Obama as Cool?

This was the title of a piece I published in jazzinsideandout.com in December 2013. There was some confusion about what “cool” means, both in Ishmael Reed’s article and my own comments on it. One problem is that as a personality descriptor cool means unruffled, detached; while in jazz it refers to a style of playing.

In looser, more recent terms, cool means something like fashionable, hip. That’s how Maureen Dowd used it in a recent putdown of Obama’s 60th birthday bash. She observes how this Marie Antoinette-style event included numerous celebrities but disinvited those who were responsible for his success.

Obama was a cool cat as a candidate in 2008, but after he won, he grew increasingly lofty. Now he’s so far above the ground, he doesn’t know what’s cool. You can’t be cool if you diss the people who took risks for you when you were a junior senator. . . .  Many of those who helped Obama achieve the moonshot, becoming the first African American president and then becoming uber-rich, were disinvited.

Well, here’s my 2013 attempt to disentangle at least some of the musical confusion.

If you are foolish enough, as I am, to look at The New York Times every morning, today you probably saw Ishmael Reed’s op-ed, “The President of the Cool.” With Mr. Obama getting whacked in the polls and Democrats disaffecting in droves, it’s not surprising that the president’s defenders are coming on strong.

I’ve been a strong critic of Obama but I enjoyed the piece. There are two problems, one of definition and one of rhetoric. Reed says:

Democrats have more of an affinity for jazz than Republicans. Even Jimmy Carter, not everybody’s idea of a hipster, invited Dizzy Gillespie to the White House. But among the Democrats, President Obama is the one who comes closest to the style of bebop called “the Cool.”

The Cool School, as embodied in players he cites like Miles Davis and Hampton Hawes (Hawes overrated by Reed, I think) was not really a style of bebop but a reaction to it. The fiery music of Dizzy, Bird and Bud drove many people out the door. Taking after Miles, West-Coasters like Hawes and Shorty Rogers concocted a blander kind of modern jazz that stressed very different chordal and harmonic structures, slower tempos, simpler rhythms—a quieter, much more detached music. It got more popular than bebop for a while.

As a defense of Mr. Obama, Reed’s piece identifies him with the intensity and spirit of jazz. I just don’t get that. I find the president all too aloof and detached in his actions, though his words can often be inspiring. He’s just too cool—but not in the complimentary hip sense that Reed means it. One may define his style as cool, but many find his leadership lacking and without substance. He is anything but a bebop player.

As to the jazz greats, one of the commenters on the piece (Joel Parkes) put it this way: ” To compare Obama in any way to Lester Young is, in my opinion, incorrect. He’s much more like Chris Botti. Jazz in Name Only.”

3 Replies to “Obama as Cool?”

  1. Great piece from the archives, really enjoyed it. Quite a few jazz references which I don’t know but look forward to checking out (feel like I have some homework to do), and great links as usual. I guess I agree with many people that you’re often too hard on Obama.

  2. There’s an interesting local twist going on in Chicago related to the neighborhoods immediately adjacent to where his presidential library is going; fears of gentrification/displacement have been part of the dialogue since the site (in Jackson Park) were announced years ago.

    None of it is going smoothly, and the Obamas are quickly burning up the good will they have with a lot of people in the area (where I live, which is down the street from where the old Crown Propeller used to be).

    I really enjoy your insights, John.

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