Friday, September 25, 2009

The second kind of cool

Matt at Twenty Dollars has a post that is tres dope, hip, fly, or whatever the kids are calling it nowadays.

The thesis:

The jazz universe resembles that of railroad enthusiasts or Magic: The Gathering players. It is a subculture: cared for passionately by a small group of insiders, but thought of as a mere curiosity by the wider population, if they think of it at all. [...]

It seems like the only reason jazz is referenced in contemporary popular culture is to mock the music and its fans. [...]

[T]his picture of jazz in popular culture is pretty grim. Jazz is the province of egg-heads and snobs; it is unpleasant cacophony that is perpetuated by bizarrely self-important weirdos. The problem is not just that people don’t see jazz as something cool, it is that they are seeing it as explicitly not cool. This has not always been the case — Bill Cosby used to have jazz musicians guest on his show quite often, and they were always cool “Uncle Dizzy,” or something along those lines. But the older jazz icons are leaving us, and the newer breed of university-trained musicians have not figured out a way to maintain the same aura of cool. [...]

As we struggle with declining audiences, jazz venue closures, and a general music industry upheaval, we must not forget that there is a broader public relations battle that must be waged – the re-coolization of jazz.

One of the more interesting comments came from someone named Nancy:

From my vantage point — that is to say the longtime jazz girlfriend that doesn’t really know or like jazz — I have to say that the reason jazz isn’t cool is because the jazz nerds have effectively shut the rest of us out of it. The way jazz fans fawn over and talk about jazz makes it unwelcome to any casual fan.

There is no music quite dissected like jazz, and no topic quite as boring as dissected jazz. While all of you yammer on about changes and chords and time signatures and social issues related to jazz (bah!), the music has faded to the background... of both your chatter and my mind.

Ah, yes. I feel a stream of consciousness coming on.

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What is "cool," anyway?

On one level I suppose it's a basic stance of intellectual or artistic superiority. The cool person is seen by the outsider as ineffably, unattainably, desirably better than. "Cool" in this sense is style-driven: the cool person has access to the "cutting edge," is in the vanguard of taste, and knows about the "hot" new trend (ironic how "cool" and "hot" fit together like this, eh?). Further: he or she is able to walk a delicate (and potentially contradictory) tightrope: publicly shunning broad popularity (which, of course, is problematically "mainstream" or "square"), but simultaneously driven by a desire to be a leading (and thus popular) taste-maker.

In response to this (possibly arbitrary) definition of "cool," I say: who needs it?

Okay, maybe that's a bit dismissive. We all want our art to "speak," and it won't speak if it has nothing to do with the zeitgeist it is embedded in. And artistic superiority is a fine aspiration (as long as you realize that the results are always going to be relative); another word for that is "excellence," and we should all be interested in excellence.

But at the same time this definition of cool has to do with much more than a simple interest in relevance or excellence. This definition of cool always seems to come back to an obsession with status. It thus reminds me a bit of the dynamic that obtained in high school, and, to a lesser degree, grad school.

I lived through both of those environments once. I do not wish to experience them again. So while I acknowledge its value, this is not my kind of cool.

There is, however, a second kind of "cool" that I do find appealing: "coolness" as an almost zen-like detachment. Its natural musical analog is probably not jazz at all (at least not post-1970s jazz), but the (real folk) blues.

Whereas the first "cool" is socially-obsessed while presenting itself as anti-social ("too cool for school"), the second cool is powerful because it is impersonal, because it eschews self-importance, because it does not seek to impress. While the first cool is about displaying superiority and strength (through "chops," "complexity," or a bitchen hairdo), the second is more about embracing the imperfection of humanity, and somehow making that into something beautiful. The first cool is "da bomb," the second cool is "aplomb."

Can you see where I'm going with this? One way out of the dilemma jazz currently finds itself in (i.e., lacking a sustainable audience) may be through this second kind of cool. (The first kind is valuable too, but, as Nancy would probably tell us, it has its limits.)

