the ravages of heroin on jazz musicians

the ravages of heroin on jazz musicians

In the history of modern jazz there is a tragic aspect that is difficult to ignore and that is the almost indiscriminate use of heroin from a good part of the most important artists of the genre, from Charlie Parker to Miles Davis, from Billie Holiday to Bill Evans.

One of the best arguments for using drugs that musicians argue is the possibility of expand your sounds and free yourself from ties, but beyond this theory, jazz was born in a context of alcohol and drug use in New Orleans and Kansas City, cities run by gangsters who lived off the entertainment business, where in addition to music there were drugs and prostitution.

Until the 1930s, the most prevalent drug in the jazz world, although obviously not the only one, was marijuana in addition to alcohol. Until in the ’40s together with bebop, heroin was imposed as a way of life, a fashion, although this statement of course does not explain the huge number of artists who ended up suffering the consequences of an addiction that pauperizes the consumer to limits that can lead to death.

Charlie Parker used to pawn his sax to buy drugs.

A long list

Without pretending to be exhaustive, we could name within this community, called “Church of the needle”, a Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan, Dexter Gordon, Tadd Dameron, Chet Baker, Billie Holiday, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Art Blakey, Freddie Webster, Jimmy Heath, Bud Powell, Art Pepper, Philly Joe Jones, Fats Navarro, Red Garland, Art Taylor, Sonny Sttit, Tina Brooks, Sonny Clark, Abbey Lincoln y Lee Morgan, entre otros.

While the director of the Federal Narcotics Office, Harry Anlinger said in the early 1940s: “We had more jazz bands in jail than I can count“; Chet Baker argued in his autobiography As if i had wings that in one of the internment centers, perhaps the legendary Lexington was referring, there was a whole big band that included none other than the excellent composer Tadd Dameron.

Bill Evans.  The great pianist was also a victim of heroin.

Bill Evans. The great pianist was also a victim of heroin.

Many jazz musicians passed Lexington, including the great pianist Bud Powell who arrested for possession of heroin and received a electroshock treatment that caused irreparable brain damage, such as loss of sense of time and space, which by the way he did not have before starting the “treatment.”

However, not all these great artists had a tragic end, only some, such as Clark or Brooks who died from overdoses, Others suffered other losses as a result of an evident physical impoverishment generated by the substance such as Parker, Holiday, Navarro or Evans and up suspicious “accidents” like the one that cost Baker his life, in Amsterdam. Alto saxophonist Pepper spent a long time in prison following a failed assault on a gas station in search of financing his addiction.

Traumatic experiences

There are many stories and a large part of them lead us to traumatic life experiences, especially of black musicians who suffered in addition to their own anguish, a violent and uncompromising racism.

Billie Holiday.  A huge singer who complicated the race for the use of heroin.

Billie Holiday. A huge singer who complicated the race for the use of heroin.

Cool Jazz drummer Shelly Mane, in a November 1960 panel on “Narcotics and Jazz,” said: “The jazz musician has an elemental difference from other musicians, improvisation; a jazzman constantly has to create; have new ideas, compose and play at the same time; but all this he does not do once a week. In the best moments of bebop they played several nights a week and sometimes traveling from one city to another. To be able to support that rhythm and find tranquility, the musicians used narcotics ”.

Almost that sounds like an excuse These days, however, it should be added to this situation that heroin became a way of escaping from an intolerable reality towards a life that also implied a lot of anguish.

“In the beginning, the heroine built a wall that protected me from reality, and in that space I could create. As my dependence increased, that wall was getting closer to me, taking away space until I was suffocating and not being able to think of anything other than continuing to consume ”, is the story of a jazz musician detained in rehabilitation in Lexington, in 1948 .

Parker and Davis

Saxophonist Charlie Parker, a really cool artistHe struggled all his life with the lack of money caused by his addiction. Much of it had no instrument, because I pawned it because of the heroin. The rights of its great composition Now’s, The Time He sold them for just $ 50 to buy drugs.

