STORIES

A Brief History of Cannabis and Jazz

By Christopher Rhine on September 23, 2017

“Time appears of an unmeasurable length. Between two ideas clearly conceived, there are an infinity of others undetermined and incomplete, of which we have a vague consciousness, but which fill you with wonder at their number and their extent. With hashish the notion of time is completely overthrown. The moments are years, and the minutes are centuries; but I feel the insufficiency of language to express this illusion, and I believe, that one can only understand it by feeling it for himself." — Dr. Charles Richet in 1877.

The Club des Hashischins had its final meeting around the same time this Nobel Prize-winning doctor was born in Paris, but cannabis remained en vogue for many in the French artistic class. The French started experimenting with hashish after Napoleon conquered Egypt at the end of the 18th century and his troops came in contact with the plant. Many French "scientists" began giving patients hashish, among many other Eastern drugs, and the above quote describes Dr. Richet’s observations. More than half a century later and half a world away, a new set of observations were made by arch prohibitionist Harry Anslinger and his associate Dr. James Munch, who less elegantly claimed, "After two puffs on a marijuana cigarette, I was turned into a bat." 

In talking about cannabis and music, the wannabe Batman stated, "Because the chief effect [of marijuana] as far as [jazz musicians] were concerned was that it lengthens the sense of time, and therefore they could get more grace beats into their music than they could if they simply followed the written copy… In other words, if you’re a musician, you’re going to play the thing the way it’s printed on a sheet. But if you’re using marijuana, you’re going to work in about twice as much music between the first note and the second note. That’s what made jazz musicians. The idea that they could jazz things up, liven them up, you see."

Anslinger is one of the most notorious names in cannabis history as the founding head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN), a precursor to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). While commissioner, Anslinger drafted the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, which created the first national prohibition on cannabis. Anslinger and Munch’s statements on the slowing-of-time effect completely contrasts the autobiographical accounts of Mezz Mezzrow, a clarinetist and notably the most famous cannabis dealer of Harlem. (His cannabis, which originated in Central and South America, was much better than the local North American variety.)

“The phrases seemed to have more continuity to them,” Mezzrow reminisced. “With my loaded horn I could take all the first-swinging, evil things in the world and bring them together in perfect harmony, speaking peace and joy and relaxation to all the keyed-up and punchy people, everywhere.” 

The "keyed-up and punchy people" he referred to are other bands and groups of hop-heads who drink till they're punch-drunk, which was a point of amusement for all the mellow vipers (early jazz stoners).

One of the most famous vipers and founders of modern jazz, Louis Armstrong, told biographers about his life-long use of gage. One particular situation involves drummer Vic Berton in a parking lot during the intermission of a Hollywood show in 1931, which transpired as follows:

Armstrong passes Berton a joint, they giggle and Berton takes a drag. "We’ll take the roach boys," the voice protrudes from a detective as he and his partner walk around a car. The vipers stay quiet and stare for now. "Don’t worry, you can finish your show." Armstrong is escorted into the building by the detective and finishes the full set… the detective digs the show.

At the police station, the detective remarks, "Armstrong I am a big fan of yours and so is my family. We catch your program every night over the radio. In fact, nobody goes to bed in our family until your program’s over. And they’re all great." 

Armstrong sighs with relief and responds in his hoarse voice, "Since you and your family are my fans they’d be awfully sad if anything drastic would happen to me, the same as the other thousands of my fans. So please don’t hit me in my chops." 

"Why, I wouldn’t think of anything like that," the detective finishes. That’s all Armstrong wanted to hear… in that moment he knew the punishment wouldn't be bad.

Later on, Armstrong claimed, "After all I’m no criminal. I respect everybody and they respect me. And I never let ‘em down musically." 

"Hell," the detective replies, "you ain’t doing any more ‘n’ anybody’s doing. It’s when they get caught is when they’re found out."

After getting to the station, the officers are all glad to see Armstrong because of his musician-celebrity status. He only spent nine days in city jail over the matter, probably much to Anslinger’s disgust.

Around the same time as Armstrong’s arrest, Anslinger begins his Marijuana and Musicians file after hearing reports of the connection between the two. This dossier is loaded with information on different musicians and their arrests and reports, and the idea came for a nationwide crackdown on jazz musicians using all aforementioned sources. It was planned for the summer of 1943 but ultimately failed because of the inability of the bureau to infiltrate music groups and spot dealers. 

Was it really that hard to find Mezzrow?

