Interview with Lewis MacAdam
Birth of the Cool. Beat, Bebop and the American Avant-Garde

By Paul DeRienzo

Lewis MacAdams says it bluntly in his book’s preface: "Anybody trying to define ‘cool’ quickly comes up against cool’s quicksilver nature. As soon as anything is cool, its cool starts to vaporize." MacAdams has been investigating the phenomenon of cool and "Birth of the Cool. Beat, Bebop and the American Avant-Garde," brings together the story of cool, its origins and meaning for today in a beautifully illustrated book published by the Free Press. MacAdams has used film as well to explore the lives of cool icon Jack Kerouac. Born in West Texas, MacAdams graduated from Princeton but got most of his education from following beat poet Gregory Corso around the Village and the Lower East Side. Birth of the Cool is a sweeping and complex starting with 30’s bebop and ending with the poets, artists and musicians of the 60s. He spoke about his book with Paul DeRienzo.

DeRIENZO: Why the beautiful cover and photos inside this book?

LM: When I set out to do this book I knew that I didn’t just want it to be about cool, but I wanted it to be cool. I knew that in order to do that I would have to get great pictures. So spent a huge portion of my payment for the book on photographs. When Simon and Schuster saw them coming in like that they really wanted to do justice to them. I saw this as kind of a coffeetable book were the writing was the center of it.

We hired a great photo researcher and we worked for a long time really sifting through lots of photos. I co-produced this film "What Ever Happened to Kerouac" and when we did this film, about 15 years ago, one of the things we realized was there was this immense stock of images of that time that had never been published. The same with "Birth of the Cool," there are so many pictures and so much film that people haven’t seen or only saw briefly when it was originally done.

DeRIENZO: Have you been watching Ken Burns’ documentary on Jazz?

LM: ! watched a lot of it. I learned a lot, although I haven’t watched the be-bop section because I was afraid I’d see something that showed that I said something wrong. I have a lot of respect for his approach, it’s like a school approach. I learned so much about Louis Armstrong and so much about Duke Ellington. Jazz has had good writing, but still so much of this is news to people.

DeRIENZO: What’s the era the book covers?

LM: It really starts in the late 1930s and there’s quite a bit during the Second World War. There’s quite a few who weren’t in the war, they were either too young or too weird or too gay or too stoned or just too alien to be in the army.

DeRIENZO: Too ahead of their time?

LM: Yea, I guess so. The World War two experience which most Americans shared, these guys didn’t share that. They were the ones like the draft dodgers. Dizzy Gillespie went into his draft board and he said he might pick up a gun and shoot all the white guys. They were the same, the German white guys and the American white guys. The both as he put it "had their foot up my ass."

No one had really written about this kind of alienation. I has read David Halberstam’s book "The 50s" and I really wanted to write a book in which Allen Ginsberg was a more important then Dwight David Eisenhower.

DeRIENZO: You’ve touched a nerve with the whole idea of how cool is used in advertising with icons like James Dean. Is cool still cool?

LM: Thomas Frank has this book about using cool to sell products, which is a very astute book. But I think you can sell the idea of cool, but you can’t sell cool. Cool has never been for sale and it never will be for sale, but you can sell virtual cool. Any idea ultimately dilutes. There’s an abstract attempt in this book to trace an idea from the edge to the center.

People ask why does it end with Bob Dylan and Andy Warhol, and I say because those guys were able to be cool, but also popular. When cool began it was kind of a revenge of the powerless. Something wealth couldn’t buy and power couldn’t buy. It was only an attitude. What is it now? I don’t really even know. It’s as universal as high five, it’s part of the global culture. It’s the way English as it spreads around the world takes on these different forms. Cool does the same.

In the introduction I write about this guy who spent a year on the Microsoft campus in 1995 and he has about 30 different uses for the word cool. It interweaves with snow. It really has become that diverse. It tends to mean ‘good’ but its almost like Black people say, ‘ya know what I’m sayin.’ It’s as common as breath, it’s like ‘cool,’ its like breathing out.

When it originated there was a kind of defiance and certainly that’s not as true now.

