturalists of all kinds, and of course, artists and slackers. There’s a jazzed calm in the room, people simply talking to – not performing at – each other. At the tables along the wall, candles rise into mirrors that reflect a certain Spanish-mission quality the room has only on late weeknights, given the weekend crowds for Soul Sister’s DJ parties. Just as important is the excellent selection of tapas (hot and cold) until 3 a.m. If it gets too mellow, hit Big Daddy’s across the street – a 24/7 gay bar where someone will always dance with you. If it’s too social, there’s the R Bar, where nearly everyone will allow you to hunker down in a corner with a beer or a companion. Now let’s head down Frenchman since about half of the city’s all-night action probably takes place in a half-mile radius of the corner of Esplanade and Decatur streets.

 Frenchman & Its Environs
One Sunday night ramble began with Tim Green’s sax solo at Snug Harbor, as he pealed off a bent, descending riff so soulful he lifted his leg like a flamingo to hold it, then stomped his foot down to free up the melody; then, after a deep penguin dip to the floor, he came up powerful and straight and honked his way to glory – literally marching back into the theme, right leg then left, until the band took it away. I rode the solo’s arc over to the new (24/7) Zotz – a high-ceilinged gray bohemia with comfortable chairs, pastries and sandwiches, and the graveyard shift’s java priestess, Emily of the blood-red dreadlocks. Readers, sleepers, writers and re-fuelers drape across the chairs, but (Emily says) business falls off after 3 or 4 a.m. A few months back, recent robberies and violence forced some early closings, but recent arrests have helped bring some confidence back. On weekends, the blasting shows of the refurbished Dragon’s Den upstairs, create an upstairs/downstairs circuit of the loud and the restless.

Crowds on Frenchman remain thin compared to pre-Katrina levels, but weekends still bump until 3:30 a.m. or so, as d.b.a., Cafe Brazil, and Ray’s Boom Boom Room wind down. The last man standing (or lying down) will be swept out of the Apple Barrel, a place no bigger than its name, where anytime of night a gaggle of drunkards wave liquid wisdom from the rusted chairs outside – and yet, I’ve never heard a smart cracker-barrel word from this Greek chorus. It was hard to squeeze into this joint in pre-Katrina days but now you can just grab a space at the bar and absorb the distorted, snake-crawling bluesiana for which it is famous, especially if Coco Robicheaux’s playing.

 When it’s time to grease the drunken beast, head over to 13, the best late-night food on the post-Katrina partyscape. The kitchen’s open until 4 a.m., but it’s not just the food: the place has character, a sharp-witted staff and a wakeful level of hubbub. There are slow-cooked sandwiches, custom pizzas, good appetizers and overhead, a flat-screen TV shows movies as if from God’s third eye. In the thick, humid, early-October soup, I was cooled off by a frozen Irish coffee while watching Even Cowgirls Get The Blues and refusing the bruschetta temptations of Kim the Bartender. Didn’t matter that Gus Van Sant didn’t quite capture Sissy Hankshaw’s hijacking the ‘60s vortex; Uma Thurman sure looked the part and besides, at 13, after half an hour, you’re usually trading jokes with the cook or a fellow sot at the bar. The place is level-on-the-level (to quote John Prine) and every neighborhood should have one.

 It’s true that the grill at Checkpoint Charlie’s is open 24/7, but you can only get something to eat if the bartender has time to cook, and if he can cook (i.e., there’s no cook). At 4 a.m., everyone here leans to one side. The pure slapstick of watching the smashed leaners try to eat chicken wings sent me and my companion away from the bar and up the steps to the pool tables, where a tall, black man in white pants sat sleeping, head in hand. The pool tables were level – as opposed to the customers – and thankfully, someone fed the jukebox all Dylan songs. Then the man awoke. He watched us while drinking a Coke and eating peanut butter out of a jar. I was trying to give my friend some tips on lining up shots and then on my turn, the man – call him Nestor – showed her how to hold the cue. Turns out he’s a singer of what he calls “country gospel,” and asked us to come see him that Tuesday. When we left I learned that Nestor had told my companion she was beautiful (true), asked her to have his children (wacked), and managed to slip his number into her purse (impressive). I must admit her pool game has improved.

