An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Winter 2002

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

Gerald Lyn Early
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Gerald Early, author of “The Culture of Bruising: Essays on Prizefighting, Literature, and Modern American Culture,” winner of the 1994 National Book Critics Circle Award, and “Tuxedo Junction: Essays on American Culture,” winner of the 1988 Whiting Foundation Writer’s Award, is Merle Kling Professor of Modern Letters and head of the African and Afro-American Studies Program at Washington University in St. Louis. A Fellow of the American Academy since 1997, he is currently working on a history of Fisk University, a historically black college in Nashville, and the “Sammy Davis Jr. Reader,” a compilation of interviews with and articles about the famous entertainer.

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, Miles 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 gaptoothed Italian Catholic coach, Vince Lombardi, emerged as a national sports hero–and a man even more famous than Miles 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 football and its guiding values.

Like Miles Davis, Vince Lombardi exemplified a certain kind of masculinity and a certain style of leadership among men. Davis fascinated the public because he seemed to know the secret of how to be cool. Lombardi fascinated the public because he seemed to know a different kind of secret: how to instill a will to win in thirty-five men, and make these men give everything of themselves on a football field on any autumn Sunday in order to win something that, after all, in the big scheme of things, did not mean much. (In some sense, what in athletics does? What in art does?)

Lombardi was old-fashioned. He molded his men with clichés about pride, honor, character, and what he called “mental toughness,” or, put another way, a holy singleness of purpose: the will to prevail over an adversary. And as was true with any successful football coach, he was also an authoritarian and a workaholic.

It was during the heyday of Miles Davis and Vince Lombardi that America suffered a crisis of confidence in its understanding of the masculine ideal. The crisis was ubiquitous and left no area of the culture untouched. It was evident, for example, among black Americans. The conflict between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. was one symptom of the crisis. And what were the heavyweight championship fights between Floyd Patterson and Sonny Liston in 1962 and 1963 if not a dramatic representation of this larger crisis in black masculinity? A number of key black writers of the period, from Amiri Baraka to Eldridge Cleaver, from John A. Williams to Claude Brown, focused on the problem of the black male and his masculinity. And while black nationalists, from the Nation of Islam to the revolutionaries of the late 1960s, all authoritarians, did not get their ideas of pride, honor, character, and unwavering singleness of purpose from Lombardi and professional football (they rather thought they were getting them from Castro, Ho Chi Minh, or the ancestors), the reach and glamour of professional football in the 1950s and 1960s strengthened these ideas and certainly gave them a currency in popular culture they may not otherwise have had, and thus, I think, intensified the crisis.

Malcolm X’s speeches on black unity, black male courage, and racial pride sounded very similar to Lombardi’s pep talks about taking pride in being a Green Bay Packer and the need for teamwork, maximum effort, and sacrifice. John F. Kennedy, our young, seemingly healthy and virile president of the early 1960s, liked professional football and the toughness it represented for a nation on the verge of a new frontier. (There are those romantic pictures of him playing the Kennedy brand of rough-and-tumble touch football at the family compound in Hyannisport.) Richard M. Nixon, our middle-aged, fairly neurotic, paranoid president of the late 1960s, loved professional football and often planned military strategy for the Vietnam War while watching NFL games. Like Lombardi, Nixon understood–and the Watergate scandal is a perfect perversion of it– that “winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.”

I spoke of a crisis of black male leadership, and I believe this crisis reflected, in part, a larger crisis in male identity in the 1950s and 1960s, and this crisis in male identity during these years reflected a general crisis in liberalism as a conflicted ideology of white male privilege in a democratic, so-called egalitarian society that neurotically mixed rights and taboos with perverse passion.

Lombardi represented one type of male desire for dominance in a democratic framework, largely centered on white ethnic, blue-collar virtues of masculinity as strength, stoicism, and loyalty: a deliberate reinscription of the democratic male heroism of World War II.

