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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