 A hard-partying old girlfriend used to tell new arrivals, “If you’re at Snake & Jake’s at 5 a.m. – and that’s a conscious thought – you need to go home.” That probably holds for The John as well, a cavernous bar a few blocks down Frenchman named for the row of painted silver-and-black toilets along the back wall. It’s worth a stop to relish the wondrous variety of ‘70s album covers checker boarding two entire walls – and to get a drink in a mason jar. Soon you’ll notice how the bar’s meager light vanishes into the dark high ceilings and then The John starts to feel like the roadhouse from Twin Peaks. Without Angelo Badalamenti to score the scene, I played Miles Davis’ “My Funny Valentine” on the jukebox. However, two minutes into its cool muted meditation, the chunky lesbian bartender ordered a heavy-metallica couple out of the bar and ruined the mood.

 That drove us over to Iggy’s, a great bar to sit out a domestic squabble. It’s cozy (the bar fills the small room), bright (but not too), mildly distracting (ESPN flickers soundlessly, women’s fingernails clack the video poker), and there’s solid drunken story swapping. I was eavesdropping on a low-watt conversation between the bartender (an older white woman,) a well-dressed middle-aged white guy and a 30-year-old black woman in a shower cap when “What’s Love Got To Do With It?” came on the jukebox, and without warning, the woman hit the chorus in full voice. At the turn of the next verse, she simply rejoined the conversation as if she hadn’t blasted us with karaoke. From our sponsor: Opportunity to play Tom Waits’ “Bad Liver and a Broken Heart” at 4:30 a.m. in a place like Iggy’s? Priceless.

 The Quarter
Mojo Lounge is the new welcome-mat as you head into the Quarter from Frenchman, and you could make a day of it here: there’s outside tables, free wi-fi, a pool table, a few video games and (always) a few workers killing time at the bar on cigarette breaks. The kitchen’s open until 2 a.m. (pizzas, quesadillas, salads, even steak sandwiches) and it winds down two hours later. A few blocks down this lively stretch of Decatur is Angeli, which in pre-Katrina days was the only restaurant open until 4 a.m. down this way (currently, until 2 a.m.). Mojo feels like a good bar; Angeli, like a late-night diner. You make the call.

 If your kid dresses like a Dickensian guttersnipe in that sort of layered Cat-in-the-Hat bricolage – and he’s not home by 3 a.m.? – you’ll find him at The Abbey. Serving skater punk insomniacs, blasted dancing fools and random drop-ins, The Abbey’s not for tourists, slummers or Sunday adventurers, so just go down to Molly’s at the Market where you belong. One of my ex-students calls it “the 40s and pit bull bar,” and it is apparently a den of iniquity where cops harass the patrons on a regular basis. In addition, don’t even look in next door at The Dervish – unless your kid’s a Goth who’s into techno, and then really don’t look in. (They’re both 24/7.)

 The Clover Grill has returned to its 24/7 glory from Thurs.-Mon., so go for the burgers and burlesque, and look away from the pink tiles if you’ve been drinking huge ass beers. Cabaret music pumps in, the tall black cook flips fries and bumps butts with the waiter, and “the joint is (generally) jumpin’.” The Fats Waller tune was actually playing when I walked in last week. Ask the way to the bathroom before you go, because through the tiny diner’s kitchen you step into a courtyard that might have been a stage set for Streetcar – with its Escherian maze of balconies, shadows and cellars, and always just out of earshot, some couple barking at one another. If you want to go a bit further back in time – like to the 18th century – you can drink by candlelight at Lafitte’s till 3 a.m.

