Leonard Bernstein: Cool

May 3, 2018

Credit SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

If you’d like a remarkable example of the genius of Leonard Bernstein, I  recommend that you listen – or listen again – to the song “Cool,” from West Side Story.


Bernstein needed a song for the character Riff to sing to build up the tension before the gang fight between the Jets and the Sharks. If I told you his solution was to take Baroque counterpoint – a fugue, to be precise – the syncopated rhythms of jazz, and the atonal twelve-tone technique of Arnold Schoenberg… and to mix them all together with a singer, a vibraphone, standard orchestral instruments, a drum set, and finger snapping, you’d probably say, “That sounds preposterous.” And it does. But that’s just what he did. And the result—which for anybody but Leonard Bernstein would have been inconceivable—was a fabulous Broadway show-stopper. Even the greatest hitters don’t always hit home runs, and even geniuses don’t always write masterpieces. But with “Cool,” Bernstein hit it out of the park.  

This has been A Minute with Miles – a production of South Carolina Public Radio, made possible by the J.M. Smith Corporation.