Heroin And The Age Of Jazz

By Maxim W. Furek, MA, CADC, ICADC

addicted man playing saxophone

Although only a select portion of his repertoire was about drug use, Cab Calloway inscribed  an important footnote to the underbelly of jazz. The film International House captured Calloway performing “Reefer Man” (Brunswick, 1932), a tune about a man who enjoyed marijuana cigarettes. “He smokes a reefer, he gets high, then flies to the sky,” Calloway wailed, and “Minnie The Moocher” (Brunswick, 1930), his best-known song, was the story of “Minnie,” an unfortunate cocaine addict, a “lowdown hoochie-coocher.” The song referenced illicit Chinese opium dens where customers rang the gong that signaled their desire to smoke the dreamy opium pipe and instructed:

She messed around with a bloke named Smokie / She loved him though he was cokey / He took her down to Chinatown / And showed her how to kick the gong around

In retrospect, Calloway’s long and varied career has assumed a larger significance. The Contemporary Black Biography noted that the bandleader offered a fascinating mentorship to both the public and to members of his band:

Although some critics dismissed Calloway as merely an “entertainer,” he made notable contributions to the annals of jazz music and American culture. On one level, Calloway’s music was a savvy, slang filled satire of the drug-crazed, mob-controlled lifestyle, which surrounded the jazz clubs of the period. In this way, Calloway’s songs such as “Minnie the Moocher” and “Reefer Man” gave listeners a candid look into the dark side of jazz without condoning it. In fact, Calloway reportedly fired any band members who were caught with drugs in their possession.

During the Harlem Renaissance (1918 until the mid-1930s), this predominately-black area was an epicenter of musical creativity and heroin. Although some have blamed the jazz culture for heroin addiction, a more rational argument points to the Italian Mafia. Heroin trade proliferated during the jazz-fueled Harlem Renaissance and into the 1960’s and 1970’s. In 1977 Nicky Barnes, believed to be Harlem’s biggest drug dealer, was the leader of a crime syndicate known as ‘The Council.’ According to Aaron Ellis:

Nicky Barnes was connected to the Lucchese Family, another one of the Five Families in New York. The Luccheses, headed by Carmine Tramunti, had access to high quality heroin that was harvested in Turkey, processed in Marseilles, France, and shipped to America. Matthew Madonna of the Luccheses supplied Nicky Barnes with the primo French heroin. From there, it flooded into the streets of Harlem. This Turkish-French-American drug expressway was known as ‘The French Connection.’

Even before the French Connection, the jazz-heroin connection was graphically made in Nelson Algren’s 1949 novel, The Man With The Golden Arm. The controversial best seller rejected the oft-used ‘dope fiend’ label, common in pulp fiction, and depicted heroin as a serious literary topic. The Man With The Golden Arm, a gritty black-and-white film adaptation, was the first of its kind to tackle the issue of illicit drug use. A youthful Frank Sinatra played the role of addicted card shark Johnny Machine. The ‘golden arm’ designation referred to his card playing abilities, not the track marks on his arms. Because it dealt with the taboo subject of narcotics, Hollywood’s Production Code refused to grant a seal of approval for the film. The 1955 film predated other commercially successful heroin themed films such as Pulp Fiction, Traffic, and Trainspotting.

Jazz clarinetist Artie Shaw declared, “Jazz was born out of a whiskey bottle, was raised on marijuana and will expire on cocaine.” Shaw witnessed a time when drug use entered the jazz domain. Best known for his recording of Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine”(Bluebird, 1938), one of the defining songs of the era, Shaw knew that drug use and addiction were copasetic with avantgarde jazz. So did Miles Davis. In his autobiography, Miles, Davis discussed the prevalence of heroin. He wrote:

There was a lot of dope around the music scene and a lot of musicians were deep into drug, especially heroin. People– musicians–were considered hip in some circles if they shot smack. Some of the younger guys like Dexter Gordon, Tadd Dameron, Art Blakey, J. J. Johnson, Sonny Rollins, Jackie McLean, and myself–all of us–started getting heavily into heroin around the same time. Despite the fact that Freddie Webster had died from some bad stuff. Besides Bird (Charlie Parker), Sonny Stitt, Bud Powell, Fats Navarro, Gene Ammons were all using heroin, not to mention Joe Guy and Billie Holiday, too. There were a lot of white musicians–Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan, Red Rodney, and Chet Baker–who were also heavily into shooting drugs.

