1958-1964 bore a different look, attitude and sound than anything that had come before. It was that brief, eventful era that bridged the gap between the old-school glamour of Hollywood’s Golden Age, and the, hipper, harder-edged times that would follow. It was during these years that rock and roll was born, and, while not marking the birth of the blues, was the period when this form of distinctly American music finally received broad public recognition. Blues had been around for decades, but mainstream America paid little attention, until it was discovered that the blues were the root of rock and roll.
A new generation began to emerge, embracing music and fashion that directly expressed the changing times. It was this sexy combination that soon inspired the rest of the world to get with the new program. Blues and rock and roll were this new wave’s musical meat, and folk music was their potato. Then punks came on the scene, along with rebels, hipsters, potheads, and loud ‘n fast guitars.
The times, they were a’changin’.
The atmosphere in the smoke-filled jazz clubs of that era was stifling. Windows and doors were opened to allow some “cool air” in from the outside, to help clear away the suffocating smoke. It was inevitable that the slow, smooth jazz style that was typical for that late-night scene came to be called “cool.”
Marlene Kim Connor connects cool and the post-war African-American experience in her book, What is Cool? Understanding Black Manhood in America. Connor writes that cool is the silent and knowing rejection of racist oppression, a self-dignified expression of masculinity developed by black men denied mainstream expressions of manhood. She argues that the mainstream perception of cool is narrow and distorted, that it is too often seen merely as a style or a sign of arrogance, rather than a way to achieve respect. Designer Christian Lacroix is onside with Connor, noting that, “…the history of cool in America is the history of African-American culture.”
While speaking of cool, anyone interested in this “new” jazz phenomenon is well advised to check out Ted Gioia’s excellent book, Cool Jazz and West Coast Jazz.
World War II brought the people of Britain, Germany, and France into intimate contact with Americans and American culture. The war brought hundreds of thousands of GIs to these countries, men whose relaxed, easy-going manner was seen by young people of the time as the very embodiment of liberation. They brought with them came Lucky Strikes, nylons, swing, and jazz, in addition to this laid-back attitude—the new American Cool.
To be cool or “hip” at the time meant hanging out with buddies, pursuing sexual liaisons, displaying the appropriate attitude of narcissistic self-absorption, and generally expressing a desire to escape the mental straitjacket of “old-fashioned” ideologies. From the late 1940s onward, American popular culture influenced young people all over the world, to the great dismay of the paternalistic elites who still ruled the “official” culture.
The stage was set for one of the greatest eras of social unrest and upheaval in Western history.