Miles Davis and Jazz Cool

Both "hip" and "cool" are terms with their origins in postwar African-American jazz culture and the Black vernacular. Writers such as Jack Kerouac and Norman Mailer attempted to explain the complexity of these concepts in the late 1950s but eventually these words became commodified and superficial. They were lost in translation. Miles Davis remains the touchstone of cool when it first emerged from jazz culture and African-American culture, both through the recordings released as Birth of the Cool (1957), and his fierce, quiet defiance of all racial stereotypes in the 1950s and 1960s.

“Being cool,” as Amiri Baraka wrote in Blues People (1963), “defined an attitude that actually existed” among African-American men in postwar American society. Led by jazz musicians, Black men stopped "acting the Uncle Tom" in front of white Americans and refused to smile, the sign of accommodation to the racial order. Jazz musicians offered only impassive faces to whites and were the first to wear sunglasses at night, on-stage and off. They used an impenetrable jazz slang pioneered by Lester Young and disseminated by his artistic heirs, Charlie Parker and Miles Davis, as well as by Dizzy Gillespie and performers such as Babs Gonzales and Oscar Brown, Jr. This "mask of cool" was an act of cultural politics that preceded (and impacted) the civil rights movement a few years later. The mask of cool projected a collective racial history while signaling self-assertion, rebellion, withdrawal, secret knowledge, and bored exhaustion with racism. It was a sign of withdrawal from second-class citizenship. "In a world that is basically irrational," Baraka wrote of the absurdity of racism, "the most legitimate relationship to it is nonparticipation."

In an interview with Alex Haley in Playboy in 1961, Miles Davis invoked the term "Uncle Tom" four separate times as an oppressive image of African-American men and one he actively repudiated. He refused to tour in the South during the civil rights movement since "what they really want is some Uncle Tom entertainment" and expressed hostility towards Hollywood films in which Blacks were always "servants and Uncle Toms." He claimed that businessmen coming to his night club gigs in New York only wanted "some Uncle Tom entertainment" to look hip in front of their girlfriends. In his autobiography, Miles wrote of an interview where his mother was present and she asked why he was so sullen during performances. “Miles, you could at least smile for the audience… They’re clapping because they love you, [they] love what you are playing because it’s beautiful." He turned to his mother: “What do you want me to be, an Uncle Tom?” When he invoked this figure, his mother looked at him hard: “If I ever hear about you tomming, I’ll come and kill you myself.”

Two years earlier, Lester Young spoke out against racism in his last interview in Paris. Just four months before his death, Young claimed that whites wanted every Black man to play the fool in front of them, "to be a[n] Uncle Tom or Uncle Sam or Uncle Remus." Weary of racism and then quite frail, he said simply, "I just can't make it." To Young, there were only three acceptable modes of self-presentation in front of Whites: as an Uncle Tom, an Uncle Sam (the patriotic American who asks no questions) or an Uncle Remus (the old plantation storyteller and entertainer of children).

The repudiation of the mask of Uncle Tom had real cultural and political impact. Literary critic Henry Louis Gates, Jr. recalled that in the mid-1960s "the term ‘Uncle Tom’ became synonymous with self-loathing" and it referred to "the black man all too eager to please the whites around him." The figure of Uncle Tom had become "the embodiment of ‘race betrayal’ and an object of scorn…We talked about him as the model to be avoided." African-American men instead strived to be cool until such time as the nation made good on its promises for social equality.