Rebirth of the Cool

In 1957, Miles Davis released an album entitled Birth of the Cool. I’ve always been a fan of jazz and Miles Davis. It wasn’t always just the music, as good and soulful as it is. But when you were around jazz it was like you felt this sort of sophistication, a touch of class. You’d always see Miles in those pictures with his sweatshirt or blazer, big cheeks blowing the heck out of that trumpet. You’d think it was cool.

But is that all there is to being cool?

As I thought about it, I realized I could not quite wrap my head around it. This concept called “cool.” What does it mean? What’s the formula? Who determines this thing? Shrug. The only thing I knew was that being cool had some significance and meaning to society. As Donald Miller wrote in Blue Like Jazz, if you knew how to make something cool you’d be able sell it to anybody and make it big.

I used to think cool was somewhat like that Rebel Without a Cause bad boy who rides his motorcycle in his leather jacket, hair tossed back and eyes hidden behind aviators as he cruises against the wind. He runs into trouble with the law, smokes Marlboros till his lungs burn out, and knows all the ladies by touch. Is that what cool is? A call to remake ourselves into a new sort of James Dean?

For a long time I thought it was. But as I’m getting older, I’m starting to see the futility in that sort of thinking. What clothes I wear, what car I drive, what music I listen to, what house I live in–nobody will care about any of that 50 years from now. But how will they remember me?

It seems as life progresses, it gradually becomes more classical music and less like jazz. Don’t get me wrong. It still has its moments, with its funky improvisations and what have you. But with age comes responsibility, and with responsibility comes bills, debt, mortgages, husbands, wives, kids and calendars. All that requires good orchestration, balanced measures and rhythms. It becomes less cruising down PCH and more “I need to trade in my bike for the big red minivan.”

That idea used to scare me. Until I saw the beauty in this sort of cool, which involves sacrifice, commitment and love for others. Cool started to look like that man who is working 50 hour week shifts, slaving to ensure hot meals for his family of four and a solid roof over their heads. Cool is the single mother with low income who spends her free time–whatever left of it–helping her son with his science fair project. Cool is the young single who devotes his Saturday nights to serving at the homeless shelter when all his other buddies are out having a drink.

Isn’t that the stuff good stories are made of?

The great thing about jazz is that it is all about freedom, going where the music is taking you in that moment. It plays whatever is on the heart, however raw and unwarranted.

You might lose some of that in classical. Maybe sometimes you feel restrained. Strings are going off when you want brass. The cello isn’t getting its solo. And there’s never enough cowbell…

But I dare you to look beyond. Seek the beauty in harmony, orchestration, direction. Wait for the crescendos.

Jazz will always have its solos, but you are gaining a symphony.