Excerpt from Miles Beyond
ON BEING COOL
In our society, “cool” means hip or fashion-conscious, and refers to a purely exterior quality, a pose, conjuring up associations with superficiality, and self-obsessed, narcisstic, non-caring behavior. However, the origins of the word go back to the Yoruba people of south-west Nigeria, who use it to describe an interior characteristic, serenity, expressed outwardly as composure. The anthropologist Robert Farris Thompson explained, “Coolness is the correct way you represent yourself to be a human being... To the degree that we live generously and discreetly, exhibiting grace under pressure, our appearance and our acts gradually assume virtual royal power. As we become noble, fully realizing the spark of creative goodness God endowed us with... we find the confidence to cope with all kinds of situations... This is mystic coolness.” In another text on Yoruban culture, “coolness” is described as, “The state of being composed... [it] is an ethical/aesthetic quality... The person who is composed behaves in a measured and rational way; he or she is controlled, proud, dignified, and cool. An essential quality in a ruler, composure is particularly evident in images of kings.”
The writer Michael Ventura remarked, “Coolness doesn’t mean coldness. Cool art is passionate art. In American culture, Miles Davis has been the exemplar of this aesthetic.” Ventura referred to the “cool” aspects in Miles’s music, most notably the album The Birth Of The Cool, but Miles’s “coolness” permeated much more than his music. Miles has been called “the coolest man on the planet.” Leaving aside the misguided macho admiration from which declarations like these sometimes emerge, this can also refer to Miles’s “mystic coolness.” As an artist, Miles possessed “grace under pressure,” “royal power,” and “dignity” in abundance. Miles may not have displayed much “coolness” in other areas of his life, but in his art he was one of the great 20th century protagonists of the cool attitude.
It is easy to misunderstand “coolness” for simple charisma, star quality, or hipness. The difference between this view and the deeper meaning of cool can be described as that between pose and poise. Miles’s musicians repeatedly refer to his poise, his transcendent, spiritual side, throughout this book. “Miles had a certain way of moving and being, he had a flow,” Sonny Fortune noted. “He never walked fast. The cat glided. He was always gliding. He had a certain way of moving, sitting, speaking. I’ve never known a person like that. People don’t normally associate spiritualness with Mr. Miles Davis, but it is probably the only way to describe some of the energy that he had. He was like a little bomb of energy. He wasn’t like some little flower or butterfly floating around. He possessed real awesomeness.”
The question arises where Miles got his “awesomeness” and “coolness.” Although there is no doubt that the degree to which he embodied this characteristic was entirely his own, his family background once again provided some clues to its seeds. Certainly the “virtual royal power” of his father’s and grandfather’s proud attitude was one of them, but the Native American heritage of his mother may also have played a part. Behavioral patterns can be transmitted from generation to generation without people being aware of this, and it is very possible that the young Miles assimilated Native American character traits via his mother’s family line. In his book Lila, An Enquiry Into Morals, writer Robert Pirsig described certain characteristics of the Native American manner, amongst them, “Silence, a modesty of manner,” “Indians don’t talk to fill time, When they don’t have anything to say, they don’t say it,” “anti-snobbery,” “head-on, declarative sentences without stylistic ornamentation.” Every single one of these applied to Miles.
They also fit perfectly with the Yoruban notion of “coolness.” The reason is that both Yoruban “coolness” and the above mentioned qualities epitomized by Native Americans are universally recognized demonstrations of spiritual dignity. Miles embodied these with the deeper elements of his “cool” demeanour. There’s something deeply “right” in the way Miles approached music, his musicians, and his audiences. The enduring culture, nation, and race-transcending interest in the man and his music illustrate the timeless nature of this quality, and how deeply it resonates in our collective consciousness. It is therefore an astonishing symbol of poetic justice that Tutu became Miles’s most well-known recording of his last decade. Miles and Marcus Miller named it after the South-African Archbishop and anti-apartheid activist Desmond Tutu, without realizing that the Yoruban word for “cool” is, in fact, “tutu.”
© 2001, Paul Tingen. Taken from chapter 11, “Human Nature,” of the book Miles Beyond: The Electric Experiments of Miles Davis, 1967-1991 (2001, Billboard Books, New York), now only available here....You are welcome to reproduce and spread this excerpt, as long as you credit the author and the book and provide a link or reference to www.miles-beyond.com.
The quotes are taken from: Michael Ventura, Whole Earth Review, Spring 1987, page 30; the passage quoted by Ventura is from Thompson’s 1984 book Flash Of The Spirit, in the context of a fascinating essay in which Ventura traced the origins of rock and jazz back to voodoo culture; Frank Willet, Aesthetics of African Art: The Carlo Monzino Collection, New York, Center for African Art; Richard Williams, The Man In The Green Shirt. Full references in Miles Beyond.