Heroin And Lyricism In Jazz

It’s truly a musical conundrum: how and why did so much intensely affecting music come from junkies back in the 1940s and 1950s? We’ll never know what music might have come from tormented addicts like Charlie Parker if their lives hadn’t been consumed and truncated by personal demons.

The fact remains, though, that jazz music of that era was profoundly marked by musicians who were slaves to heroin and other drugs, including alcohol. There was a pernicious idea in the jazz community that heroin use was a door to inspiration. Fortunately that idea’s influence has dwindled in recent decades; partly this has been due to the examples of jazz musicians who have been “clean and sober”, living out their notably longer musical lives and producing great music along the way. Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong come to mind.

Trumpet-player Chet Baker was an intensely lyrical performer as well as a notorious junkie. Here’s a well-written account of Chet’s life and influence in the form of a book review:

The Long Night of Chet Baker

My Funny Valentine was one of Baker’s signature tunes, a little known Rodgers and Hart song which Chet brought into the jazz repertoire. Listen to this moody interpretation, best listened to late at night:

There is another related theory concerning the effects of third-stage syphilis on the literary and artistic productions of nineteenth-century writers and painters. Syphilis was rampant during that period and doctors lacked an understanding of the disease. Prostitutes were the carriers and many young men had their first sexual experiences in the arms of women of the street. Evidently there is a period of mental exaltation just before the body shuts down and severe physical deterioration is followed by an awful death. This is all speculation, of course, as are most historical judgments.

Here’s an interesting quote from the Wikipedia article on syphilis:

The myth of the femme fatale or “poison women” of the 19th century is believed to be partly derived from the devastation of syphilis with classic examples in literature including John Keats’ La Belle Dame sans Merci

Some food for thought!




Filed under Music

2 responses to “Heroin And Lyricism In Jazz

  1. Mark

    I think Charlie Parker had a lot to do with the jazz heroin epidemic of the 40’a and 50’s. Even though he didn’t promote heroin use, his acolytes tried to emulate him. Sadly, they just figured that if Bird did it it must be hip. The current crop of jazz musicians are a pretty sober group.

  2. Larry, thanks for mentioning Chet Baker. Syphilis? Donno.

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