Charlie Parker_Post

Let’s start at the beginning. And where did it begin? In New York, always in New York, world capital of the 20th century. Here, and nowhere else, is where the hipster, the original, was born. The term hipster comes from the word “hepcat” (compound of “hep” – or sometimes “hip”-, a phrase used by black jazz musicians to indicate someone who “knew” or “was in”, and “cat”, a name conferred to jazz music fans, and still used nowadays). So just by looking at the simple etymological origin of the word, we can see that music was the epicentre of it all.

With the end of Prohibition in 1933, the jazz world suffered a great setback: the underground mystification of the club scene disappeared, and soon people could drink at home or in well-lit places: the romanticism was vanishing. And if that was not enough, the popularity of the radio made it possible to listen to live music without leaving one’s home. But at the beginning of the 40’s, a new tendency began to grow within the jazz world. Going against the popular trend of swing music, made for and by white people, the boldest black musicians created a new, more complex and individualistic style, distant from the big bands and based on improvisation and fast harmonic tempos: the bebop (or simply bop). This new style went through the initial rejection of the critics and most of the audiences, and could only be heard in basements and small rooms, at unsuitable hours and in dangerous neighbourhoods: the lost romanticism was back, and bop became a lifestyle. The musicians got along on a familiar basis with everyone who moved around in that sordid atmosphere: artists, drug addicts, pimps, prostitutes, homosexuals, etc; the lost, the forgotten, the excluded, who called themselves beatniks, or beats.

And now we arrive at the other big factor of the origin of the hipster as a cultural figure: the literary faction of the beatniks, the so-called Generation Beat, which ended up consolidating the term and giving it relevance. If there is an iconic name among that heap of poets, narrators and painters, it would probably be Herbert Huncke, the so-called original beatnik, the eternal enfant terrible, a well-known bum of Times Square, a poet and a drug addict, nihilist and homosexual and an institution in every club and third-rate den. In Allen Ginsberg’s words (Beat Memories, The Photographs of Allen Ginsberg): “The eternal survivor, pioneer of beat literature, a thief as a teenager, who introduced Burroughs, Kerouac and myself to the drug scene and marginalization of the Times Square of 1945.” Kerouac himself, in his novel On the Road describes the hipster‘s personality and presents him as a bohemian, an opportunist, a person with an interest in spirituality and art, almost always close to the most alternative cultural circles, able to flirt with the underground worlds of drugs and begging, but again, “someone who knew”, someone who went beyond the margins of society and transcended the rules, with a set of values light years away from the double standards dominating in the USA after World War II, under Eisenhower’s presidency. The American youth, destroyed by the Depression after World War II, found in the beatnik-hipster trend an escape route: the possibility of facing the world in a different way.

Dark basements filled with marijuana smoke, where Charlie Parker, Dizzie Gillespie and Bud Powell (with dozens of others) made the (mostly white) audience sweat, taking them to a near state of ecstasy, were the hipster‘s meeting place. One place closed, another opened, and it went on like that until dawn, and beyond dawn, up to ramshackle apartments or dark lofts where the last stragglers exhausted the little energy they had left. There was no age to be a hipster. Young college students swarmed around in gloomy atmosphere with men who could be their fathers, and they all shared the existentialist inclination to escape from society. Falling into a necessary generalization, imperative to locating it historically, one could say that the most significant character traits of the hipster were cynicism and scepticism, the endemic American adventurer spirit and an individualistic social conscience, typical of some European ways of thinking, a great interest in art and experience and a brutal desire to escape that monster in full development that was economic liberalism.

But everything has an end, and the socio-cultural wonder of the original hipster met his: its spark came in the 40’s, burnt in the 50’s and faded away in the 60’s. Charlie “Bird” Parker died in 1955, and jazz went through a process of sophistication that distanced it from the darkness to bring it closer to the intellectual elite and the big halls; the boom of Generation Beat was brief, and after the early death of several icons of the movement (Kerouac and Cassidy, for example), little by little the term started to go out of fashion, falling into oblivion with the arrival of the hippie phenomenon in the middle of the 60’s.