 Still the only true 24/7 food options in the Quarter are the Quartermaster grocery and Deja Vu, a haven for cops and cabbies. The walk from one to the other goes right down the middle of a sad shuttered Bourbon St. (by 2:15 am). The bartender at Deja Vu, Elisa, was a Bronx-raised spitfire dressed in black and tattooed from here to see-ya-next-Tuesday, and after serving us beers, cursed some bad tipper after tallying his check. The conversation then turned to celebrity bad tippers – “JLo,” someone yelled, “Vanna White,” “Halle Berry” – and then a massive cop tossed in (former Chicago Bull) “Scottie Pippen ... they used to call ‘im ‘No-Tippin’ Pippen.’” With a few cops, a few alcoholics, a few video-poker addicts, decent food and one entertaining halfwit, it felt like a cable sitcom about an all-night diner.

 All this late-night debauchery works up quite an appetite. “The chicken wings good?” I asked Elisa. “You from New York?” I nodded, my Brooklyn accent never quite tamed. “Then they’re not that good.” (My crush on her grows.) My evening’s companion ordered the vegetarian omelet; I punched him in the shoulder because, well, c’mon. “The bacon cheeseburger then,” he said; “‘Atta boy,” I said. It was a damned good burger: all flame-broiled greasy, grilled goodness. We left nourished, stopped for a drink next door at Rio (24/7) and then again at Erin Rose down the block (open 22/7). Quarter conclusion: Conti between Bourbon and Dauphine is the go-to place for the late, late-night show at its slummingly safest.

 For a homier destination at the more ambient edges of the Quarter, try Cosimo’s – a lively two-room den awash in golden-red light and bonhomie, with a great jukebox and a few pool tables in a separate alcove. Quality respite until 5 a.m, Thurs.-Sat. (and until 2 a.m., otherwise.)

 Heading Uptown
My first year in town I stopped my car and walked into Igor’s Bar/Grill/Game Room/Laundromat just to confirm that sign’s neon truth. Sure enough, squeezed in the back corner beyond the pool tables were two washers and two dryers. Similar neon claims at Lucky’s and Avenue Pub were upheld upon further inquiry. If you’ve ever wondered how three 24-hour bars survive in a quarter-mile stretch of St. Charles in Central City (i.e., below Jackson), here’s my theory: The Uptown strip serves collegetown (Grit’s, F&M, the Balcony, Miss Mae’s, Le Bon Temps) whereas the St. Charles strip harbors the young working stiffs. At 2 a.m. at Avenue Pub, bored young workers – black and white, male and female – played pool and listened to Al Green and The Clash. Good music, kids, I thought, so Godspeed, enjoy the tacos, and may you outwit your boredom. If not, they’re likely to wind up as the cynical characters at Lucky’s – too smart for their fate – or nodding at tourists at Igor’s who think they have a clue about New Orleans … Or worse, doing your laundry at one of these places while drinking the night away.

 Heading up from the St. Charles to the Uptown strip, there’s a smattering of joints open till and not till dawn: The Saint is for hipsters and fugitives; Rendezvous has been re-imagined as a sports bar and is slowly becoming a Parasol’s-style neighborhood joint for post-college singles; Shiloh is a DJ-powered living-room space where the hip-hop and techno soundtrack is the path to altered states; and Kingpin is a fine neighborhood dive in the grand tradition. The only true 24/7 joint is Miss Mae’s, which may have the cheapest top-shelf drink prices in these United States – a fact that fosters a rare intergenerational mix of senior citizens, sports fans, working-class men and female undergrads. Le Bon Temps needs no introduction as a music venue or as a premium dive, but in its 24/7 weekend mode, it also generates testimonials such as this one from a beautiful 40-year-old Loyola professor: “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen daybreak through the windows of the Bon Temps.”

 A few blocks up, Uptown finally has a 24/7 java joint – Urban Cup – with real food: wraps and panini, salads and red beans. Lively with students most of the time, it also attracts the sort of young professionals who seem to be running mail-order businesses off their laptops. Before, Uptown folk had to go to the Zotz on Oak St., a claustrophobic oasis that keeps the Riverbend from sinking into a pre-dawn slough of despair.

