Mad Men, Miles Davis and the Aesthetic of Cool


Would it be proper to describe Mad Men as ''cool''? Well, yes and no, but before answering that question, let's ponder the often misunderstood properties of cool.


Cool has a history, believe it or not. It is the lack of historical knowledge about cool's origins that has allowed for the rampant and unfettered exploitation of this concept and its rather elusive properties in modern times. Cool, detached from its history, is style without substance, in the worst way. It is a free-floating signifier of emptiness, unmoored from its complicated birth in a more repressive era.

Cool has been around in one form or another for years. Yet cool, as we know it, is a product of the conformity, paranoia and racism of that which defined the early Cold War era through the mid 1960s. While it is difficult to label a lone inventor of cool, there are the pioneers, and the pioneers of cool all tended to come from the same place: the world of jazz. Imagine luminary cool figures, like the suave Duke Ellington; the debonair baritone ''Mr. B,'' Billy Eckstein; and the original black ''Prez'' himself, Lester Young, as just a few of these pioneers.

John Burkes ''Dizzy'' Gillespie, another progenitor of cool, rocked a beret and horn-rimmed glasses, while making up his own bebop language in the process. Charlie ''Bird'' Parker was never cool in the way these other cats were cool, his slovenly appearance being the primary culprit. But what he lacked in style, he more than made up for through his horn and his transcendent iconic status. The influence he would have on others helps explain why cool has always had a large pool of potential imitators. Bird's legend stretched far and wide, inspiring, among others, a generation of disaffected post-war white boys who came to be known as the Beat Generation, as they went about converting Bird's intellectual and artistic ethos into their own form of literary lifestyle energy; thus making the phrase ''Bird Lives'' a signature moment along the historic cool timeline.

Yet no figure came to embody this notion of Cold War cool more than that cultural behemoth Miles Dewey Davis III, as the title of his album Birth of the Cool would imply. It was during this phase of his lengthy career that the ''Cool Miles'' emerged as a new kind of black celebrity in the 1950s. As someone who moved freely through both black and white cultural spaces, the ever-stylish East St. Louis native came to embody the very definition of cool. He was uniquely suited to do so.

Miles' progressive-minded father was both a success as a dentist and a hog farmer, while his mother came from a family with elite political connections in the NAACP. A rare black child of privilege in a segregated society, Miles journeyed to New York to study music at Juilliard by day. But he spent his evenings studying at the University of Bebop, spending time at both its 52nd Street and Harlem campuses, while learning at the feet of esteemed professors like Bird and Diz.

Miles thus possessed the ability to fuse what I like to call the formal and the vernacular. The merging of the formal and the vernacular, in the broadest sense, resulted in a practice where the African-American oral tradition went about deconstructing European classic music and the American songbook. In a more personal sense, Miles, while immersed in the formal institutional practices of Juilliard, combined these teachings with the street knowledge absorbed from his time on the bandstand with the more organic genius of someone like Bird. Miles recognized that the formal and the vernacular came together through improvisation. That merger was most often manifest through style.


At an early age, Miles, the black kid in the Brooks Brothers suit, drew his style inspiration from Hollywood figures like Fred Astaire and Cary Grant, forging what he called his own ''hip, quasi-black English look.'' Miles would become a devout boxing fan later in life and often practiced the sport himself, while hanging with his good friend Sugar Ray Robinson — he of the ever-so-slick Marcel process, spotless white robes and the famed Pink Cadillac — another noted practitioner of cool from this era.

Cool was also the opposite of the ''Uncle Tom'' posture that had become the expected mode of expression for black men during an earlier time. But Miles would slay the dragon of racial expectations in the very way that he took the bandstand. Often performing with his back to the audience, Miles would eventually stop announcing the title of his songs and avoided making small talk with those in attendance at his gigs while on the bandstand. He was a musician, an artist, not an entertainer. He faced his band like the conductor of a symphony orchestra, but he might as well have been telling the audience to kiss his ''black ass,'' as it were. Why announce the title of the tune when people already knew it?


While such acts of defiant coolness would barely raise an eyebrow now, it was akin to a quiet revolution when Miles did it back in the day. Miles was once a victim of police brutality, after being assaulted by a cop while walking a white female friend to a cab outside Birdland. The fact that Miles' name was on the club's marquee mattered not to the cop that night. Yet despite the obvious dangers associated with his cultural defiance, here was Miles, wearing dark sunglasses, casually holding his horn, displaying his calculated indifference on the album cover of Round About Midnight back in 1957. This upper-middle-class black man, clean as a properly cooked chitlin', stood utterly confident before the conservative forces of white America at a time when many black people in the South still couldn't even get a decent drink of water. He was aloof, indifferent and utterly above it all — the living personification of cool.

There would come a time when several white musicians on the West Coast would begin appropriating Miles' musical style from Birth of the Cool. This opened the floodgates and before long cool was being poached by the masses.


In the present, as the poignant AMC drama Mad Men assumes its fourth season, one finds a clever cultural rewind to an era that could easily be regarded as the last days of cool; that period in the early 1960s just before America would experience its own version of a cultural revolution. Mad Men reminds us that there was a calm before the storm. The world of Mad Men is one that existed before alcohol-monitoring ankle bracelets, before sexual-harassment training in the workplace, and before the habit of smoking cigarettes made one decidedly uncool. The program's decadence by default seems downright radical at times by contrast, considering the numerous social prohibitions that have arisen in the years following those that frame Mad Men.

Yet, for all of its strengths, Mad Men wouldn't be nearly so appealing if not for the fact that it is set during a time when America was neatly divided between the hip and the square. It's important to point out, though, that during the early '60s, the time period that Mad Men is set, people like Don Draper and his colleagues would most certainly have been regarded as undeniably square. Cats like Draper represented the very meaning of the establishment. There is a scene in the first season when Draper makes an impromptu visit to see one of his many mistresses, only to find her and her friends ''getting high and listening to Miles'' as she plays "Sketches of Spain" on the turntable; an earlier episode in the first season used Miles' ''Blue in Green'' from Kind of Blue. In the scene with ''Sketches'' playing, it is quite obvious that Draper is a first-class square. In addition to supporting Richard Nixon in his 1960 presidential bid against JFK, something else they did in the first season, ad agencies like the fictional Sterling Cooper helped to shape a nation of gullible consumers, who eagerly drank the poisoned Kool-Aid of consumption.


So Mad Men is only cool now because the representation of the era relies on imagery that came to be regarded as cool over time. The clothing styles, the midcentury modern furniture, the retro ads and the three martini lunches seem quite cool in 2010. That being said, it is the cool created and nurtured by someone like Miles Davis that informed both the era in question and the present representation of Mad Men, even when such a cultural phenomena is not necessarily present on screen all the time. The cool of Mad Men owes a debt both to jazz music in general and to Miles Davis specifically.

Jazz is like the unheard soundtrack of Mad Men, as it is for that era, while the spirit of Miles, the patron saint of cool, inhabits the overall vibe that infuses this program with its most compelling sense of style and attitude. Considering that cool has always been elusive and not necessarily visible to the naked eye, it makes sense that such an invisible though highly potent cultural force would inform the coolness that Mad Men inhabits.


Dr. Todd Boyd is the Katherine and Frank Price Endowed Chair for the Study of Race and Popular Culture and professor of critical studies in the USC School of Cinematic Arts. His blog is Notorious Ph.D.