On Miles Davis, Vince Lombardi, & the crisis of masculinity in mid-century America

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Date: Winter 2002
From: Daedalus(Vol. 131, Issue 1)
Publisher: American Academy of Arts and Sciences
Document Type: Article
Length: 2,904 words

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Early, Gerald

Miles Davis achieved fame as a jazz musician and cultural icon in the 1950S and 1960s - the era of the civil rights movement and the first stirrings of the women's movement, and the era, too, of Playboy bunnies and the first national pro-football stars. Against this backdrop Davis appeared as a bona fide leader of men in a field of endeavor dominated, like pro football, by men: modern jazz.

Many preach that jazz is democratic in its aesthetic, with the players adjusting to each other's inclinations and habits to create a whole that is both individual and collective. Yet the existence of a leader who hires the group and essentially defines its artistic mission implies a certain authoritarianism. (Small group jazz, in that respect, seems less democratic than the workings of a classical chamber group that, ostensibly, has no leader.)

From the start, Mlles Davis had a vision about music, whether he originated it himself or borrowed it from the talented people around him, and this vision, which he filled with the energy of his own person and character, made him a leader. More than a musician, Davis became a figure to conjure with. He was a musical genius who was also one part amoral picaro, one part pimp, and one part African American tough guy.

On stage, he was famous for playing with his back to the audience, a gesture of defiant artistry, and the antithesis of Louis Armstrong's ingratiating smile. He began the 1950s by recording a series of artfully restrained chamber jazz masterpieces later released under the title Birth of the Cool. And by the time he ended the decade with the preternaturally poised sextet he featured on Kind of Blue, recorded in the spring of 1959, Davis had come to exemplify a certain kind of masculinity, as well as a certain style of leadership among men.

It is a noteworthy coincidence that Davis came to public consciousness as a masculine symbol playing serious and sometimes challenging music at roughly the time when professional football became a major spectator sport in the United States.

Indeed, historians can date precisely when professional football became, suddenly, the most popular sport in the United States. It happened a few months before Davis recorded Kind of Blue, when the CBS network televised the 1958 NFL championship game between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants, considered by many the greatest football game ever played. In the years that followed, professional football experienced a heady growth in a way that professional baseball did not; indeed, baseball was virtually stagnant as football shot ahead. And it was in these years that a gap-toothed Italian Catholic coach, Vince Lombardi, emerged as a national sports hero - and a man even more famous than Mlles Davis. An assistant coach for the Giants in 1958, Lombardi became head coach for the Green Bay Packers the following year. By the middle 1960s, he was in some sense the most visible emblem of pro...

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