 From 2-6 a.m. Uptown, the all-night action moves to the nitty-gritty of Uptown undergraduates, F&M and Grit’s. (Until then, they’re both neighborhood joints.) The liveliest places on weeknights in collegetown, they’re also packed to the gills on weekends. Unless you’re desperate for crowd noise or looking for spectacle (or your kid), pick on some joint your own size.

 Finally, if you’re hungry and it’s passed 4 a.m. – closing out The Balcony Bar (kitchen open until 3 a.m.) and Le Bon Temps (about the same) – you can either wait in a line 10 cars deep at the 24-hour drive-thru McDonald’s on St. Charles and Louisiana, or drive on and show your stomach some self-respect. There’s Dot’s Diner in Kenner, with its kitschy decor, working-girl wait-staff, and old-school carbo-loading. Better yet, there’s Betsy’s Pancake House (opens at 5:30 a.m.), with its cheap, plentiful food, iconic back-talking waitresses and eclectic clientele (male construction workers at dawn, downtown workers at lunch, church-going families through the weekends). If you can stand the bright lights and the tourists at the end of a dark night of the soul, there’s always Harrah’s “Midnight Buffet.” In addition, if you can no longer face the world outside your car, there’s a surprisingly satisfying breakfast buffet at the Sav-A-Center at Tchoupitoulas and Napoleon streets.

Personally? I’m waiting for Betsy’s to open. 

39 Sundays: Rollin' Wid It

This essay originally appeared in the book Unfathomable City (University of California Press, 2013)

The day starts at 10 am at Spring Hill Missionary, a white stucco four-square Uptown Baptist church crowned with an all-watching steeple. Inside, we spread our tropical peach sleeves across the double rows of wooden pews, dark olive alligator shoes sticking out in the aisle. The pastor wears a pink power suit and reads from Corinthians about how Jesus might be anywhere, might even be on today's second line (so I guess we should watch for him). We're all mostly bored until one of our own, 72-year-old Sidney "Lil Bruh" Morris, stands up to act as a deacon and brings the message home with quiet dignity, asking the Lord for a good parade and a peaceful day of celebration and we all say Amen.

  In New Orleans, the second Sunday of each October belongs to the Prince of Wales Social Aid and Pleasure Club and has for a very long time. Founded in 1928 by dockworkers and railroad men, there is some disagreement about the origin of the club name. Most members believed it was named for the love of the club ancestors for J&B scotch (it says "dedicated to the Prince of Wales" on the label) while a few believe it was named for the actual Prince of Wales, a renowned jazz hound who made his first visit that year to the source of the cultural river. Mostly in our 40s and 50s, many Walers are second- and third-generation paraders who recall watching second-lines as kids or remember when clubs sewed their own colorful suits every year. On our day, by police permit and with police escort, all traffic is stopped and cleared out a quarter-mile section at a time as the Prince of Wales and Lady Walers -- and more than a thousand second-liners from all around -- funk up four miles of bad New Orleans road.

  After church, we drive over to take the annual club photo on the neutral ground across from Tipitina's, the famous club and shrine to Professor Longhair on Napoleon and Tchoupitoulas. We line up all in the unity of our finery half-facing the photographer. Standing proud in the year's colors -- peach suits, dark olive accessories -- we hold aloft two oval so-called "fans" upon which the club's lion symbol roars from a field of velvet. Then we move on up the street a quarter-mile to our home base where there's an hour until we launch ourselves onto the streets.

  The Rockbottom Lounge is the staging ground for coming out the door, the parade's kick-off at 1 pm. The core of the current club met here in the 1990s, many of them friends or relatives of Alonzo Landry, the President for most of that decade, while "White Boy Joe" Stern, our most veteran member, was adopted into Landry's extended family. Here we start getting the spirit, talk to former members, watch mothers dress their kids, take pride in being told by past generations that this year's peach three-piece with matching dark-olive hat and alligator shoes, has again made the grade: "Y'all look clean, ya look pretty," the men tell us. We each pin up a long streamer that flows across our torsos and down to our knees, full of bows and ribbons with a nickname on the shoulder-strap. All the while we're spiking our Sunday-go-to-second-line spirit with Heineken, Seagram's 7, weed, Grey Goose -- don't forget the wine coolers for Phyllis -- except for Miss Betty, a church-going woman soberly surviving with style at 65. Coming out in single file, we each by each hit the threshold, strike a pose and present this year's model of our selves. It is a serious celebratory matter. As Betty says, "All I know is when I come out I want to look like the baddest motherfucker there is."

