Recently I got into a discussion with two female library colleagues who are my age, about the young of today and some of their customs and….. “idioms”. You know….Who Bruno Mars is (which they knew but I didn’t.) How Facebook is rapidly becoming old-hat and being replaced by things like Instagram and Snapchat. The preponderance of ghastly plaid shorts and stupid, undersized straw fedoras on young men. How old words like “hip”, “cool” and “hipster” have become co-opted by the young, but with new and different connotations. This is wryly ironic for us oldsters, if we’re not too grumpy to see it.
One of these ladies mentioned that her teenage daughter downloads new tunes to her (the mother’s) iPhone, to keep her informed on the “now sounds of today’s music”, under the heading “I’m A Hip Mom.” I jokingly replied with, “Or a hep mom”, but neither of my friends knew that word. I explained that it was an old term we used to use, meaning the “royal we”. Fortunately, hep was a word from before our time and I hate to admit it, but there aren’t too many of those left, boo-hoo.
I’m not sure if hep preceded hip or was just an offshoot of it, but it was used back in the early days of bebop – mid to late-’40s – by modern jazz fans and the music press, it was kind of corny even then. Often it was joined with “cat” as in “hep-cat”, one who dug the way-out sounds of progressive jazz and knew how to “go man, wail daddy-o, you dig?” You know, the type who sported a beret, goatee and didn’t bathe too often, showed up at parties with bongo drums, wearing shades and carrying a copy of “On The Road” or other Beat writings. Or maybe took up the flute, playing it very badly, while wearing smelly sandals and spouting Marx – a “sandalista”.
I guess if you were hip, you were a hep-cat, but if you were hep, you were never a hip-cat; they didn’t exist because they were not cool, baby. Hep-cats were distinct from their mortal enemies, the “moldy figs”, who still dug swing and Dixieland and were decidedly not hep, or hip. Luckily, this whole hep-cat act got old fast and it became hepper to be hip than hep, or something like that. If I seem confused, you’re right………..I am.
There were “hipsters” back then too (but never “hepsters”), people who spoke jive-talk and had insider knowledge of underground stuff like dope, Max Roach’s shoe size and the address of Bird’s latest pad, etc. In fact there was a Harlem entertainer named Harry “The Hipster” Gibson, a pianist-singer who wrote funny songs like “I Stay Brown All Year Round”, which addressed people not being able to tell whether he was black or white. He was blacklisted for his song “Who Put the Benzedrine In Mrs. Murphy’s Ovaltine?” which was too hep – sorry, too hip – for the room.
As mentioned earlier, nowadays “hipster” has a new, pejorative connotation among the young, to describe trendoid yuppie types who frequent now, with-it neighbourhoods, wearing big glasses and lots of plaid while overpaying for coffee and designer pizza, etc.
I occasionally use “hep” in a joking, mock-retro way, to make fun of the generally vague, useless and wildly overrated concept of hipness, whatever that might mean. In all seriousness, I’ve come to think that what’s hip is knowledge, the search for it and the recognition that the more you learn, the less you know. You know?
When I first came on the music scene about 1976, hip was being used all over the place by musicians, kind of like “awesome” is now by everybody. The funniest use of hip back then was to answer a statement with “I’m hip”, as in “I know.” It got to be such a habit with me that I’d use it in wildly inappropriate situations, like with my mom – “Steve, dinner’s in five minutes!” “I’m hip.” Or even my grandparents – “Steve, your shirt’s untucked.” “I’m hip, thanks.”
Of course, songwriter Dave Frishberg addressed all this in his hilarious song “I’m Hip”, with the great line (among many others), “I even call my girlfriend man, ’cause I’m hip.”
To me, there’s hardly anything funnier than people trying too hard to be (or seem) hip. And I should know, I did it for years. There’s a funny story about this in Bill Crow’s wonderful book Jazz Anecdotes. One night, Zoot Sims was at the bar on a break between sets. A slightly tipsy guy tried to impress Zoot with his groovy lingo, nudging him and saying, “Hey Zoot, hip that chick at the end of the bar!” Zoot looked at the woman, paused and answered drily, “Yeah man, I’m dig.”
Back when I started to play, the Oakland funk band Tower of Power came out with a tune called “What Is Hip?”, which I loved both for the music and the question it asked. To me -not that I would know – part of the essence of hipness is to not try too hard. The great jazz drummer Roy Haynes is a good example of this, he’s always been the very apotheosis of hipness and continues to be at age 88. He’s played with the very best, cutting-edge people in jazz since about 1945 – Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Lester Young, Sarah Vaughan, Thelonious Monk, Stan Getz, Eric Dolphy, Andrew Hill, Gary Burton, Chick Corea – and on and on. He was so hip that when John Coltrane’s super-hip drummer Elvin Jones did the un-hip and served time for drug possession, Haynes subbed for him, easy as pie, like he was falling off a log. Now, that ‘s hip. (Or maybe I’m getting hip confused with cool……oh no!!)
Haynes had a band for a while called The Hip Ensemble, and they really were. It might have been a play on words about him being such a clothes horse, he used to make all the “Top Ten Best-Dressed” lists, he made Miles Davis look like a bum. I heard one of Roy’s latest records the other day and in his eighties he still has the energy of a kid. He’s still as hip as any drummer alive, with a style from “Rice Krispies” – snap, crackle and pop. ROY (da-boom) HAYNES!!
As to what “hippie” means nowadays, that’s anyone’s guess. I think I know what it used to mean and we have a prime example of this in my sister-in-law Fran, who’ll be our house guest for the next few weeks. She arrived last night from – where else? – Vancouver Island in the middle of this unseasonable soupy weather. At the height of last night’s raging thunderstorm she and Anna went out on the street and danced in the pouring rain, joyously cooling off. Life is so goddamn funny sometimes……There I was inside, drinking red wine and listening to Jess Stacy like a moldy fig, while the two of them and a neighbour were outside making with this Woodstock re-enactment, minus the mud and Richie Havens. I like to kid Fran that this is just the beginning, that she’ll have us eating spelt bread, dandelions and sprinkling patchouli oil on our pancakes before you can say “Jerry Garcia”. But to me, she’s hip in the very best sense of the word, has experienced and survived a great deal, knows a lot and still has a big, unprejudiced heart and an inquisitive mind. If that’s what being a hippie is, I’ll take it.
© 2013 – 2016, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.