(excerpt from Dervish at the Crossroads)
Montreal jazz guitarist and university professor Michael Gauthier shared this anecdote, so illustrative of the mysterious quality in music that makes it intrinsic to human experience:
Back in the eighties there was an el primo jazz club in Montreal called The Rising Sun. Sonny Stitt, the famous bebop alto sax player, was playing there with a local band that included my friend, Art Roberts, on the piano. Art invited me to come see the show for free, so of course I went, and during the break Art invited me upstairs to hang out with the other musicians. He introduced me to Sonny, but after that I just sat there like a peanut, saying nothing, just listening to all these guys in their forties and fifties talking together.
Suddenly Sonny turned to me and said, ‘Mike [he’d remembered my name!], they can take your woman, they can take your house, they can take your money, but they can never take your music. Never forget that.’
It was like God had spoken to me. It affirmed what I already suspected to be true.
~Michael Gauthier, interview 2014
Sonny Stitt didn’t need to impress anyone. He appeared dispassionate, but his output revealed an almost superhuman focus. He’d bravely forged ahead with his original style as if he’d had nothing to lose. He was aware of injustice but knew it was here to stay and that he had better things to focus on than protest. He dressed well and had poise. And as the above anecdote illustrates, he had his priorities right. He recognized that man’s life’s a vapor, filled with woes, and that the wisest response was to keep his dignity and poise intact and live life on his own terms.
That’s kind of what cool is.
I’ve already talked about the terrorism of our time, which most white folks today think of as a new phenomenon, a vague threat that renders them chronically uneasy, unnerved by the heightened danger of attack by foreign hostiles.
How quickly we forget that African North Americans have been terrorist victims from the beginnings of their forced sojourns here. If for even a moment we could get our heads around living under the shadow of white-hooded mobs and burning crosses in the night, deadly beatings, the witnessing of the murders of family members, lying accusations ending in life sentences or death, disenfranchisement, rape, segregation, poverty, and humiliation, we might snicker at the spectacle of a conservative white politician waving his fists in opposition to the admission of Syrian refugees.
We might also begin to understand how terribly hard-won jazz really was and how the horrendous difficulty of its beginnings played a role in its enduring, encompassing beauty.
Without jazz we wouldn’t have cool. Without cool, jazz would be incomprehensible. Cool doesn’t make a distinction between high and low art; all things are one in cool. Cool embraces a sense of freedom, newness, openness, a rejection of hierarchical power structures, a personal elegance, and a special membership within an exclusive elite. Cool is both an aesthetic and a personal attitude.
Cool emerged from the phase of American jazz culture that came after World War II. Cool was quickly embraced the world over by youth who saw cool as the way they were or ought to be. And ever since then nearly every serious movie hero has personified cool.