  We come out rocking Soul-Train style between the ropes held by our prop men and descend onto Tchoupitoulas Street powered by The Stooges brass band: kids first, girls skipping and mugging with their green hats, boys next, a twelve-year-old already with a quick hip-dip and touch of the hat, then the Lady Walers saunter out, cool and low-flowin', Terina’s star-time smile followed by Phyllis' slow boogie and Desiree crossdressed in a Prince's suit working the glory of a threshold till its hers. Then the gents: Noland comes out lean and mean, a cool hustler as if with money to burn, White Boy Joe faces West and side-steps, sporting a matching dark olive bandanna under his olive Stetson, Bruce waves his booty round and round and covers the most ground, switching back through the ropes and up Peniston, Alvin does his gangster strut and runs his hand along his hat brim. Then Lil Bruh comes out holding his fans high and kicks his knees up higher than you'd imagine a 72-year-old man can, the very incarnation of the original "Grand Marshal," the strutting dancer who led the second-lines back when Black New Orleanians first "made up the parades just for the pleasure of it," as recalled by jazz legend Sidney Bechet from his childhood.

  After only two blocks we slow the parade roll to honor the dead. The band downshifts into a dirge in front of the late Jimmy Parker's house on Annunciation and The Walers fall into a halting step with a syncopated slip: we strut in two lines with a slight diagonal step, shaping the air into chords of ancestor worship. Maybe we pick up his spirit, maybe he's satisfied we're all still dancing for him. Once past, the tuba and snare drum pick up the groove and down the block we pick up the Queen and her Court. Elected from outside the club, she rides with her maids and throws a few beads, honorary royal figureheads in the ritual. While waiting, Paul and I buckjump together, his thrashing kicks set off my deep-knee corkscrewing, and the Walers gather around, throw their fans down and get busy with The Stooges. The tuba-man slows his beat and a pride of princesses and their children dance down the steps and ascend a half-sawn off Mardi Gras float with their children. Then the Queen comes down the steps in white taffeta approaching a vehicle that has to be seen to be believed: an open-air bare-bones stagecoach woven of wire and drawn by two stallion-sized white mules. The Queen steps in as if she's a relief pitcher from Heaven. The driver flicks his switch and she is driven half a block to the awaiting float for a day of regal waves and champagne riding.

   We set in to serious second-lining through the 12th Ward, a seamless sunny brassy carpet-ride of strolling, drinking, talking, and strutting, tuba-&-drum call and community response, until the parade turns onto Magazine Street and the Walers hit this commercial strip like a holiday: Alvin throws down his fans and we make a circle around him as he zigs back and forth with zip starts and stops, Desiree turns her palms up and damn near limbos, and everyone digs making the rich white folks wait and wonder as they stare from their cars with culture shock-and-awe. Second-lines run four hours over five-mile routes almost entirely through African-American neighborhoods -- Treme, Central City, Carrollton -- so many locals have never seen one due to residential segregation. Until recently, New Orleans culture was racially coded for locals: white and black Mardi Gras, white Krewes and Black Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs, white touristy second-lines and these black-cultural rolling block parties.

  The Prince of Wales is a rare Uptown second-line and this ain't no First Friday: it's a community getting its collective freak on, working off the weekly tension so at some point everybody is a star (to riff on Sly Stone). The parade belongs as much to the second liners as to the first line: that's why it's named for them. As Louis Armstrong testified about his childhood: "The Second Line is a bunch of Guys who follows the parade. They're not the members of the … Club. Anybody can be a Second Liner, whether they are Raggedy or dressed up. They seemed to have more fun than anybody." This weekly ritual is named for the celebrants and not the sponsors, and at this point we all swing together onto the broad expanse of Louisiana Avenue and head up to The Sandpiper, a bar whose '50s neon martini sign is a beacon in the late unholy NOLA night. This is the first scheduled ten-minute stop of the parade: we rest for a drink and momentarily de-compress.

