Todd Boyd: Miles Davis: Truly the Birth of the Cool

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[Dr. Todd Boyd is the Katherine and Frank Price Endowed Chair for the Study of Race and Popular Culture and professor of critical studies in the USC School of Cinematic Arts. His blog is Notorious Ph.D.]

Would it be proper to describe Mad Men as ''cool''? Well, yes and no, but before answering that question, let's ponder the often misunderstood properties of cool.

Cool has a history, believe it or not. It is the lack of historical knowledge about cool's origins that has allowed for the rampant and unfettered exploitation of this concept and its rather elusive properties in modern times. Cool, detached from its history, is style without substance, in the worst way. It is a free-floating signifier of emptiness, unmoored from its complicated birth in a more repressive era.

Cool has been around in one form or another for years. Yet cool, as we know it, is a product of the conformity, paranoia and racism of that which defined the early Cold War era through the mid 1960s. While it is difficult to label a lone inventor of cool, there are the pioneers, and the pioneers of cool all tended to come from the same place: the world of jazz. Imagine luminary cool figures, like the suave Duke Ellington; the debonair baritone ''Mr. B,'' Billy Eckstein; and the original black ''Prez'' himself, Lester Young, as just a few of these pioneers.

John Burkes ''Dizzy'' Gillespie, another progenitor of cool, rocked a beret and horn-rimmed glasses, while making up his own bebop language in the process. Charlie ''Bird'' Parker was never cool in the way these other cats were cool, his slovenly appearance being the primary culprit. But what he lacked in style, he more than made up for through his horn and his transcendent iconic status. The influence he would have on others helps explain why cool has always had a large pool of potential imitators. Bird's legend stretched far and wide, inspiring, among others, a generation of disaffected post-war white boys who came to be known as the Beat Generation, as they went about converting Bird's intellectual and artistic ethos into their own form of literary lifestyle energy; thus making the phrase ''Bird Lives'' a signature moment along the historic cool timeline.

Yet no figure came to embody this notion of Cold War cool more than that cultural behemoth Miles Dewey Davis III, as the title of his album Birth of the Cool would imply. It was during this phase of his lengthy career that the ''Cool Miles'' emerged as a new kind of black celebrity in the 1950s. As someone who moved freely through both black and white cultural spaces, the ever-stylish East St. Louis native came to embody the very definition of cool. He was uniquely suited to do so.

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