Joel Dinerstein’s exhaustive but enjoyable book, The Origins of Cool in Postwar America, takes as its starting point the English upper-class ideal “of the gentleman, the social value of keeping a stiff upper lip”. Duke Ellington, he says, “thought of Londoners as ‘the most civilized’ people in the world and admired their ‘sense of balance’”. But Americans, and specifically African American jazz musicians, adapted the idea of cool and turned it from a class virtue – a way of fitting in – into something more individualistic, a way of surviving on the outskirts of society. Phrases like “keep cool”, “play it cool”, “cool out” have all entered the language; they refer originally to the need for black Americans to keep their temper in the face of white provocations, and to dignify that temper-keeping with style. Dinerstein traces both word and style back to the saxophonist Lester Young, “the primogenitor of cool: he disseminated the modern usage of the term and concept of cool; he modeled it as an embodied philosophy; his solos are the foundation for the genre of ‘cool jazz’”.
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