DeRIENZO: Cool, is universal, but in your book there is a core group of folks who epitomize cool.

LM: Yeah, they are the heroes.

DeRIENZO: Who are the clearest representatives of cool?


LM: It’s partly about how different people see cool differently. The jazz chapter is a lot about the relationship between Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker and to the outside world Dizzy epitomized cool. There was a line of clothing, bop glasses and bop hats. The Dizzy Gillespie autograph. To jazz musicians that were part of the scene it was Charlie Parker who was cool and Dizzy Gillespie who defined himself more as hip which is knowing that cool is something else. To the outside Dizzy was cool, but to the inside he wasn’t cool.

Miles Davis is still one of the great symbols of cool. Amiri Baraka says that when he was a teenager Miles Davis was what was meant by cool. Miles still seems to have that amazing ability and certainly "Birth of the Cool," I took the name from the album. The name came from some white guy, Pete Rugolo who was the A and R guy who came up with it.

DeRIENZO: Why the article, The Cool?

LM: I asked Pete Rugolo that. It took me about two years to track him down and I finally found him living about a mile away from me in the San Fernando Valley with his son. I was so excited and I asked ‘why did come up with the title birth of the cool,’ and he said "Honestly, I can’t remember." It was one of the most disappointing moments of this whole experience.

That’s a really great question that I never thought of before. I think it’s because cool is a kind of armor, especially in those days. It was something you could almost wrap around yourself, a survival tool. I think cool was a survival tool. In the days of slavery, when a Black guy would have to stay cool to survive. There’s that quote from Langston Hughes, "Stay cool and dig all jive, that’s the reason I stay alive." There was a very defensive quality to cool in its early days that I think is lost now.

DeRIENZO: What about one who is cool being almost a sociopath, like an absence of emotion?

LM: I think there’s some truth in that. I quote from a book "What is Cool," by this Black woman named Marlene Kim Connor and she feels that way, cool as the way that Black men define themselves. It’s a way of cutting off emotion. That’s the downside.

That’s what I explore in the William Burroughs chapter. Burroughs was the epitome of that, a person cutting himself off completely from his feelings and what that leads too.

I’m not like a missionary or anything or trying to start an army of cool. I didn’t realize how interested I was in it until I started the book. In fact this book wasn’t even my idea. It was a friend of mine, John Kaplan, who was a film producer and now runs an Internet company. We were having lunch one day and he said why don’t we make a documentary about the idea of cool. I instantly went, uh-huh that’s it.

We spent several months trying to get it off the ground and John went on to other things and I decided to turn it into a book. As I worked on the book I realized this was something I was really concerned with all my life but never thought about. There’s this whole autobiographical element to this book and the dedication is to my kids so they’ll know were I was coming from.

Even though there are many stories I have never heard before, many of these people are people who are heroes to me and I thought that their lives are very much worthy of examination. I’m not saying people should be like William Burroughs or Miles Davis or Lester Young or Billy Holiday or whoever. I just thought that they have heroic qualities.

Going back to that World War two metaphor a hero was somebody who charged into an enemy machine gun nest, but there was also the heroic of surviving in a completely alien world. Cool started with the completely alien and disenfranchised seeking dignity and grace and that’s where cool is necessary. You don’t have to be cool now, maybe you have to for commercial reasons but you don’t have to necessarily to survive.

DeRIENZO: There used to be a time when if you were Black and someone was walking down the street, you had to get off the street So, maybe cool was a better way to act for long term survival.

LM: In those days cool was a survival mechanism.

DeRIENZO: Are you wearing a porkpie hat?

LM: I actually bought this hat with the advance for the book. I went to hat maker in Burbank, a wonderful store that’s been there for sixty or seventy years that supplies hats to the movie business. They made Charlie Chaplain’s bowler hats, hats for the Marx Brothers, and if you want tri-cornered hat or anything. I showed him a picture of a porkpie hat and asked them if they could make them for me.

DeRIENZO: Where does the name mean?

