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Book Tells True Stories of Jazz and Death

Tired of all those jazz history books that tell the same old story? Looking for something morbid to do on a Sunday afternoon? How about researching the deaths of your favorite jazz musicians?

In his forthcoming book, Jazz and Death: Medical Profiles of Jazz Greats, Dr. Frederick J. Spencer clears up the mysteries surrounding the deaths of several jazz legends. “The careers of many jazz musicians may have been accurately documented, but accounts of their illnesses and deaths often vary and lack conviction,” Spencer says. By examining the medical records of jazz luminaries such as Scott Joplin, Tommy Dorsey, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Ronnie Scott and others, Spencer reveals the true causes behind their passings.

For example, in the Complete Idiot’s Guide to Jazz, Scott Joplin is said to have “suffered a total nervous collapse in 1911 and was ultimately consigned to an insane asylum in 1916. A year later, he was dead.” The real story, however, is quite different. “Joplin’s nervous collapse was syphilis and was far from total in 1911. He was not admitted to a hospital until 1917, and then died within two months.”

Jazz and Death is divided into disease categories and covers illnesses such as ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease), which killed Charles Mingus, and tuberculosis, which both Charlie Christian and Fats Navarro died of.

Spencer, who is a professor and associate dean at the School of Medicine at Virginia Commonwealth University, also discusses how dental disease could affect a musician’s embouchure and in turn their career. Ailments such as blindness and drug and alcohol addiction are also covered. In addition to medical records, information is culled from death certificates, forensics, and biographies.

For more information about Jazz and Death, visit www.upress.state.ms.us/catalog/spring2002/jazz_and_death.html.

Originally Published