“Wrapped in a battered sheepskin jacket and peering though Coke-bottle-thick eyeglasses, Sartre lectured up and down the East Coast and was the subject of adoring articles in New York newspapers and magazines. ?One is free to act,? he told reporters, ?but one must act to be free.? Beboppers like Dizzy Gillespie and pianist Thelonious Monk picked up on him, appropriating the Left Bank café-intellectual style?the black beret, the horn-rimmed glasses, the wee goatee.”
– Lewis MacAdams
What is the “Avant-garde,” Really? (continued from here)
The symbiosis was a blessed one. The avant-garde’s blurring of distinction between “high” and “low” art (case in point: Andy Warhols’s Pop Art images) opened the door to an amalgamation with jazz, so that by association jazz became avant-garde and the avant-garde became cool.
Bebop granted the avant-garde a kind of grounding in social concern, a connection to the roots from which jazz had emerged?field hollers, ragtime, dixieland, blues, etc.?which granted the avant-garde a kind of legitimacy in the larger world that normally it doesn’t enjoy.
The music of tenor sax players Archie Shepp and Pharoah Sanders contained elements of work songs, Dixieland, blues, and the rural African American experience, even as they began a slow move away from these roots in a bid to recreate jazz in the image of their generation.
The socio-historical context of jazz meant that shock had no value. The innovations of bebop and free jazz were dismaying to jazz fans and swing musicians alike, but they weren’t shocking and didn’t provoke the same kind of social outcry as had Dadasim and Pop Art, for example.
But how did they meet?
After WWII slowly became the cold war, jazz musicians started copying Sartre’s manner of dress. Perhaps the rapport began to develop because of the experiences of black soldiers in Europe during World War II, during which they would have had their first exposure to European modes of dress, dance, and demeanor, but an American “cool” style began to emerge, a style heavily influenced by the classic tastes of certain European intellectuals who also later visited the USA to present their radically new philosophical ideas. Jazz musicians started copying Jean-Paul Sartre’s manner of dress, and thus the black beret, black-sunglasses, and black turtleneck eventually became synonymous with free jazz.
The connection to avant-garde intellectual European culture wasn’t just superficial; Thelonious Monk explored existentialism, and Zen Buddhism, which practically manifests cool in a bottle, started becoming known. The move toward artistic freedom at the same time entailed a refusal either to be subservient to mainstream ?progress? or to be exploited by purely commercial interests.
Cool was a necessity for black American artists, an ego defense whose only purpose was to help them keep on creating and exploring in relative freedom. Cool meant fearless innovation while abdicating conflict and stress. This was one proof that cool was inseparable from the avant-garde.
The Downward Slide
The sad demise of Charlie “Bird” Parker and many other bebop musicians at the hands of “Sister Smack” was one inevitable outcome of a subculture that embraced drug use to stay cool, and was then forced to stay cool to avoid arrest for possession of narcotics. What’s really sad is how Bird’s tragic death was glamourized?as if burning out in this way was the price demanded by the laws of cool.
What created the separation between jazz and the avant-garde was that many of the old school bebop and free jazz succumbed to death, drugs, and despair, while the new school was enthusiastically embracing fusion jazz, a subgenre that can be called progressive, but not avant-garde, even by a long shot.
Then the avant-garde became postmodern and floated back off into space. Thus the wedding of cool and the avant-garde became a historical episode rather than an ongoing development. Its repercussions, however, changed the course of modern world culture.
Giving Birth to the Sixties
The explosion of cultural and social change that happened in the sixties had its roots in the joining of jazz and the avant-garde. Cool and the avant-garde needed to join forces; cool needed the glamour and prestige of the avant-garde and the avant-garde needed the artistic rigour and substantiality of jazz. So the marriage of cool and the avant-garde in America was the spawning ground for the next stage in American culture. It inspired innovations in the arts in the sixties, making art both avant-garde and accessible at the same time.
There were other repercussions as well. Jazz musicians were among the first Americans to refuse to be drafted to the war in Vietnam. Their utterly original and flamboyant stye of dress was a precursor to the outlandish outfits adopted by preppy college students who decided they were now flower children. And jazz musician drug abuse inspired a generation of experimentation with all manner of hallucinogenics.
With every fresh new movement It’s only a matter of time before the vultures swoop in and start making the equivalent of Gap ads based on Jack Kerouac’s novels. The bad boys and girls become the popular kids and lose their groove. So there will always be a need for a new generation of movers and shakers in the arts.
American jazz musicians now come with advanced degrees from Ivy League universities, and avant-garde movements are often little better than elitist theatre. Youth movements are subcultures of nostalgia like Steam Punk and Goth.
The next wedding of cool and the avant-garde is most likely to come from another country. we’re already seeing marked innovations in the realm of jazz in other countries and a mixing of different styles and genres; the places where jazz rhythms originated are now producing their own new takes. Perhaps this is because musicians in other countries feel marginalised in a way that today’s American jazz musicians can’t imagine.
The new cultural explosion is not likely to be America, but America can always claim right of authorship to the amazing history That’s already been written.
MacAdams, Lewis. (2001) Birth of the Cool: Beat, Bebop, and the American Avant Garde., New York: The Free Press
Garlitz, Dustin. (2004, October) Outstanding Avant-Garde Tenor Saxophonists Found: http://www.jazztalent.com/avant_garde_sax.htm
Wanda also penned the poems for the artist book They Tell My Tale to Children Now to Help Them to be Good, a collection of meditations on fairy tales, illustrated by artist Susan Malmstrom.