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June 10, 2005

Zenga Longmore on Post-war America, Jazz and Heroin

Posted by Zenga Longmore

After the Second World War, the image of the happy-go lucky jazz musician undertook a horrific transformation. No longer did the world associate jazz with jollity and Fats Waller-style wit. By the late forties, the idea of a jazz player was that of a tortured heroin addict. Headlines such as Hey Ho Billie Holiday Arrested Again on Narcotics Charge sprinkled the headlines of the daily newspapers. One wonders what triggered this bleak state of affairs.

King Heroin hit Harlem during the late nineteen forties at a time when the area was no longer the fashionable haunt of society folk. The Harlem Renaissance was on the wane, and negritude had long since ceased to be in vogue. Drug pushers targeted jazz musicians who were notoriously highly-strung people, partial to the odd stimulant to combat their nerves. Billie Holiday was frequently approached by heroin dealers in her dressing room just before a show. The contents of the needles, she was assured, would alleviate her crippling anxieties.

Some believe that the sudden spate of heroin was a conspiracy planned by the FBI to devastate the lives of Harlem's black inhabitants. It is certainly true that narcotics agents in New York, such as Jimmy Fletcher (who arrested Billie Holiday in 1947) supplied his informers with enormous quantities of drugs. The informers, or drug peddlers, presumed Jimmy was one of their own kind. Jimmy once boasted that at one time he was carrying a hundred ounces of heroin.

Many musicians were pressurized into taking heroin, such as Carl Drinkard, Count Basie's piano player. Drinkard's downward spiral into junkie-dom began in 1952 during an evening with the sinister Miles Davis. After teasing the innocent Drinkard for being a square, Davis insisted he try heroin. Drinkard lamented, twenty tears later:

Miles Davis put that needle in my arm and helped me wreck my life.
Too many of the great jazz musicians' lives were wrecked in this way, including those of Charlie Parker, Fats Navarro, Chet Baker, Stan Getz and Bill Evans. As Red Rodney, a trumpeter, said:
Heroin became the thing that made us different from the rest of the world. It was the thing that gave us membership in a unique club.
After the Second World War, the African Americans who returned from Europe alive experienced the bitterness of knowing that they had fought for democratic freedom in Europe but nothing had changed at home. The pianist Sammy Price put it in this way:
The crazy racial discrimination thing happening in America at that time was too damn painful for many of us to bear stone cold sober.
This was certainly true for Billie Holiday. Although Billie obviously had more Irish than African blood, she received death threats for being seen with white men. Orson Welles hurriedly dropped her after receiving threatening phone calls. The white men she loved (or at least had affairs with) cut her dead if they saw her in public. When she was booked to perform at white hotels, a porter would usher her through the tradesmen's entrance. She was ordered to use the staff lift, to walk up the back stairs and was prohibited from using the rest-rooms. Of course, she could not sit at the bar and chat to her fans. For a woman of Billie's sensitivity and dignity, this caused her unimaginable agony.

Holiday's treatment by the police beggars belief. Narcotics agent Colonel White admitted that the idea of persecuting Billie was hatched because:
Billie Holiday was a name, and we wanted to get some publicity... [The idea of arresting her was] a sudden inspiration to polish her off, to kick her over.
When the narcotics agents entered her apartment, Billie was ordered to strip while the two male agents stared at her.

Holiday was not a drug-pusher; in fact she vehemently discouraged people from taking heroin. She was harming no one but herself, yet she was humiliated by the police and thrown in prison to generate "good publicity" for the narcotics department. Meanwhile, the drug dealers plied their trade openly and without fear - as long as they paid the necessary bribes.

Another reason jazz musicians may have wanted to blot out the world around them was their loneliness. When young and unrecognised, talented musicians were able to "jam" together, inspiring one another's confidence. Unfortunately, club owners could not afford to employ more than one celebrity jazz musician at a time, so as the jazzmen grew ever more famous, they found themselves working with inexperienced musicians with whom they had little in common. Travelling on the road and staying in bleak "black only" hotel rooms was a dismal experience, especially in the Deep South, where they were barred from eating in most café's and restaurants.

Perhaps the main cause of the Great Despondency amongst the jazz players was that they dwelt in a country in which all forms of African American music were considered horribly lowbrow. At best jazz was thought of as a background noise to encourage dancing and drinking. At worst it was regarded as a corrupting influence on the morals of society. In Europe, however, jazz musicians were deemed artistes of the highest calibre. Sidney Bechet was placed on the same intellectual pedestal in France as Sartre and Picasso. One can understand why so many black Americans made their home in Paris. One can also appreciate their desire to use artificial means to shut out the 1950s American world around them.

Zenga Longmore writes for The Spectator, The Oldie, and The Daily Telegraph. She is an actress and blues singer and the author of Tap-taps To Trinidad. To read her previous pieces on jazz for the Social Affairs Unit, see Jazz.

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Very good article. Very informing. Before reading it I thought bebop was invented out of anxiety and drug use and meant decadence of jazz. After reading the article, I was convinced that Bebop was only hindered by drugs and was pure in its origins. Thank you.

Posted by: Simon at July 12, 2006 07:27 AM

It is well known heroin is a drug designed for poor people and there were almost no money in the Jazz business back in ’52. Unfortunately too many great names were lost thanks to this particularly drug.

Posted by: narconon at April 10, 2008 06:08 PM
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