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The Rebirth of Cool.



2009 marked the 50th anniversary of Miles Davis's iconic album, Kind of Blue . This is probably the most celebrated and enduringly popular jazz album of all time. Kind of Blue was in many respects revolutionary. It marked a break with the chordal approach to jazz and launched the new modal revolution.

Miles had begun exploring the modal approach on his album, Milestones , but it was with Kind of Blue that it reached its crescendo. It was also revolutionary in that, there was no rehearsal for this recording. Miles brought the musical sketches that everyone was supposed to play to the studio with him--it was the first time the musicians saw the sketches--so he could have a spontaneous feel and texture in the product. "Everything was a first take," Miles would say later in his autobiography and it worked masterfully.

But the real revolution in Miles's approach and in the jazz idiom generally had come circa ten years earlier in Miles's seminal Birth of the Cool recording, which marked Miles's break with the Bebop style of Charlie "Yardbird" Parker and Dizzy "Diz" Gillespie. "Bird" and "Diz" along with Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk were amongst the creators of Bebop, a revolutionary music that was hip and played fast and furious. It was contrapuntal and arduous. But the music did not lend itself easily to the untutored ear. Miles would himself have this to say about Bebop in his autobiography; "The musical sound was not sweet, and it did not have harmonic lines that you could easily hum out on the street with your girlfriend trying to get over with a kiss". In short, it lacked lyricism. And it was lyricism that Miles would re-inject into jazz with Birth of the Cool , in a manner redolent of Duke Ellington and his perennial collaborator Bill Strayhorn-the Quincy Jones of the Swing era.


It is lyricism that imbues and suffuses Kind of Blue with his first great sextet of John Coltrane, tenor saxophone, Julian "Cannonball" Adderly, alto saxophone, Bill Evans, alternating with Wynton Kelly, on piano, Paul Chambers, bass and Jimmy Cobb on drums, and later with Someday My Prince Will Come , where Miles introduces his second, emblematic group with Herbie Hancock, piano, Wayne Shorter, tenor saxophone, Ron Carter, bass and Tony Williams on drums. We hear it in his electronic era inaugurated by In a Silent Way and the groundbreaking Bitches Brew , which remains one of jazz's best-selling albums (along with Kind of Blue ), thanks to its crossover appeal. By Miles's autumnal years in Tutu and Amandla , lyricism is the standard. It is de rigueur. But it is Birth of the Cool that we owe all of this to.

The Cool revolution in jazz and the hip aesthetic and zeitgeist was unleashed by this recording. And Barack Obama has now taken that cool sensibility, lyricism and elegance into the art and practice of politics. He is now the custodian of transcendental lyricism in both his oratorical and governing style. He is the epitome of style, swagger and the daring that recalls Miles. Whilst Miles would do this with a menacing scowl, that "fuck you too attitude", that my big brother and Miles biographer, Quincy Troupe, refers to as "unreconstructed blackness", Obama does it with warmth and charm. But make no mistake, the two share a similar rebellious and derring-do streak. How else can one describe Obama's improbable quest for the most powerful job in the world amidst a chorus of doubt and negativity. This was intrepid and quintessentially 'Miles Davisian' in its defiant quality and trope. Obama himself refers to his style as "neither too hot nor too cold". The essence of Cool.

It has been charming and frankly entertaining to read and watch the same right wing nay-sayers led by the apostles of British cynicism, The Economist, continue to dog Obama with what the late New York Times columnist, Bill Satire referred to as "nattering nabobs of negativity". They consistently mug his Presidency and engage in bizarre prognostications and parlour games about its existential condition. Their brethren on the American Right are even more lurid and frothing. How many times has Obama confounded this Amen corner of reaction and negativity? How many times have they written his obituary? Obama was not supposed to have run in the first place. He was "too green and presumptuous" to deign to challenge St. Hillary, whom the establishment had anointed as the inevitable Queen, who only just needed to show up at the races, to claim her throne.