Maybe the most devastating example is that of Miles Davis that in addition to being arrested in Los Angeles in the mid-1940s along with Dexter Gordon, Art Blakey and Parker for drug possession (Blakey had bought them), he fell into a deep addiction to heroin within a few years.

In 1949, Davis crossed to France on his first trip to Europe to participate in a festival, in Paris, where he was treated like a star. Upon his return to New York, that strength and confidence that he had shown up to that point began to crumble. The trumpeter remembers it like this in his memoirs:

“I began to realize things that did not attract my attention before, I mean racism. Realizing that I could not change the situation in my community took away my strength. I lost discipline, control of my life and I got carried away “.

Between 1951 and 1953, he lived his own hell with situations that spoke of his degradation, such as when his friend and colleague Clark Terry gave him accommodation and ended up stealing his trumpet to sell it and get drugs.

After a fight in California that could cost him his freedom, he decides to recover, “clean up” on his father’s farm, in East Saint Louis, and in the old way, lock himself up and endure abstinence, the so-called Cold Turkey (because the spasms and chills generate persistent goose bumps) that can, if necessary, cost the life of the patient.

Already in good shape, he will return to New York to form one of the great quintets in the history of jazz shortly after, with Coltrane, Garland, Paul Chambers and Jones; of the five, three, Coltrane, Garland and Jones, used heroin. It was difficult to find in New York, among the musicians of the first line, artists who did not use this drug.

The case of John Coltrane

John Coltrane was fired from the group of MIles Davis for his heroin problems.

John Coltrane was fired from the group of MIles Davis for his heroin problems.

The saxophonist John Coltrane traveled the same path as the trumpeter in the spring of 1957. Davis threw him out of the group because he no longer even played the position with which he went on stage and even in the dressing room of the Bohemia club he came to hit him (due, according to Davis himself, by the impotence that seeing him that way generated him) .

Coltrane traveled from New York to Philadelphia where his family lived and cleaned himself up enduring the painful withdrawal. The double bass player Jimmy Garrison (who would play in his famous Classic Quartet) was present at that first show, in Philadelphia, after his recent recovery: “I was playing and suddenly he was blank; it was only a moment, but from then on he sounded like a big man learning to speak. It was deeply moving. “

One aspect to take into account is pointed out by Antonio Escohotado in his History of drugs, from Alianza Editorial, where he points out that in the 1940s and 1950s, a gram of heroin on the street had around 40 percent purity, while in the 1980s, it only reached 5 percent, and he concludes: “Today’s withdrawal syndromes are almost always staged and the so-called cases of overdose are poisonings with some substitute.”

Davis also had this experience with another trumpeter, his close friend Freddy Webster, who died in April 1947, in Chicago, from a heroin overdose that another musician had passed, the saxophonist Sonny Sttit. Although once the autopsy was done they discovered that death was due to strychnine poisoning.

Most of the artists managed to disengage. The cases of Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Art Blakey or Jackie McLean are examples, among others, of emotional strength.

Dizzy Gillespie fired a musician whom he saw about to inject himself.  AP Photo / René Pérez

Dizzy Gillespie fired a musician whom he saw about to inject himself. AP Photo / René Pérez

Already in the sixties, in the midst of the clamor of the black community in defense of their civil rights, heroin fell out of favor when it was viewed with good judgment as a way to anesthetize the population. One piece of news that caused surprise in this regard was the complaint by the Black Panthers, in New York, that five traffickers sold a low-priced, high-quality heroin; They were arrested and identified as FBI agents.

Around this time, Dizzy Gillespie recounted: “I was playing at a club in Chicago once and I found one of the musicians with a tie on his arm and a spoon on the table. I fired him immediately; Get out of here right now, ”recalled the trumpeter, who obviously hadn’t developed that kind of awareness when playing with Charlie Parker.



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the ravages of heroin on jazz musicians