The Cool Aesthetic in Jazz: Lester Young and Billie Holiday

Tenor saxophonist Lester Young first coined the colloquial phrase "I'm cool," but he did not mean "I'm the man," but instead, “I’m relaxed and keeping it together.” Given the racism of the period, Young meant: “I’m keeping it together in here” — in my psyche and spirit — against oppressive social forces. He invoked the phrase on a situational basis to mean at that moment, as an individual, in that environment, he was steady and balanced. Young's invocation of "I'm cool" or "I'm cool with that" was the rhetorical precedent for saying "I'm chill" or "it's chill" today. Young also pioneered the new musical aesthetic that became "cool jazz," a flowing style of understated playing and narrative soloing that projected a sense of emotional self-control, on- and off-stage.

Lester Young and Billie Holiday were musical soulmates who together invented cool as an aesthetic mode of music. Using relaxed phrasing and rhythmic nuance, manipulating musical space and accenting certain words or notes, they created a low-key late-night emotional sphere of adult experience. In the process, they transformed the blues into an urbane American romanticism. Young created the style and phrasing, but Holiday may have first realized the power of cool understatement. Between 1935-1941, Lady Day made four dozen chamber jazz classics in recording sessions featuring the cream of swing soloists under the direction of pianist Teddy Wilson and it remains “a milestone in Western music, from Bach to Mozart to Ornette Coleman,” as jazz critic Will Friedwald claims. On the two dozen tracks featuring Young and Holiday — including such classics as “All of Me,” “He’s Funny That Way,” and “Me, Myself and I” — her voice and his saxophone curl around each other, shape the air into sound, rise into smoky swirls of late-night yearning, then settle into your clothes with the bittersweet taste of romance come and gone. In the early 1950s, Miles Davis, Gil Evans, Stan Getz, Chet Baker, and Gerry Mulligan extended this aesthetic and it became known as "cool jazz."

Lester Young was born and raised in New Orleans and Woodville, Mississippi, played in his father's band on the TOBA (Black) vaudeville circuit. He left testimony of hearing music everywhere in New Orleans as a boy and chasing the sounds through the streets until he found one band or another playing off the back of a truck.