The restoration of the House of Clinton was already prefigured. It was written in the stars. And after Obama stunned the Clinton juggernaught and its backers with a big win in Iowa, there was bewilderment and befuddlement abroad in establishment circles. Fear and loathing. And then St. Hillary ekes out a squeaker in New Hampshire, after Bill Clinton's thinly disguised appeals to racial solidarity, referring to Obama's quest as a "fairy tale". Reminding everyone that Obama, as an African American, could not possibly prevail in the general election, and practically begging the overwhelmingly white electorate in New Hampshire to jettison its idealism. "Get real guys," former president Clinton seemed to be saying in his exhortation of the white majority, "this guy is black, wake up from your idealistic stupor, this is a quixotic quest, the biggest fairy tale you can ever imagine!"

That after the Clintons' slim victory in the New Hampshire primary, first the media obliged Big Bad Bill, and then cheerfully returned to Hillary is an inevitable, albeit hilarious narrative. "Obama's win in Iowa was a fluke", they seemed to suggest. Well, as we all know, Obama went on to win South Carolina and got more delegates on Super Tuesday. Then after his eleven-state blitzkrieg and sweep in March, the Establishment-media produced Jeremiah Wright, hoping his unbridled fury and fulminations, about the racial misdeeds of America, would offend and scare away the white electorate and knock Obama out. But that gambit would fail when Obama responded to the Pastor Wright miasma with his masterful and sublime disquisition on race in Philadelphia. It was a Miles Davis, Sketches of Spain , "Concierto de Aranjuez," moment. A virtuosos performance non-pareil. Like a true jazzman, brother Obama had stepped up to the plate and hit a grand-slam home run in the bottom of the ninth inning!

For many this was probably even a better speech than his keynote address to the Democratic Convention, in Boston, in 2004, that marked his debut onto the global stage. The stakes were simply much higher this time around when he made his Philadelphia speech. And had he faultered, he would have been finished, politically. But he pulled it off with flair and panache. Lyricism personified. Grace under fire. The Rebirth of Cool. But the establishment was not done with him yet. They then produced the "bitter tape" from a private fundraising dinner in San Francisco, where Obama was ascribing his inability to connect with the white working stiffs, on the economic misfortunes and general alienation of this segment of society from anything new and different. Obama was simply saying (and truthfully) that on account of this alienation from "anything new and different (meaning an African-American running for president and saying these things), the white working stiffs in their bitterness would cling to their certitudes and dogmas, things they know and that have sustained them for generations like their guns, religion and prejudices. And, it was true!


This was a classical sociological definition of anomie, alienation and conservatism in general. The quest to conserve and preserve the old, comfortable and familiar in the face of a changing, albeit, hostile world. This gambit also failed and Obama went on to claim the Democratic nomination and ultimately the Prize-POTUS (President Of The United States). For reactionaries the world-over continuously fail to divine, that nothing can stop an idea whose time has come. Obama, the community organizer had managed to generate and mobilise an insurgent grass roots movement whose time had come.

But the resistance refuses to disarm and demobilise. It has followed him to the Oval office. And for all the paroxysms and cynicism of the Establishment media, no American President in recent history has notched the kind of achievements Obama has scored in his first year in office. It is now conveniently forgotten that, but for the stimulus bill Obama piloted into law within a month of his inauguration, the American economy would have cratered. With the country verily plunging from the Great Recession into a Great Depression, it is a spectacle too ghastly to countenance. Instead, by year's end the American economy has staged a comeback from the brink, with the Great Recession officially over. But alas, no Kudos, for Obama. No bouquets for the Brother, only Brickbats.

Before his arrival in Copenhagen, the summit had degenerated into chaos and bedlam, and was verging on collapse and failure of a grand scale. And it was Obama's arrival that salvaged it, with him clinching a deal, albeit far from perfect, with the most important emerging economies including mine in South Africa. But, again, no cheers for Obama. Only derision and scorn. And before Scott Brown's victory in the special election for Senator Edward Kennedy's seat in Massachusetts, America was on the cusp of a historic deal on healthcare. An achievement that has eluded every American President who has tried since President Truman. That is more than 60 years ago. And Obama was poised to achieve this in his first year in office. And for him to have taken the reform bill as far as he did under extremely difficult conditions, of an economy slowly emerging from the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression, with Americans still in the clutches of economic anxiety, and millions reeling from joblessness was a stupendous feat. Not to mention a trenchant Republican opposition, that has long since jettisoned its role to co-legislate and is purely driven by the sole aim of eviscerating this president. A party that has long since jettisoned the decorum of "loyal opposition", that has been a staple and hallmark of Western parliamentary democracy.