Meanwhile, the rise of Hugh Hefner’s Playboy magazine, which was started four years before the big 1958 GiantsColts game that made professional football a glamour sport, represented something distinctly different: a consumer-oriented, professional male of leisure and style, usually a WASP, with clothes, cars, and some veneer of cultivated taste, who easily took women as both sport and an expression of his power as a charismatic being. It was this Playboy impulse that gave us the popular male fantasy figure of the 1960s that combined heroism, schoolboy pride, and decadence: James Bond, the literary creation of English writer Ian Fleming. Bond was unquestionably masculine, and he clearly bowed to authority and had a British public-school morality of purpose and honor that Lombardi would have liked; but he wasn’t quite a Lombardi-type of man in other respects, and his missions seemed nothing more, on a psychological level, than the destruction of grandiose authoritarian male figures: Goldfinger, Dr. No, Blofeld, Hugo Drax, Mr. Big.

There were other competing masculine ideas as well: the white hipsters or Beats of the 1950s were essentially the reincarnation of the myth of Peter Pan, who was forever a boy, who hated authority and adulthood as symbolized by Captain Hook, who always lived completely in the moment of whatever sensation he was experiencing, without past or future, totally self-absorbed, remembering nothing except that he hated mothers while having an occasional need for a girl to play the role of one. Variations of this Peter Pan ideal were represented by the two most popular athletes of this era: Muhammad Ali and Joe Namath. Ali was the brash, bragging, boy-wonder fighter who feminized himself by calling himself “pretty” and who combined the boyish antics of Dizzy Dean with the rhetoric of the black male redemption politics of Elijah Muhammad and Marcus Garvey. Namath was the playboy quarterback Lombardi despised as a person who drank champagne and wore pantyhose in a commercial. Both seemed to bow to authoritarian rule, their sports depending on the rule of an older male teacher over a younger male student, while openly defying it.

Lombardi, who raged at his men’s failures while he exalted in their successes (not always giving them the credit they were due) and cried–literally–over their illnesses and defeats, was something like the Great White Father of the 1960s. How can he be pleased?

Miles Davis, for one, evinced no interest at all in answering that particular question. In his stage manner, he ridiculed the very idea of pleasing people, refusing to pander to his predominantly white audience, even as he took under his wing white musicians like the saxophonist and arranger Gerry Mulligan and the pianist Bill Evans. Davis resembled the football coach in one way only: like Lombardi, he was a leader of men.

He was, after all, a bandleader, who had to create a unity, an organization, from the disparate elements and personalities of his bands. He selected the venues where his men were to play, he decided what they would play and how they would play it, he hired and fired them, and he paid them. The men in the band could remain individuals (this was essential for their future as jazz musicians); they could write music for the band; but the band must be unmistakably understood by the public to be Miles Davis’s and to be dominated by his aesthetic vision of jazz as a practice and as a theory.

One hallmark of jazz for Miles Davis was the act of willing a certain persona into existence. For Davis, it was an act of imposing himself on the public’s consciousness through his music, and for any black man to do this in a way that the public, both black and white, would take seriously made him a leader, especially in the 1950s and 1960s, whether he wanted to be one or not. The fact that Columbia Records, the company that signed Davis in 1955, was willing to sell him to the public as a particular type of artistic black male visionary was important as well.

Miles Davis was deeply affected by the Playboy ethos of the 1950s and 1960s. He achieved a great deal of his identity as a public man of charismatic appeal through his conspicuous consumption: he had tailored clothes, expensive cars, and beautiful women. In this respect, he differed little from his contemporary, Sammy Davis Jr., who publicly, even mythically, indulged the same appetites in much the same way. This was all part of being theatrically hip. But Miles Davis was different in that he was not a “light music” entertainer or a purveyor of philistine popular music and dance, like Sammy Davis Jr. Miles Davis was a craftsman, a virtuoso, a man publicly proclaimed as possessing genius. He reveled in this sense of himself as a master. He had something of the appeal of the heavyweight boxer Floyd Patterson to middle-class, establishment blacks (but he was less earnest and more defiant); he had something of the appeal of the cool to the young, much like a rock star might have today; and he had something of the appeal of the temperamentally artistic to the pseudo-intellectual and the middlebrow public.

