New Orleans Musical Culture


I gave a talk on New Orleans music and culture last week to a group of visiting CEOs from San Diego and I was surprised to find they were compelled by a common gentrification narrative. The spike in housing costs (and other expenses) since Katrina will soon displace a century's worth of musical continuity. Harry Connick, Jr., Branford Marsalis, and Habitat For Humanity led the city to establish Musicians Village, which subsidizes some 70 or so musicians. Yet the engine for New Orleans’ continual rejuvenation of American music has always been the mentor-apprentice relationships in historical African-American neighborhoods: in musical families, in brass bands, in high school marching bands. You can read about the process in interviews in Talk That Music Talk. Connick (mentored by James Booker) and Marsalis (family band) represent two examples of this tradition, but even transplanted musicians find a supportive community across racial lines.


Gentrification is a bulldozer, not a generator of culture. So why was this group of CEOs compelled by our city’s story? Perhaps because New Orleans is the last non-generic city in America. Our musical culture is understood as irreplaceable and non-reproducible, in contrast to the nation’s gentrified upscale neighborhoods. Will our musical culture survive? I am not optimistic.

Jazz cool in the new millennium

Dublin’s Phoenix magazine features a monthly playlist and I was honored to create one aligning the current UK jazz resurgence with the US fusion of jazz and hiphop. Dig in here to hear the Sons of Kemet and Ashley Henry grooving alongside Kamasi Washington, Esperanza Spalding and the living New Orleans tradition. Sequencing the set made me nostalgic for my 10-year stint as the Monday morning jazz DJ on WWOZ-FM in New Orleans — but not for those 5am wake-ups.

Illustration by James Boast in The Phoenix.

Illustration by James Boast in The Phoenix.

Cooling the planet down

Make Earth Cool Again.jpg

This is the best activist slogan for climate change I’ve seen — admittedly, I’m biased — and it seems to have originated as an ad campaign from Stonyfield Yogurt. If so, good on them. And so it shall be my new mantra, as phrase and image: to visualize this Cool Earth rising. Happy 2019 from New Orleans.

MSNBC & LL Cool J Present: The Story of Cool


MSNBC presents a three-episode documentary, The Story of Cool, over the next three Sundays (starting on July 1). I show up in the first episode to tell the origin story. LL Cool J exec-produces and his presence connects icons of cool such as Ice Cube and Shepard Fairey with CEOs and cultural critics. The trailer hits some good keynotes: cool as "the perfect balance between substance and style," cool as "authenticity." American cool is a vernacular tradition of rebellion so let's finally reject the ahistorical analysis of Thomas Frank and Malcolm Gladwell -- cultural critics for whom cool is only a consumer process. Selling cool may work for the early adolescence set (say, 11-16) but during the crucible of self-creation -- between 17-25  -- no one really believes buying something makes you cool. 


How the Light Gets In

JD & Jamal C -- Cool prof.JPG

I am on my way to the How The Light Gets In festival in Hay-on-Wye (UK) to give a talk on "The Secret History of Cool" and, as well, to serve on a panel debating the meaning of rebellion within consumer capitalism. Nice timing as it follows Tulane's graduation, for which I donned a fedora and shades when I couldn't find my cap. My friend and Tulane photographer Sally Asher caught me congratulating the newly-minted MA Jamal Cuthbertson and I like the look enough that I will probably keep it in the years to come.

And I tip my hat to the HTLGI people: Leonard Cohen possessed a rarefied cool worthy of having a "philosophy and music festival" named after his most hopeful turn-of-phrase.

African-Americans invented cool

Cool - from Jazz Lexicon.jpg

African-Americans invented cool as a stylistic defiance against racism during World War II. This is simply well-documented social, historical, and linguistic fact. To be cool in the 1940s referred to the ability to be relaxed in one's own style in any environment, an act of courage and mental strength for any Black person during the Jim Crow era. Whether meaning high praise ("Cool!"), vetting someone to others ("she's cool"), or referring to a relaxed state of mind ("I'm cool, man") -- our modern usages all began in jazz culture. Jazz fan Jack Kerouac caught the new word at clubs and wrote of his "theory of cool" to Neal Cassady in 1950 and William Burroughs registered this "new word in the hipster vocabulary" in Junky (1952).  By the time The Jazz Lexicon came out in 1963 -- the definitive dictionary of jazz jargon -- Robert S. Gold called cool "the protean word" of jazz culture. There were two pages of citations from magazines and a page each for "uncool" and "cool it," as well as for "hip" and "unhip." Jazz was the dominant subculture of the post-World War II era in NYC and jazz musicians' slang became the first rebellious code of cool. 