Let's compare. In rock, this second kind of cool bubbled up to the surface in the wake of super-serious prog-rockers, and spawned a whole series of superstar bands and artists that were comfortable embracing their inner nerd: Talking Heads, Devo, They Might Be Giants, Elvis Costello, et al.

Where are the jazz musicians who are comfortable embracing their inner nerd? Who are comfortable with the aesthetic possibilities of self-deprecation? Who are comfortable with their own idiosyncrasies?

You might point me toward the term "jazz nerd," and yes, that's a term that I have heard plenty of musicians use to jokingly refer to themselves -- always outside the context of a performance. That last is an important detail, because recognizing your own nerdiness is very different from embracing that nerdiness through your music. What if real live jazz musicians were to take up the sort of mockery highlighted by Twenty Dollars? What if that sort of thing actually informed the music more? Would that kill us or make us stronger? (If the former -- does that mean jazz is so fragile that it can be fractured by a few well-placed jibes?)

Of course, I'm really talking about comedy, a subject that is near and dear to my heart. But that's because I have long thought that all the great comedians have the second kind of cool. It humanizes them, and it feeds their popularity. Consider folks like Dave Chapelle, Carol Burnett, Charlie Chaplin, Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, Louis CK, Sarah Silverman, and so on -- all of them demonstrate keen awareness of the absurdity of life. All of them are great at laughing at themselves. And all of them seem to be coming from a very different aesthetic and philosophical place than most modern jazz musicians.

Maybe that's okay. Jazz is not stand-up comedy (though both involve improvisation). And it's also not like there isn't any humor to be found in modern jazz (though much of it seems cursory to me). Of course Nancy might disagree:

Take for example, the Austin McBride “scandal.” While jazzicists debate his merits/demerits and whether or not it’s all a big joke, the rest of us are left with a video of him counting four over “Take Five.” Yes, I get the humor in it. But funny? No, not really.

Which in turns reminds me of something Zappa said in The Real Frank Zappa Book:

What academicians regard as "humor" in music is usually stuff along the lines of "Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks" (remember, in Music Appreciation class, when they told you that the E-flat clarinet is going "ha-ha-ha!"?). Take my word for it, folks -- you can do way better than that.

He was right, I think: we can, and we should.

[photo credit: porcupiny]

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If you love jazz nerds, you could do worse than throwing a few bucks at the Industrial Jazz Group. We're having a fall fundraiser, in support of our October tour. You can find out more, and contribute to the cause (for as little as $1!), here.

Also! Check out the remix contest.


@MLZellers said...

i think the coolest guys in the world are the old guys you see in mcdonald's every morning getting coffee... they are themselves and don't care what anyone thinks about em - shorts and sandals w/high black sox? sure... it's a level of cool we all can aspire to, but few will achieve... i am completely serious...
or as i posted to the other blog - warhol said nothing is cooler than to be unfraid to look uncool...

Anonymous said...

The good news is that Jazz is mostly responsible for informing our sense of cool. People don't realize when they get all hipped up for the clubs they are trying to emulate the looks of these guys (and gal, although feminine cool takes more of a page from women in french new wave cinema I'd have to say) Can you imagine a world where the looks of say this man made kids go "Damn, that's cool!"

Anonymous said...

Conrad Herwig talks about this all the time -- there is actually a Yoruba (Afro-Cuban subculture) word that describes what you call the "second kind of coolness": itutu (ee-too-too). This translates as "mystic coolness." Pretty bad-ass.

Andrew Durkin... said...

Thanks all for the comments.

Mike -- love that example of the old guys who could care less about image. And I think there's an analog to art too, where the best stuff you create happens when you are able to finally set the self-consciousness aside.

Great pics, Anonymous, thanks for sharing.

Alex -- thanks for the tip on itutu. I was thinking more of Asian sources, but from what little I know of Yoruba culture, I'm not at all surprised that they would have developed a similar concept of cool.

Anonymous said...

The other Anonymous:

How soon we forget:

At least give him credit for a noble effort.