Friday, February 15, 2013


"Hip" and "cool" are words first. They have histories.

What they don't tend to have are clear meanings. Both tend to end up being used to praise qualities that the speaker admires but those qualities can, and do, change from generation to generation. In the case "cool" it is possible to find people using the word in a non-ironic fashion to mean something that is the exact opposite of what it used to mean. Beginning in the 1980s, kids started saying "cool" to mean something that was very up-to-date, very in right now, which is to say, they said "cool" when they meant "hot".

No one knows for sure where they came from originally. An awful lot of brain cells have been wasted in fruitless attempts to trace the word "hip" and the concept of "cool" back to African roots. Most of this work has not only been a failure but is, quite frankly, embarrassingly shoddy and naive. It tells us more about the bizarre (and deeply racist) desire of college-educated whites to connect with a black culture they believe to be more authentic than their own than anything about these words.

If you look at usage patterns, both words show up being used by whites first and then get picked up by black jazz musicians. "Hip" makes the move in the 1930s and "cool" comes across in the 1940s. We can be pretty certain about this because a number of hep talk dictionaries were written at the beginning of the 1940s (the most famous being Cab Calloway's) and none of these feature the word "cool".

The introduction of the word "cool" into jazz slang is pretty much the work of one man, Lester Young. And the interesting thing about his use of the word was that he didn't just get the word from whites, he used to describe a style of playing music he saw in white musicians he admired. Most of all, he used the word to describe the playing style of Frankie Trumbauer AKA "Tram". You can hear it in this video. Tram's solo begins at .08 and goes until 1.04.

I'm not sure how much explaining that needs. It's a little like explaining "green". You point at something green and say, "This is green". Well, "That's cool".

So what we have are two words and related concepts that come from white America and go into the black jazz culture and, without changing their fundamental meaning, come back out through that filter in a way that was deeply congenial to whites.

That's where I'll be going the next few days with this. For now, I'd like to drop a hint about timing. Both words and the associated attitudes are drawn back into white culture because they offer attractive personas to adopt for rebels but during very different kinds of rebellion. Hip and hipness really start to matter in the late 1930s as the world is headed back into world war for the second time and after years of economic depression. Cool, on the other hand, really takes off in the early 1950s, a period when war is over and the economy (on this side of the Atlantic anyway) is booming. That matters a whole lot.

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