In Obama's case, it is virulent opposition without loyalty. It is vile, vitriolic, vituperative and hateful. As displayed starkly, by a Republican congressman, with bulging veins in his thick neck and a face contorted with hate, shouting at Obama in a grotesque violation of protocol, "You lie". He should have said, "You lie boy", which was what was obviously on his mind. Ironically it was Bill Clinton, the "first black president", who started calling Obama, "boy" during the primaries. And because of this climate of hatefulness and refusal to engage constructively in the legislative process by the Republicans, Obama was forced to rely on his motley democratic caucus, to beat the ever present threat of a Republican filibuster. That has meant having to deal with unblushing troglodytes like Senators Ben Nelson and Joe Lieberman, to get the requisite number to pass his healthcare bill, because not getting a bill passed, was not an option for this President. It has taken Massachusetts to thwart this development. How ironic?


But compromise and horse-trading in crafting a deal of this magnitude is hardly a novel innovation in American law-making. After all political theorists have taught us for generations that the craft of politics is the art of the possible. And when Obama, through this maxim and age-old truism, managed to do the only thing possible, under the trying circumstances adumbrated above, a pared down healthcare bill, he was denounced by our brothers and sisters on the left. It seems that the Left would have been more satisfied with a failed process. A noble stand on principle that results in a failure of epic proportions. Making perfection the enemy of the possible, has a long pedigree in the sins of the Left. It is as infantile as it is tragic. But thankfully Obama is smart enough and stupendously cool enough to resist and eschew ideological fixity and dumbness that results in failure. He is the ultimate jazzman, who can improvise and reinvent the riff. Flexible and innovative. An heir of Miles and Madiba's political wisdom.

And so it is, that Obama has taken America to a position coveted by Truman, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon (interestingly for a Republican who had tried to enact a modest healthcare bill which was spurned by Ted Kennedy, the icon of American liberalism, something he would later say, he regretted), An apt example of perfection being the foe of what's possible, and ultimately Clinton never got it. Health reform has never been passed by both houses of Congress. But alas, still no love for this brother. Only the Blues. Kind of Blue, indeed. The theme for Obama's inauguration was "The Rebirth of Freedom" borrowing a line from Lincoln's second inaugural speech. On reflection it should have been christened, "The Rebirth of Cool". For with preternatural cool, equanimity and unflappability, Obama has come very close to meeting the three main goals he set out in his first joint congressional address last February, which was to rebuild the American economy, to fix healthcare and get a deal on climate change. Massachusettes has of course buffeted these achievements. But it does not take away the fact that Obama helped rescue the American economy from certain collapse, saved Copenhagen from ignominy and took healthcare reform to a place it had not reached before. The Massachusetts reversal has now convulsed American politics, catapulting the Democrats into a state of panic and despair with the lily-livered running for the hills. Amongst the Republicans and the Right in general, as typified by the Tea Party, triumphalism of the type akin to the Newt Gingrich revolution in 1994 has been unleashed. But one swallow does not a summer make. And Massachusetts surely can't define the fortunes of Obama's entire presidency. It is still eight months before the mid-term elections and almost three years before Obama has to face re-election. A lifetime in politics. The economy could revive in that time with the electorate coming around. Poll after poll show that clear majorities still find Obama "easy going and likeable" and "inspirational and exciting". And nearly 60 percent praise his "leadership qualities". Those who are already singing the dirge for this President do so at their peril.
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Title Annotation:Barack Obama's administration
Author:Mabandla, Oyama
Publication:Black Renaissance/Renaissance Noire
Article Type:Viewpoint essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2010
Previous Article:Richard Hunt.
Next Article:Charles Searles.

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