Video Virgil: What Was Hip?
There's a new book out called "Hip: The History," by New York Times writer John Leland. It sounds fascinating, but if you want to witness the pure essence of hip, watch the DVD of "Jazz on a Summer's Day," Bert Stern's documentary about the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival.
"Documentary" is the wrong word, because this is a visual poem, as hip in its way as a solo by Dizzy Gillespie or a poem by Frank O'Hara.
Like all crucial words, hip is hard to define. Rooted in African-American musical culture, especially jazz, hip is also white, though not in the crude heavy-handed way of Norman Mailer's bone-headed essay, "The White Negro." Hip is in eclipse today, because it is neither crude (like most pop music) or heavy-handed (like most "serious" commentary on pop music).
The word hip originated in West Africa: "hepi" or "hipi" is Wolof for "to open your eyes." And Stern's wide-open camera eye gives us amazing close-ups of Jimmy Giuffre, Thelonious Monk, Anita O'Day, Sonny Stitt, Gerry Mulligan, Dinah Washington, Big Maybelle, Chuck Berry, Chico Hamilton, Louis Armstrong, and Mahalia Jackson.
Great artists, all. But great artists need great audiences, and what is most amazing about this film is its portrait of the crowd. Newport was no paradise - Stern himself described it as bringing not-rich New Yorkers, black and white, into a rich white enclave. Unlike the revelers at Woodstock eleven years later, this crowd did not fancy itself a utopian community. They just dug the music. But the way they dug it had a rare and magical beauty, and I for one am glad Stern was there to capture it.