Black history month: birth of the cool

2 Feb

It’s February, the month where we celebrate the lives and times of  African-Americans that have changed the historical landscape. For the next four weeks, In the Key of He will recognize some of the greatest and most stylish black musicians of the modern era.

This week, we begin at the beginning: jazz.

Nat King Cole was a very stylish performer with a smooth, deep voice. He wrapped himself in suave style, wearing sleek, structured suits of the period, cuff links, and always a hankie in his breast pocket.

Nat "King" Cole in houndstooth check.

A true gentleman entertainer and the first African-American to host his own television program, The Nat “King” Cole Show. He wore thin ties, cool cardigans, and short-brimmed hats, and he did the best rendition of “Route 66” anywhere.

Askmen.com says “…this style icon understood the art of fine masculine dressing, but he also knew how to carry himself so that he wore his clothes rather than the other way around.” The site explains “the soulful crooner’s penchant for polished looks included cropped haircuts and clean shaves.”

Cropped haircuts, eh? The writer of this piece misses a very important grooming practice by African-American men from the 1920s to the 60s – the “conk”.

Conks were a method of straightening kinky hair with lye as the active ingredient. Lye is a corrosive alkaline, also known as “caustic soda”, and it can eat through skin. Lye was mixed with eggs and potatoes and applied to the hair which burned the scalp, but the longer as you could stand it, the straighter your hair would be.

I first read about a conk years ago when I read the Autobiography of Malcolm X. Mr. X explains the experience and the social significance of his first conk:

“This was my first really big step toward self-degradation: when I endured all of that pain, literally burning my flesh to have it look like a white man’s hair. I had joined that multitude of Negro men and women in America who are brainwashed into believing that the black people are “inferior”—and white people “superior”— that they will even violate and mutilate their God-created bodies to try to look “pretty” by white standards.

“The ironic thing is that I have never heard any woman, white or black, express any admiration for a conk. Of course, any white woman with a black man isn’t thinking about his hair. But I don’t see how on earth a black woman with any race pride could walk down the street with any black man wearing a conk — the emblem of his shame that he is black.”

Nat was made to carefully balance his career and indeed “suffered the indignity of being “whited up” for some of his TV performances, to make him more “accessible” to a white audience,” according to PBS. A sad reality of his times, but conks aside, it is truly delightful to watch Nat sing because when he does, it’s clear how much he loves to.

Watch this delightful Technicolor clip of Nat in a wonderful blue shark skin suit with a white shirt, thin black tie, and a linen hankie – a perfect picture of the 50s. (Tailoring note – Nat’s sleeves should be longer. Just saying.)

Our second African-American exuding great style is one of the coolest jazz players of all time, Miles Davis. Miles was a jazz pioneer, he personified cool – so simple, so low-key, dressing in basic, uncluttered pieces punctuated with unique details. He wore turtlenecks with trousers, ascots and scarves with his shirts, Brooks Brothers and custom-made Italian suits, and drove a white Mercedes-Benz.

A style blog I happened upon describes Miles’ style: “…classic dress shirts, unbuttoned just so, and sunglasses lent a fresh air of mid-century cool to the developing jazz scene of the 50s, a genre that had been historically linked to the full-suited look.”

If you take a GQ magazine perspective of the world, Miles has been voted him one of the all-time 20 Black Style Pioneers.

“He exudes that confidence and swagger that was characteristic of many of his peers on the scene, but puts his own twist on everything that was going on at the time. He’s really distinct from everyone on our list… We like that he wasn’t always suited up; he’d go casual, playing with scarves, with polo shirts, with khakis. And he evolved over time in a way you just couldn’t predict.”

And so did his music.

I talked to Jamie Stager, a trombonist and PhD candidate in Musicology about Miles and his musical style. Jamie explained that in the late 1940s, musicians Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, in reaction to the restrictions of swing and popular dance bands, began to create fast, angular melodies that were hard to “get” and certainly difficult to dance to.

“These bebop musicians were the “cats” that spoke in their own secret language, in a code that distanced them from the masses,” Jamie says.

Miles learned and played bebop, but he took it and made it into something else. In 1949, he ushered in a new jazz aesthetic with the recording of Birth of the Cool, a slower and more melodic version of the bebop he was weaned on.

“This new “cool jazz” has more players, it is more orchestrally conceived, more arranged, and there is more “space” in the music,” Jamie says.

Miles’ sound during this period is relaxed, open, and spacious – characteristics that stayed with him during his musical evolution. Miles says so himself: “I prefer a round sound with no attitude in it, like a round voice with not too much tremolo and not too much bass. Just right in the middle.”

Just right in the middle. Subtle, quiet, understated.

Miles Davis as a man and as a musician is an understatement. Isn’t that what cool is all about?

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One Response to “Black history month: birth of the cool”

  1. Rhymes and Reasons February 14, 2012 at 10:54 pm #

    If Malcolm X’s words move you, I think you might like my blog, Rhymes and Reasons. It is a series of interviews with hip-hop heads who discuss their lives in the context of a few songs that matter to them. The interviews tend to focus on questions of justice like racism, sexism, sexual violence, white privilege, etc. I hope you enjoy it.

    http://thisisrhymesandreasons.wordpress.com/

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