The question of the worth of Davis’s music after 1969 when he “went electric” and courted rock fans as listeners is, I think, in great measure tied to one’s estimation of his virtues as a leader of men. After all, where did he lead them? A Lombardi-type view of the situation would suggest that Davis betrayed jazz as a profession because he betrayed its honor, pride, character, its quality of “mental toughness.” According to this view, by recording amplified and rock-flavored music, as he did from Bitches Brew on, he no longer asked for maximum effort, for sacrifice, for excellence. In this view, Davis stopped trying. Instead of struggling to prevail over his environment, he succumbed to it.

To people who think this way, Davis, in effect, became Peter Pan. His was the worst kind of perversion of the masculine ideal because he was middle-aged when he started playing at rock venues: consumed by an unstoppable youth fixation, defying authority by refusing to acknowledge the glorious past of jazz, he became a preening object of authoritarian veneration for women (like Bond or a pimp) while also becoming the leader of the Lost Boys–in this case, the young fusion jazz players. (J. M. Barrie, tellingly, originally entitled his play about the boy who wouldn’t grow up The Great White Father.)

From the perspective of a Vince Lombardi type, Davis betrayed his calling as a jazz musician by betraying the moral tenets of manhood itself. In becoming an object of consumption, Davis simply consumed himself or allowed himself to be consumed. For it is the law of life of the Lombardi types that one either eats or gets eaten, as Captain Hook’s constant effort to escape the crocodile and destroy Peter Pan illustrates.

But Lombardi’s is only one perspective. And while it has unquestioned virtues, it was seen at the time by many as simplistic and restrictive. Its worship of authority, order, and the soil of tradition had the seeds of a fascist urge. Lombardi–devout Catholic that he was–assumed a certainty about male life and maleness that is comforting, sometimes even mythically striking, but ultimately false.

And there are, after all, other ways of being a man and other ways of seeing the issue of how men should be led, and Davis was never a man much taken with a Lombardi view of life. As Lombardi became increasingly conservative in the 1960s in light of the disordered, contrary times, Davis became more interested in liberating himself.

I think Miles Davis, unlike Lombardi, understood well what it means to live with uncertainty. Davis’s electric music raised a question that had no easy answer: What is jazz? After all, jazz has been so many things–from Hal Kemp to Jelly Roll Morton, from Ornette Coleman to Najee. Who can be certain what it is?

Davis wanted to take risks, but he also wanted to make money, and he wanted to be fashionable, and he wanted to enjoy life in its sensual fullness, and he wanted to be an example of some sort of pride and integrity in an age when the charismatic appeal of male pride and black pride coincided. These things are not mutually exclusive, but they can produce enormous disjunctions, enormous confusion about what one wants. What seems amazing to me about Davis is that he struggled so fiercely, for so long, with these disjunctions and, indeed, tried to use the tensions of them to create music that, whatever its artistic merits, brilliantly dramatized the dilemma of his own desires and aims.

It is nevertheless true that by the mid1970s, Davis had succumbed to his own fantastic, Peter Pan-like ideas about masculinity, particularly in his treatment of women. He had always been drawn to the street life, the hustler’s élan. (After all, he met Charlie Parker and entered the bebop world of drug addiction when he was still a teenager.) His hustling, as much as anything, drove a good deal of the music he decided to play after 1970. I think it is fair to say that he had a McHeath fixation, intensified by his own middle-class upbringing. (Some blacks are of two minds about being middle class: it is a mark of racial achievement and a sign of cowardly acquiescence.)

Miles Davis, in the end, may not have been a better man than Vince Lombardi. He may not have had a better idea of manhood. But the idea of manhood he had was no worse than Lombardi’s. And if we don’t pose the complexities Davis represented as a man in light of the complexities of the times he lived in when masculinity in various guises was being simultaneously confirmed and undone, we run the risk of never understanding the man and never appreciating what he wanted to do.