  Once we re-emerge we're in the thick of it, between the dancers and the deep heat and the strolling crowd. Sometimes you look up from getting down and don't even know where you're at even in your own neighborhood. The music shapes the air, the band torques up our internal gyroscopes, the tuba syncs our bodies together. We're getting the street into our system and putting our energy into the street. Like any good ritual, second-lines suspend everyday industrial time. And then it's out LaSalle to Washington and on around to the stop at Charley Wright's place, and we’re lettin’ the good times roll on, Walers out front.

  On your club's parade day, the suit is your club uniform and the band is your motorcade. "Shut that street down… I'm coming through here. That's what it feel like," Noland once said, having driven a cab and a truck and run assorted hustles as well as a home-repair business in his fifty-odd years. "You feel like, [there's] nothing they can do [to stop you]… Eleven months they [we] slave, for one day out of the year." Miss Betty distills this feeling: "That’s my day. I feel like a star. Everything's got to stop for me." On this day, the second-liners bask in refracted glory off our colorful shoulders and bad-ass shoes: our tropical blaze of body and soul lights up the community. "It’s your day, you the one shining," Betty says.

  If a city is a circulatory system of its residents' energy -- with streets like arteries and airwaves -- then New Orleans is the city as dancing body, a place whose spirit is stomped into existence every Sunday. Every day musicians inhale the city and on Sundays, they exhale it through valves and pistons and put the music on the wind for dancers to make the city's rhythms visible. There's a third line, too -- the platoon of photographers and tourists who think the main action is the first line when it's more along the sidewalks, where two people lock eyes and drop into a dance-off full of fluid shimmies, spins, and pelvic pops, where an impromptu drum unit rings time on cowbells and pint bottles, where every surface becomes a platform of celebration -- church steps, flatbeds, low rooftops, billboards -- and I watch seven young men from the community pace the Prince of Wales single-file each with his own move (leap, hurdle, split, cartwheel) while a few women lean forward on a parked car and booty-pop their pleasure since it ain't no sin to be glad you're alive.

  "There's no place like this place," Stan smiles at me as we swing onto St. Charles and hold up a streetcar, tourists' eyes popping wide as their camera lenses. The Stooges shift into "Billie Jean" and pump up the volume, honoring the recently deceased Michael Jackson and blowing up the prized quiet real estate with brassy antagonism. "The tourists … be trying to see what's going on, they taking pictures," Phyllis says with pride, "but we own the streets that day." Stan is originally from San Antonio and joined the club post-Katrina for one reason: "It became imperative [for me] to step up because they were trying to take the culture away." In the immediate aftermath of "the Storm" (as it's called here), the city doubled the cost of a police permit and spread the lie that violence was endemic to second-lines. The clubs sued to rescind the increase and the Walers' own Joe Stern testified to the lack of parade violence over a generation. "They don't help us at all," Phyllis once said about the city, "if it was up to them, we wouldn't even be second lining… That's why we have the [Second-Line] Task Force…because we're trying to fight for our culture… Any kind of commercial dealing with New Orleans, the first thing you see is a second line. But they don’t support us."

  We have looped back around into the Garden District and arrive at our last stop, Commander’s Palace, the city's #1 restaurant as rated by Zagat's: this was a prestigious coup engineered by Bruce and Noland and represents very recent attempts by local businesses to embrace local Black culture for its spectacle value. Five feet from the door, Adrian, the youngest Waler, throws her hat to the ground and she dip-bam-double-skips and spins into a quick routine that The Stooges support with sustained, escalating riffs, and Adrian does a stutter-kick, a half-split and then a slight backbend from which she rolls her head back in to place, gives the band an appreciative side-eye, then bends gracefully to pick up her hat and sashays on in. It is her way of claiming this new terrain and honoring its prestige. We swirl into the restaurant, human birds of paradise swooping low past shocked faces in the midst of quiet mid-afternoon lunches. I toss back a gimlet with Alvin and Terina's goldened smile spurs us back on out to Tchoupitoulas and the wide-open homestretch along the river that takes us home to the Rockbottom.