Some musicians believed that heroin would make them play better, like their hero, alto sax player Charlie Parker. But ‘Bird,’ who suffered with morphine and heroin addiction, sadly died at the age of 34. Australian educator David Stewart acknowledges the influence that Parker, a major “bee bop” contributor, had on his fervent disciples. He wrote of the resultant fascination:

A lot of Jazz musicians did heroin because of Charlie Parker. Bird was hugely admired and influential in the Jazz scene, particularly among Be-bop musicians. He was the guy they all looked up to and he and Dizzy Gillespie had the greatest band in the world.

Parker did heroin because he did pretty much everything. He got hooked on heroin but it didn’t seem to affect his playing at all. He could still play incredibly well with a drug habit and there were some who even believed it enhanced his playing.

Jazz and heroin share a long history. Physical and psychological pain was an organic part of jazz. Repetitive movements of drummers and horn players, and musicians standing and dancing for hours, resulted in back pain and wrist injuries. Alcohol, opium, and heroin temporarily blotted out the hurt, the penultimate step before addiction. Feelings of  depression and low self-esteem were part and parcel of the job, the blues a realistic state of mind. Black musicians dwelled in an era of segregation, second-class citizenship, and limited opportunity and were often financially exploited by managers and promoters. In many venues, like Harlem’s Cotton Club, only upper-class white clientele were allowed to attend concerts performed by black musicians. As Cab Calloway described in a 1990 Chicago Tribune interview,

Very few Negroes came in unless they were working there. They weren’t welcome and had to know somebody to get in. The key to survival was keeping focused on doing your thing. You tried to concentrate on your performance and tried to forget that there were hardly any blacks in the audience.

Jazz guitarist Brent Vaartstra offered a further theory about heroin. He concluded that artists, constantly seeking new experiences, have an incredible sense of curiosity, which drove them into taking their life experiences into higher and different levels:

Artists are pleasure seekers. Sure, everybody is a pleasure seeker, but remember that artists can be particularly indulgent. They want to feel something different, be something different so that maybe they can get a different result. They are secretly hoping for a mind opening experience that will change their perception of reality. Creative minds are never satisfied with normality. They are always seeking stimulation in any way, shape, or form. For some though, this desire for adventure manifests itself in seeking out substances as a means to satisfy that craving.

Legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday provided jazz’ final epitaph. As she lay dying at New York’s Metropolitan Hospital, she was arrested by members of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, placed under police guard, and handcuffed for drug possession. She received the last rites of the Roman Catholic Church and, two days later, on July 17, 1959, died. Her death was attributed to pulmonary edema and heart failure caused by cirrhosis of the liver. Her life was immortalized in the film Lady Sings The Blues and in the U2 song “Angel of Harlem” (Island Records, 1988).

Numerous books and motion pictures have traced the hardships of Charlie Parker, Ray Charles, and Billie Holiday, extraordinarily gifted musicians representative of the relationship between heroin and the black music community. Cab Calloway also needs to be in that number, but for a dramatically different reason. Calloway was among the fortunate ones. He was one of the twentieth century’s most popular performers, and one of the first to challenge racial barriers. Calloway expanded the discussion, raised the awareness, and brought about a change.

Cab Calloway challenged the stereotype of the addicted jazz musician, instructing us that not everyone succumbed to the seduction of the poppy. He deftly sidestepped heroin and cocaine, and, although he sang about Chinese opium dens and “Minnie the Moocher,” served notice that he wouldn’t be “kickin’ the gong around.”

Maxim W. Furek has a rich background that includes aspects of psychology, addictions, mental health and music journalism. His book The Death Proclamation of Generation X: A Self-Fulfilling Prophesy of Goth, Grunge and Heroin explores the dark marriage between grunge music and the beginning of the opioid crisis. Learn more at shepptonmyth.com