The motivations behind this nationwide sweep is multifaceted. Popular history suggests Anslinger and his goons were motivated by racism, which no doubt was an issue in the Jim Crow south where many jazz musicians were born and raised. Another possible motivation, as mentioned above by Dr. Munch, is that Anslinger disliked the improvisation and fast tempo in jazz. This is clearly a deflection by Dr. Munch considering every new musical genre that appears—rock, rap, punk, metal, etc.—is essentially despised by the older generation for similar reasons, and it's a way for the younger generation to rebel and form a resistant counter-culture.

The reality likely involved a mixture of both. Jazz in the 1920s and 1930s created a first in American culture, i.e., white youth idolizing black artists on a large scale. This must have twisted the older generation to no end; and interestingly enough, this continues today with rap. Anslinger essentially wanted to be the savior of the youth—the 1930s were a very fertile time for youth influences around the world—with his nationwide anti-cannabis sweep. It essentially gave him the motivation to allocate near-unlimited resources in his campaign, just like his friend Joseph McCarthy did in the late 1940s and early 1950s trying to root out Communism. 

By 1949, Anslinger made one last push for the big jazz musician crackdown after almost two decades of failure. His right-hand enforcer, Malachi Harney, was given $160,000 and 300 agents to do undercover work in "ghettos" around the country and find the sellers. Again, they failed. In March 1949, Anslinger testified in front of the Ways and Means Appropriations Committee for his proposed 1950 budget, and he stated bluntly, “I think the traffic has increased in marihuana, and unfortunately particularly among the young people. We have been running into a lot of traffic among these jazz musicians, and I am not speaking about the good musicians, but the jazz type.”

It is interesting to note that he brings up the youth immediately (akin to Nixon and Reagan evoking the youth in their subsequent War on Drug campaigns), as if to influence the committees mood on the subject before discriminating against jazz musicians. This sentiment received some 15,000 protest letters from jazz artists and fans for playing fast and loose with calling out jazz musicians as the bad ones in opposition to the good (read: white) musicians.

Anslinger failed to receive his higher budget, failed to infiltrate jazz musician circles and failed to be the crusader against the propagators of popular youth subculture. Although the world still suffers the remnants of his campaign against cannabis all these decades later, he never got what he apparently wanted in terms of curtailing jazz music. 

After all, did Anslinger ever care to understand why or how jazz musicians came to celebrate and spread cannabis? Probably not. 

Smokable cannabis first emerged on a large scale in the southwest, but a scene emerged in New Orleans and eventually spread to Harlem, marking a geographic outlier. Sebastian Marincolo believes jazz musicians gravitated to cannabis for its relieving powers, which helped the many artists who suffered trauma in their upbringing. 

Louis Armstrong never knew his father because his mother was a prostitute in the New Orleans red light district, Storyville, also the place where jazz was born. He was arrested multiple times in his youth, and the juvenile facility he attended is where he learned to play wind instruments. Bessie Smith was an orphan at age nine and worked on street corners during her childhood. Billie Holiday, almost raped when just 11, eventually became a prostitute in Harlem at 14. These artists are all tried and true vipers, not criminals, who made a name for themselves while trudging through the post-apocalyptic wasteland of black history in the U.S.

Peter Webster had a different theory in his 2001 "Marijuana and Music" study in the Journal of Cannabis Therapeutics. He wrote, "A reading of personal reflections about the use of marijuana by jazzmen of the time indicates that the herb was often used as a stimulus to creativity, at least for practice sessions, many such as Louis Armstrong praising its effects highly."

The researcher also suggested that "the fairly small community of jazz musicians of the time" was more like a family that "constantly practiced together, brainstormed together, performed together, and smoked marijuana together. As a cumulative effect, it is my contention that the practiced use of cannabis provides a cognitive training that assists and accentuates the improvisational, creative frame of mind much as other kinds of study or training shape abilities and perfect talents…. Over time, the kind of perception and thinking initiated by cannabis leads one to be generally more open to alternative and perhaps adventurous ways of seeing things which enrich normal consciousness."

The connection between jazz and cannabis is likely multifold, but a musician's quote in the 1993 Lester Grinspoon and James Bakalar book Marihuana: The Forbidden Medicine pretty much sums it all up: "Over the years marijuana has served as a creative stimulant to my work as a performer and my more occasional inspirations as a composer…. Melodic and rhythmic ideas just pop into my head during relaxed and happy moments—'points of creative release'—and these seminal ideas are formed into whole compositions."

If cannabis played a creative role in the roots of jazz, the music world owes the plant a giant thank you.

Inline photo credits: Flickr/Ed and Flickr/Appleando.

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