                           from  The Jazz Lexicon  (1963)

                           from The Jazz Lexicon (1963)

Jazz legend Lester Young was the first to spread this underground gospel of cool. To be cool meant you would not Uncle-Tom  -- i.e., produce a fake smile -- to show white Americans you knew your place. Young then added stylistic markers to defy the white gaze: a personal, impenetrable slang; wearing sunglasses at night; inhabiting a smoky alcohol haze for insulation. Both black and white jazz musicians put on their shades, torqued up their slang, smoked dope or shot heroin, and became cool cats. Within a decade, sociologists began writing about cool, Norman Mailer became obsessed with the concepts of hip and cool (in his Village Voice columns on "The Hip and the Square") and Leonard Bernstein registered its presence in national consciousness with "Cool" in West Side Story (1957). White appropriation and dilution of "cool" and "chill" continues, then as now. (Read more in chapters one and five of The Origins of Cool in Postwar America.)

From Bogart to Brando and Dean -- The Cool Podcast


How is it that Bogart and Robert Mitchum and Barbara Stanwyck are cool and yet so are their opposite numbers, Marlon Brando, James Dean, and Elvis? I discuss this key aspect of my Cool book on Mark Lynch's podcast, Inquiry, on WCIN. The short answer: these icons spoke to different generations. Bogart, Mitchum and Stanwyck were exemplars of surviving with dignity and style -- of existential cool -- and represented the generation that grew up in the Great Depression and fought WW2. For those too young to fight and for the youngest Boomers, Brando, Dean and Elvis embodied an edgy, eroticized badboy masculinity that subverted the monolithic image of the good father from 50s sitcoms, organization men, and that great daddy-o, POTUS Dwight Eisenhower. They were rebels for adolescents (at first), representing the hollow middle of an affluent consumer society. And that's what made Jim Stark here (on the right) "tick ... *like a bomb.*"

Best review so far

By far the most comprehensive review of my arguments in The Origins of Cool has been novelist Benjamin Markovits' engaged analysis in the Times Literary Supplement (TLS). Markovits aptly refers to a generation's icons of cool as akin to cultural kites:

Kendrick Lamar, 2017

Kendrick Lamar, 2017

"There is a lot to be said for 'cool theory' as a way of talking about art and books. Dinerstein uses his cast of actors, writers and musicians as kites that show which way the cultural winds are blowing

"'What’s cool' is a question of taste  whereas coolness depends on the interaction of a contemporary audience.

"That is why jazz matters so much here -- jazz improvisation is supposed to offer an immediate expression of what the audience (in a club) is feeling. It responds, as it were, to market forces, and fame works in a similar way."

We used to call such artists emblems of the zeitgeist (literally, the "spirit of the times"), but that word has become a cliché and fallen out of favor. That's why cool – the word -- remains the password to an American mythos: it is the exclamatory term invoked when pointing to innovative artists groping for a new cultural pattern of individuality for a given audience with consequences for social change.

The cover of Miranda Lambert's  The Weight of These Wings (2016).

The cover of Miranda Lambert's The Weight of These Wings (2016).

Kendrick Lamar (above) is one such cultural kite -- Black Lives Matter supporters chant his songs on marches -– and Miranda Lambert is another, for her embodiment of a new female country persona (right). Both have galvanized new audiences into being by publicly wrestling with the winds of change. Such artists should not be conflated or confused with celebrities – e.g., Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez -- who are more commodities (whats that are cool) than windsurfers.

The Origins of Cool in the NYTBR


In a quick, evocative notice in the NY Times Sunday Book Review, reviewer John Williams quoted two definitions of cool and then half-praised my "nerdy and convincing arguments." He then connected the instability of the postwar period to our historical moment and, in referring to the influential personae of Bogart, Kerouac, Billie Holiday, Elvis, and Brando (left), he wondered: "When have we needed their relaxed calm more?"

Passing the Page 99 Test

Book blogger Marshal Zeringue challenged me to take the p.99 test and The Origins of Cool passed the mystical test with flying colors. The reader lands on my analysis of This Gun for Hire and a definition of noir cool. Although often derided as a "pulp existentialism," noir cool was instead a stylish stoicism, a state of thoughtful calm conveyed by artistic expressions of stylized resilience. As for the early noir This Gun For Hire, it featured the first pairing of Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake (left) -- looking here like the Hollywood goddess of Night  -- and caught the soon-to-be Greatest Generation's youthful desire for the new cool register represented by Ladd-and-Lake's low-key eroticism. 


PopMatters Understands The Origins of Cool

Popular culture can usefully be thought of as a society thinking out loud. It is a running narrative of a nation's collective mind, its conscious and unconscious. If a new word and concept arises -- as cool did in the early 1940s -- then something new is afoot in the world. Cool was a term for a brand new kind of encoded personal rebellion before social movements had mobilized, something you could feel more than explain in the actors, musicians, and writers that turned you on, whether Paul Newman (right) or Sidney Poitier, Miles Davis or Elvis, Jack Kerouac or Lorraine Hansberry. In an insightful review in the hip webzine PopMatters, reviewer Megan Volpert cuts to the quick of cool: "To be cool is to interrogate the social norms that hold us down. It’s a form of rebellion that doesn’t let cards show to police or politicians. Cool is the means by which we can cope with our lived experiences of injustice, a means of enacting hope that after these injustices are unmasked as such, there will be something better on the other side."

