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.