West 52nd Street in New York City was once known as the jazz capital of the world. While New Orleans was the birthplace of the art form, West 52nd became a hub for live performances and stylistic innovation between 1927 and 1949. Originally built as a bootlegger’s refuge, The Onyx Club hosted much of the jazz talent during that time, including Billie Holliday, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. If you popped in on a random night you could have heard Charlie smoothing out the room with his saxophone or Dizzy hypnotizing with his trumpet. They moved up and down the block as needed depending on ownership or to avoid prosecution but, even after alcohol prohibition ended in 1934, The Onyx Club and the jazz community faced another hurdle. The freeform style of jazz, its improvisations and tangents and loose attitude, represented a larger culture shift that was viciously opposed by the status quo. This isn’t as widely remembered as the psychedelic era of the late 1960s, but its impact is just as strong.
Around this time, the United States was experiencing immigration growth from within North America. Since the early 1900s, a large influx of Mexican immigrants had been fleeing to the United States looking to escape the fallout of the Mexican Revolution. While not universal, many immigrants brought a deeply rooted culture of marijuana use with them. Up to that point, the United States was familiar with hemp as an industrial good, but the cultivation of pot for recreational use was an established tradition in Central and South American culture. Even if you agree with the flawed idea that drugs should be illegal, it’s impossible to separate the ensuing calls for the drug’s demonization from racism and xenophobia towards Mexican immigrants. Then, weed became associated with jazz.
There’s a lot of speculation as to why this happened, but it was most likely a combination of actual use within the jazz community and calculated propaganda campaigns. The film Reefer Madness, for example, was released in 1936, the same year that Stuff Smith, a New York City violinist and Onyx Club regular, created the song “You’se a Viper”. “You’se a Viper” was recorded at the famous venue and sketches the often forgotten relationship between cannabis and the jazz movement. ‘Viper’ is the term jazz musicians would use to refer to other pot smokers since most people make a hissing noise when inhaling the joint. The term was also found in earlier tracks like Benny Goodman’s “Texas Tea Party” (Texas tea was another code for marijuana).
Anti-drug tycoon and commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (an early version of today’s Drug Enforcement Agency) Harry Anslinger first made cannabis illegal on a federal level in the United States with the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 and he quickly established programs to infiltrate the jazz scene. He even partnered with a cohort doctor, James Munch, to try and justify his mission on medical grounds. Munch is quoted as saying, “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 was famous for pulling whatever information he could to slander cannabis. He kept records called The Gore Files where he pinned every crime imaginable on the plant, cited lines from Homer to claim some kind of poetic authority about the dangers of pot and kept track of jazz musicians in a Marijuana and Musicians section. He no doubt gathered much information on one of the most famous jazz vipers, Louis Armstrong.
This information didn’t come out until close to Armstrong’s death, but he was an avid smoker during his life, especially his early jazz years. There are dozens of anecdotes related to his smoking that still circulate the jazz world. One time, they found a 14.5 gram joint in his wife’s sunglass case that was definitely Louis’. He spent nine days in a Los Angeles jail for smoking after a Culver City performance when the officers were tipped off by a rival musician. According to popular legend, this only made the plant more available to him from fans and supporters. Even his song “Muggles” is meant to be a reference to the therapeutic effects he experienced with marijuana, long before it entered our cultural consciousness with J. K. Rowling.
All of this intersection between jazz and weed makes sense when you think about what kind of music jazz is. It’s the space between notes where musicians take free reign of the sound, not restricting themselves to a note or key. Jazz is the dark, self-aware reflections of Charles Mingus, some of which mirror the familiar paranoia of weed, and the stress melting performances of John Coltrane that are soft enough to sleep to. Jazz combines introspection and relaxation the same way marijuana can and it’s incredible how intertwined their histories are. It’s looking like the future will involve less jail time for jazz musicians, but it’s important to remember the contributions and rebellion of those who were brave enough to push themselves creatively even when it was outlawed.