 A second-line parade is an annual house party that moves lightly like the feathers on our fans yet inexorably like a tank through the streets. Gotta roll wid it or get the hell on outta the way. 

The Soul Roots of Bruce Springsteen's American Dream

Bruce Springsteen's reputation stands as the voice of white working-class America, the heroic poet-everyman of the rustbelt's white ethnic working class and its intelligentsia. Most scholars place him in the social realist musical tradition of Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan that harkens back to the fetishization of male workers that informs the Whitmanesque. Yet for nearly a decade (1973-1982), Springsteen was best known as a dynamic live performer, a rock and roll showman who appropriated many of James Brown's performative gestures for marathon four-hour shows that were, in effect, his translation of Brown's stagecraft, the energy and dramatic gestures of the self-proclaimed "hardest-working man in show business." In 1974, Springsteen's E Street band owed far more to the model of an integrated soul-funk band like War or Sly and the Family Stone than to the Rolling Stones: it had two African-American members -- jazz pianist David Sancious along with saxophonist Clarence Clemons -- and the half-Hispanic drummer, Vini "Mad Dog" Lopez (who was initially replaced by Ernest "Boom" Carter, a Black jazz drummer.) The title cut of Springsteen's second album, "The E Street Shuffle" (1974), was a soul-funk tune he riffed off of a Curtis Mayfield-penned r&b hit for Major Lance called "Monkey Time" (1963), while in his spare time Springsteen wrote and produced soul-tinged songs for the other successful white Asbury Park rhythm-and-blues band, Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes.

Here I want to provide a theory of soul music as performance ritual rather than vocal style and to analyze Springsteen's adaptation of this ritual for communicating his core thematic messages. In contrast to Joe Cocker, Eric Burdon, Dusty Springfield, or even Van Morrison, Springsteen never appropriated soul's vocal style, nor did he imitate African-American dance moves on stage (as Mick Jagger did). Rather, he appropriated soul's gospel-derived theatricality and its musical philosophy of community. If at first he mined this tradition to produce high-energy concert communion, in the past decade he now self-consciously preaches the implied messages of soul's secularized communion. Springsteen's current concert rhetoric represents a shift away from his youthful reproduction of the individualistic American dream of material wealth (e.g., in "Rosalita" or "Thunder Road") to envisioning a collective American dream of self-actualization within a supportive community. This American dream of a rejuvenated democracy reclaimed by fighting for social justice was one Springsteen channeled from soul music, the soul ritual, and the soul tradition.

If we frame Springsteen not through the content of his songs but through his philosophy of live performance -- his investment in moving audiences towards existential affirmation and social justice -- then he is a Euro-American avatar of the African-American soul tradition.

Link to full PDF of article. (from American Music, 2007 -- opens in new window)

Jazz: To Tell Your Story

Liner Notes to Jazz (Putamayo Records, 2009)

Jazz is an art form of ensemble individuality. A jazz artist has to first develop a unique, identifiable voice, a combination of tone, style, and phrasing that marks an instantly recognizable sound. Just as no one would mistake Billie Holiday's voice for Anita O'Day, Oscar Peterson's piano style is easily distinguished from Hampton Hawes's, Chet Baker's trumpet from Louis Armstrong's, Ray Brown's bass from Percy Heath's. Creating a signature sound is the objective of the jazz apprenticeship.