Volpert noted my tripartite approach to cool "as a theorist, historian and lover of popular culture [in] a book that synthesizes the best of all three domains." The Origins of Cool in Postwar America is a history of cultural workers -- actors, writers, and musicians -- at a specific moment in time and how their artistic and iconic rebellion sowed political consciousness. In short, a cool rebel draws a public line in the sand against oppression or persecution and his or her action galvanizes an audience or generation. 


A great first review for The Origins of Cool

'Twas a rave from the Times Higher Education (London) and effectively summarized several of its key concepts. Robert Eaglestone called the book "superb" and "riveting," and better yet, "accessible, historical, and personable." Two weeks before that, Publisher's Weekly gave The Origins of Cool a *starred review -- meaning, keep an eye out for this one The book hits the stores officially in a week (May 17) so get 'em while they're cool. Today's plug: there are two chapters on existential cool through its literary and cinematic avatars, Albert Camus (left) and Humphrey Bogart. 


The Origins of Cool

Cool has a history. My new book on the beginnings of this key American word and concept will be published on May 22 by the University of Chicago Press. The Amazon page is now up with a great cover evoking film noir and the existential crossroads of 1945 -- after all, that's why Americans needed to be cool during the Cold War. Cool did not correspond to superficial popularity or being in vogue until the '80s. In the beginning, Cool was an underground password for searchers, a public mode of covert rebellion.




Nonstop Jewish Metropolis


So, nu?, I made The Forward. This rave review of Rebecca Solnit & Joshua Jelly-Schapiro's Nonstop Metropolis: A New York City Atlas frames the City through a very Jewish lens and quotes a few lines from my short essay, "The Lost World of Jewish Flatbush." If the paper only knew editor-at-large and Jamaican-American Garnette Cadogan also goes by Ethan Levy, even more Jewish love would have showered down upon my Brooklyn homeland.

On being a Brooklyn Jewish Working-Class Kid in the '70s


I have a short essay on my upbringing -- "The Lost World of Jewish Flatbush" -- in Rebecca Solnit's Nonstop Metropolis (Joshua Jelly-Schapiro, co-editor). I'm honored to be in this resplendent collection of maps and essay, the first work to successfully reconceptualize and reorient NYC towards its future within a comprehensive 5-borough approach. My organic understanding of cool as a concept comes from growing up during white flight in '70s Flatbush in multi-cultural, multi-ethnic public schools that were more than three-quarters Black, Latino, and Asian. Cool was then a mode of survival, style, integrity, autonomy, and self-presentation --the opposite of superficial popularity, hip irony, or product placement.

A one-time event

Stuart Vevers, Deborah Harry, Joel Dinerstein

Stuart Vevers, Deborah Harry, Joel Dinerstein

The headline refers mostly to the book-release party of Coach: A Story of New York Cool but also to the likelihood of my ever being photographed again with Deborah Harry. We arrived simultaneously -- she was on my blind side -- and I turned and said something uncool like, "Hey, you're Deborah Harry." Dig the suede midnight blues and sharp, shimmering pearl-gray suit, sleek like sharkskin. And it was the first time I'd held the book -- a big, beautiful, stylish survey of the Big Apple since 1941. Coach threw a great party, as reported and photographed in Woman's Wear Daily, while the book caught its first review in The Observer.

Coach: A Story of NY Cool

My new book drops today: it's a brand narrative of Coach in honor of the company's 75th anniversary, a coffee-table book companion to this year's Coach-1941 fashion line. As a proud city kid from Brooklyn, I enjoyed excavating the back-story of this iconic brand and I shaped the narrative by detailing NYC's decades through propulsive pop-cultural chunks. Both the brand's founder, Miles Cahn, and its current creative director, Stuart Vevers, are compelling figures of then and now. Long-time Coach fan and NY icon Debbie Harry wrote the foreword, Fabien Baron did the scrapbook layout and PAPER made its publication release official yesterday.

Is cool dead? In Paris and Brooklyn, yes.

Is cool dead? In Paris and Brooklyn, yes.

Chic is dead: Paris imports hip from Brooklyn, which lost its cool years ago. So is cool dead? As ever, a live question. Cool requires streetlife, bohemia, affordable rents, cross-cultural exchange, and individuals with expressive style. Social media hunts cool 24/7; bohemian enclaves flip into rich privilege zones within a decade, as in New Orleans. If there's to be a 21st century cool, maybe it's Banksy-style anonymity, maybe the petri dish of Detroit. 

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"The thing about race is, scientifically, there's no such thing." (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar)

"The thing about race is, scientifically, there's no such thing." (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar)

Of course -- so why does the media work so hard to ignore this fact? Every student learns this in college and yet if you watched media 24/7 -- from Jon Stewart to CNN to Fox -- you would never learn it. Simply put: Race is a social fact without scientific basis. So maybe the Rachel Dolezal issue will kick start the national conversation we need to have. Maybe someone will even state that "Caucasians" don't exist: meaning, there is no group of Americans descended from the Caucasus Mountains in Russia. As Kareem suggests, maybe we should let this woman keep doing social activism. And perhaps national media humiliation is a just punishment for her many ethics violations.

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