The first beverage that comes to mind when thinking about jazz is not coffee but alcohol. The two have been served in taverns, bars, juke joints, nightclubs and dance halls since jazz’s inception in the early 20th century and the pair have been the main ingredients of a good time ever since.
While alcohol can be traced to pre-history, coffee didn’t appeared in the New World until the mid-1600s in the Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam (New York). The British, of course, ultimately ruled the colonies and tea was the drink of choice, but that all changed after the Boston Tea Party. Since then, coffee has been the non-alcoholic drink of choice in the U.S., with coffeehouses/coffee shops proliferating.
Fast forward to the 1940s, jazz was the popular music of the day. However, after World War II, jazz took a turn and bebop was born – a new style of jazz. Jazz was not for dancing anymore, but for listening, a thought-provoking art form, the music of the oppressed, the underdog and a vehicle to protest injustice. Bebop innovators Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie were seen as musical revolutionaries and social change was beginning to gather momentum.
In 1948, Jack Kerouac, poet and writer, was in the forefront of the “Beat” generation – the name given to a group of disillusioned youth that embraced anti-materialism with a disdain for a conventional life style. Living in New York City, Kerouac frequented jazz clubs and was greatly influenced by the beboppers’ musical revolution. His classic book “On the Road,” celebrated jazz, the musicians that were turning the jazz world upside down and the Beat generation.
Many youths were drawn to the new lifestyle and gathering places for them sprang up in urban centers: coffeehouses. These dark, seedy establishments had, in many cases, the look of an opium den, with funny names (Hungry I, Pandora’s Box, Bitter End and Fickle Pickle), where jazz, folk music (the beginning of the folk revival), poetry and comedy could be heard. Alcohol certainly didn’t disappear, but it was now cool to drink coffee while listening to jazz.
By 1958, members of the Beat generation were known as “beatniks,” the suffix of “nik” from “Sputnik” added by a newspaper columnist and it stuck. The media took over and a beatnik stereotype was created: an unkempt, sandal-wearing male, who rolled his own cigarettes, was attired in a black turtleneck sweater and a beret, with a goatee, wearing dark glasses, speaking in hipster slang, while beating out rhythms on his bongos, spouting poetry without provocation and ultimately crashing in his one-room pad. TV and movies jumped on the bandwagon and beatniks were everywhere (remember Maynard G. Krebs – actor Bob Denver – in the TV show, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis?).
Actually, the beatnik look can be traced to Gillespie and Monk, who in the 1940s were often seen wearing dark glasses and berets, had goatees, spoke hipster-ese and were counter-cultural to the max.
By the mid 1960s, beatniks along with the coffeehouse craze began to fade as the moral righteousness of the Civil Rights movement took center stage and became the focus of protests against the establishment.
Today, most of the old coffeehouses are gone, having been replaced by the monotone, lookalike boxes, serving up drinks that are so outrageous that a ”venti, light-iced, skinny, hazelnut, macchiato, sugar-free syrup, extra shot, no whip” is a drink of choice. Starbucks now has over 27,000 locations worldwide, serving over 4 billion cups of “joe” a year. The name “joe” for coffee can be traced to Secretary of the Navy Josephus “Joe” Daniels, who in 1914 banned alcohol on US Navy ships. Thereafter the strongest beverage available on a ship of war was a cup of joe – black coffee.
But a funny thing happened on the way to coffee Armageddon, jazz became the soundtrack of coffee quaffing. Starbucks, Peets Coffee and Dunkin’ Donuts, three of the biggest players in the market, all now prominently feature jazz soundtracks in their establishments. Ted Gioia, a jazz historian suggests that, “Jazz is now a code word for sophistication and classiness, even affluence.” Whatever the new perception is, jazz is now part of the world of coffee.
Since I was a kid, I always loved jazz, but coffee came much later out of necessity – the all-night cram sessions before finals. Over time, I have realized that jazz and coffee have magical qualities. Both have connected me to so many people and had a remarkable impact on my life. Sitting with friends conversing and sharing thoughts over coffee has become a daily ritual for my wife and me and has enriched our lives immensely. Even solitary cups of coffees have had an amazing impact on me, as they have afforded me those private moments of introspection that are so enlightening. Whether in a group or solo, the coffee always tastes better when jazz is playing in the background.
Howard Stone is the founder and artistic director of the Vail Jazz Foundation, which produces the annual Vail Jazz Winter Series and the Vail Jazz Festival.