Jazz is a performer's rather than a composer's music: its musical practices transformed the popular song into a vehicle for musical conversation. Every musician must "tell a story," a phrase of jazz lore often credited to tenor saxophonist Lester Young. A jazz vocalist inhabits a song: she lives in it like a short story unfolding in musical time. The best jazz vocals are short one-act plays told by a first-person narrator as the musical scenery constantly, subtly shifts to mirror the twists and turns of the singer's emotional dynamics. A singer can often move the listener without words — through scatting, melisma, or just a sighed vocable, that expressive moan or sigh like Armstrong's "bleah-yeah-heah" or Holiday's "hmmmm-mmm." Every jazz vocalist must be able "to get tremendous effects out of the most subtle beat manipulations," Will Friedwald writes in Jazz Singing, since "keeping in time, in jazz, is even more important than keeping in tune." The musicians are not up there to support the vocalist but to interact: jazz requires real-time collective artistic creation.

The 1950s was a golden age for jazz vocals and three-quarters of this collection was recorded during the five-year period between 1956-1961. Jazz's popularity peaked in postwar America for many reasons besides the sheer range of talent in every subgenre, from swing to hard bop to modal and soul jazz. There was the shared common musical ground of jazz standards that gave audiences the ability to understand the ground from which solos were launched; there was a social imperative — the relationship of jazz to civil rights activism during the Jim Crow era; and there was jazz's niche as the music of intellectuals and hipsters on the East and West coasts. Finally, to have one's own sound meant being able to project an individuality often denied to African-Americans. As Duke Ellington once said, "The music had to say what we couldn't."

 Many of the songs in this collection are gems from the Great American Songbook. This body of work is often considered the achievement of songwriters, but this is only half-true. These songs became "standards" as we know them through a process by which jazz musicians standardized the grooves, textures, melodies, and sonorities into an instrumental balladry to which our ears are now attuned. When these songs were first sung — often crooned — in Broadway musicals or off-Broadway revues, they owed more to the operetta tradition of Gilbert & Sullivan than the African-American traditions of blues, jazz, and gospel. Jazz musicians needed shared musical ground for jam sessions — their training ground, since no schools then taught jazz — and songs became "standards" as particular pieces acquired the grooves, nuance and phrasing infused by a generation of jazz musicians. This also put pressure on singers to create an equally adept instrument out of their voices. "Her voice was like having another horn in the band," the musicians of the Count Basie Orchestra often complimented Billie Holiday. This was how musicians distinguished a vocalist — or "song stylist," as Anita O'Day insisted on calling herself — from "a canary" or a "chick singer," common terms for women who looked rather than sounded good.

Jazz is the only indigenous American art form. It is a creolization of the musical cultures of Africa, Latin America, and Europe and its keynotes are groove and interplay, self-expression and improvisation, flow and flexibility. What jazz has always offered any and all individuals is a method for creating a singular artistic voice and then merging it with others who share common musical ground. As guitarist Jim Hall reflects: "I've played in many countries, and in this music, I can communicate fully with musicians whose native language I can't speak." What's American about jazz? Duke Ellington deserves the last word: "Jazz is a good barometer of freedom. The music is so free that many people ... around the world say that it is the only unhampered, unhindered expression of complete freedom yet produced in this country."

Noir Cool as American Cool

In 1942, Paramount Studios attempted to float a new term for rising star Alan Ladd: "the romantic heavy." At the time, the "heavy" meant the villain and the romantic lead was always the hero -- so this is an oxymoron. It might be translated as the heroic badass and it didn't take. The romantic heavy was a rogue figure we now call cool, even if no one used the term at the time.

The aesthetic of noir cool was established in seven films released between 1940 and 1942, including The Maltese Falcon and Citizen Kane. These films defined the genre’s aesthetics, thematics, visual style, and moral ambiguity. Through Humphrey Bogart and later Robert Mitchum, the genre created a new mode of rebellious individual masculinity: noir cool -- a public mask of stylish stoicism.

The crucible of this new figure was his masking of emotion -- his cool. To be "cool" suggested self-control to the point of detachment, and signified an insolent defiance as registered in facial expression and body language. The masking of emotion communicates an inner intensity critical to the self-presentation and embodiment of Bogart, Mitchum and Alan Ladd.

Link to full PDF of article.