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Cool

Sheet music for Calvin Coolidge’s 1924 presidential campaign song, “Keep Cool with Coolidge”

In the summer of 1924, Calvin Coolidge was finishing his first year as president.  He ascended to the White House after the untimely death of President Warren Harding the previous August.  Coolidge is remembered by most historians as a president who didn’t do a whole lot while in office, who did not care to talk to the press, and who preferred to let others do the heavy lifting of government.  The eager young Herbert Hoover was always willing to take on whatever job the president would ask him to do, and President Coolidge allowed it, despite his personal feelings toward Hoover not being particularly warm.

One phrase that is associated with President Coolidge is “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”  It’s not hard to see where he was coming from.  Coolidge’s time in office saw a prosperous economy heat up.  The Roaring 20s really roared while he was in the White House.  The most one could say is that Coolidge didn’t interfere with prosperity.  Whether he should have interfered or not is a question for historians to wrestle with.  One thing that’s certain is that Coolidge’s 1924 campaign slogan, backing up his run for his first (and ultimately only) full year in office, was “Keep cool with Coolidge” (or sometimes “Keep cool and keep Coolidge.”)  The suggestion was that the voters shouldn’t make any rash decisions and elect someone else president that year.  If cooler heads should prevail, it’s four more years of the man who earned the nickname “Silent Cal” due to his reluctance to talk to reporters.  It couldn’t hurt that the slogan also suggested that Coolidge himself is cool, right?


Well, no.  No one who wanted to stay in the president’s good graces would ever have called him cool.  Simply put, in 1924, cool either meant literally low temperature, or figuratively a person who is not rash (but only if you’re talking about their cool head).  The modern, familiar sense of the word hadn’t been established yet.  In 1924, a short-lived (but very popular) jazz ensemble called The Georgia Melodians recorded a song called “How You Gonna Keep Kool?”  The song is an instrumental, so it’s impossible to discount any figurative use of the word.  It’s also quite possible that they meant cool literally.  After all, Georgia isn’t known for its cool climate.  
Publicity shot of The Georgia Melodians, circa 1924.

In 1941, Les Brown and his Orchestra recorded “Keep Cool, Fool,” with Doris Day on vocals.  The lyrics here suggest more keeping a cool head than stylishly cool.  But at the time, cool was starting to really take hold in the jazz scene.  The credit for this is often attributed to Lester Young.  Young played tenor saxophone and sometimes clarinet for the Count Basie Orchestra, and was one of the more influential players in that group.  He is also sometimes credited with starting the use of the word cool to mean fashionable, and while it might be true, there is little evidence to back up that he was the first.  (Young also gets some credit for allegedly inventing the term bread as slang for money.  When he was getting ready to play a gig, he would often ask, “How’s the bread smell?” when he wanted to know how much he and the players would be paid.)


Lester Young and his saxophone.

Young does get credit for inventing the term cool jazz.  Cool jazz has its roots in the 1920s, when jazz pianist and cornetist Bix Beiderbecke developed his distinct style of playing and composition.  Beiderbecke’s pieces and performances were lighter and more relaxed than the complex, driving rhythms of other jazz musicians.  These two schools of jazz thought didn’t have names in the 1920s, but later on the more complex one would be called bebop, while the lighter one would get the name cool.  Lester Young favored cool jazz, and is probably the one who was ultimately responsible for naming the genre.

Jazz drew the bohemians of the day, the beatniks, into the clubs and bars and coffee houses where the music was heard.  It was around this time, in the late 1940s, that cool started to be used to express approval of something or someone, likely borrowed from the style of music.  Between 1949 and 1950, Miles Davis held three recording sessions for what he referred to at the time as “soft variants of bebop”.  These sessions would eventually be combined into a record called “Birth of the Cool”, released in 1957, laying claim to the development of the genre and to the roots of the word.  Critically, “Birth of the Cool” was well received and is still regarded as groundbreaking work, but  it was not the first cool jazz, and further, Lester Young probably deserves most, if not all, of the credit for coining cool in the modern, familiar sense.  Calling this kind of jazz cool was probably abetted by the fact that Dixieland jazz was already established as hot jazz, a term that predated cool jazz by at least two decades.


Beatnik party in Greenwich Village, circa 1960.  You didn’t think they all wore berets, did you?

The word hit mainstream America in the 1950s, embraced even by non-jazz fans.  The counterculture of the 1960s, which in some ways was the inheritor of the old beatnik culture, kept a lot of bop talk alive.  This included the word cool which, by the time the Hells Angels bashed the last hippie skull at Altamont, was an integral part of American English.


"Keep Cool with Coolidge"—the 1924 presidential campaign song


"How You Gonna Keep Cool" by the Georgia Melodians (1924)

"Pennies from Heaven"—cool jazz from Lester Young and his Orchestra (1950)

Comments

Anonymous said…
Cool historical read, man! Natalie

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