Fast Chat: Writing From The 'Hip'

Did you know that the term "hip" comes from a West African Wolof tribal word meaning "to see"? That Charlie Parker so adored Woody Woodpecker that Bird mimicked the bird's laugh in his sax solos? New York Times reporter (and ex-NEWSWEEK scribe) John Leland covers it all in his essential book, "Hip: The History." He spoke with Peri's Devin Gordon:

NEWSWEEK: How come no one had written this book yet?

LELAND: Hip is something we don't think much about, even though it affects our lives every day. I wanted to draw new connections between Walt Whitman and Miles and Beck.

You seemed particularly energized writing about jazz.

It takes people from the bottom of society and puts them at the top. What else in our culture has produced a character like Thelonious Monk?

An easy one: what is hip?

It's an enlightenment that crosses cultural lines--understanding the other guy's game without giving up who you are.

So is the author hip himself?

I wish. I'm the only person in history who has published a Times story about Lawrence Welk and a book about hip in the same 30-day period. I'm a visitor in both scenes.