LM: I’ve never understood where the name porkpie hat comes from. I know that it’s from the 1930s and 40s. I bought one for this book and I said at that moment, five years ago or more, I would wear it until this book was really complete.

One of the interesting things that I dug into and never really found an answer is where does the word cool start? The earliest print usage that I was able to find was in Zora Neal Hurston’s "Mules and Men," one of those wonderful stories. She was an anthropology student at Columbia, one of the first if not the first Black woman anthropologist and she was urged by her professors to start doing anthropology about Back culture. Since no one else was doing it. She went back to Florida and in "Mules and Men," she talks about a big party for her when she went home. They were going from one house to another for a party and somebody got in this car that they didn’t know. They asked him if he knew the people in the house they were at and he said, "no, but as long as I got my guitar with me I’ll be cool." That’s in 1935. At the Schomburg Library in Harlem I found two amazing documents, one was Can Calloway’s "Catalogue of Hipster Jive," which was a little booklet that he would give away and it had his booking agent’s number on the back, but a beautiful drawing of him. He had his conk, this amazing hair and it had about 200 words in it. They had "groove" and "dig" and things like that, but cool isn’t in it. That was in1938.

There’s a much more extensive Black, African-American dictionary that was done in 1944 by a columnist for the New York Amsterdam News and he was a friend of Langston Hughes and he had done this at Hughes’ urging. The hipster characters would be figures in his column, they would be on the stroll on Seventh Avenue, there’s about 2000 words in there, including a hipster version of Hamlet, but cool isn’t there either. The great bop alto player Jackie McClean told me that Lester Young invented the modern use of the word cool and he said, "anyone who tells you other wise is bullshiting."

DeRIENZO: How did you get interested in this scene of artists and musicians?

LM: I was born in Texas, but I wanted to live in New York. I dreamed of New York and I went to Princeton, but I stayed in New York most of the time and went back to Princeton on the weekend to party. I interned with Gregory Corso in terms of paying for his drinks and trying to keep him out of fights in bars.

Gregory had this beautiful energy and he was a beautiful young guy. But, Gregory was street, Allen Ginsberg and even Kerouac were very educated men and Gregory was completely self-educated. He was a street guy always.

DeRIENZO: How did you meet Corso?

LM: When I was at Princeton I used to put on poetry readings. I’d bring poets down from New York all the time. I was a young hustling poet. I brought Gregory to a reading; he had been up all night with a friend who had given birth so he asked me if he could bring Allan Ginsberg along. Gregory fell asleep on the floor at Princeton and Ginsberg did the whole reading.

A lot of people have said that this is a book of nostalgia, but it’s not that at all. It’s an entire cultural history that hadn’t been written.

DeRIENZO: What about drugs and cool?

LM: There’s a lot about heroin in this book and the relationship between heroin and the cool. Part of being involved in things that are illegal is that you have to be cool. So much of cool in its early days had to do with drugs and continues to be to some extent. Like, ‘if he’s cool man, then he isn’t a policeman.’ To be cool is to stay below the radar. That’s a result of it being about drugs.

I learned a lot about heroin and the politics of heroin researching this book. Heroin decimated the Be-bop generation. I saw one stat that seventy five percent of Be-bop musicians had been involved with heroin at one time or another. So cool evolved a stay low quality that reinforced were these guys ere coming from anyway.

At the same time there was this sense of defiance. The Be-bop generation were the first generation of really schooled musicians and they felt they had something to teach. They weren’t going to take it in the same way that they looked at guys like Louis Armstrong. They knew how great a musician he was obviously, but they weren’t going to smile and say ‘ya’sir.’ They still had to put that defiance into a form that some schmoo might not get until they were gone. Until they’d blown.

Heroin just reinforced the natural thing. To junkies who had nothing to do with the arts cool meant staying away from the cops.

DeRIENZO: How about marijuana?

LM: I think the same thing went for marijuana, totally. Thirty years ago you could do serious jail time for marijuana. Louis Armstrong said he smoked pot every day of his life. With drugs you have both meanings of cool, to stay below the radar and cool being the inside guys knowing what the other inside guys were doing.


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