Jazz, Six Feet Under: The Forensic Research of Dr. Frederick Spencer

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Kim Love

With C.S.I. pulling the highest ratings in network television and Six Feet Under garnering a coffin-load of awards, the fascination of the American public for stories about death seems insatiable. So it should come as no surprise that someone came up with the idea to write a book about death in the world of jazz.

Actually,I came up with the idea,but that’s another story entirely.

Many years ago, I had envisioned a lurid, almost campy coffee-table book, like something from John Waters’ living room. Dr. Frederick Spencer,a retired professor of medicine,chose an entirely different approach for his book: a veritable medical journal of death in the jazz world. Jazz and Death: Medical Profiles of Jazz Greats (University Press of Mississippi) is the result of over four years of careful research, and it’s a somber and serious tome. My book, on the other hand, remains a snarky and demented idea destined never to happen.

Nonetheless, I felt compelled to learn more about my victorious rival in the book publishing world. Dr. Spencer turned out to be a genial chap who came to America many years ago from Great Britain to study medicine. “My wife says jazz is what brought me to the United States. I don’t argue with her.” A lifelong traditional jazz fan and amateur drummer, Spencer was inspired to do the book because of the remarkable forensic work done on the great classical composers. For instance, we now know that Mozart likely died from rotten pork.

Welcome to the exciting world of historical forensics!

Organized according to maladies, Spencer’s book goes alphabetically through 23 causes-from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (the degenerative illness which destroyed Charles Mingus) to viral disease (Oscar Pettiford’s demise). Along the way, the 79-year old Spencer debunks a few myths, including that Scott Joplin died of a nervous collapse (it was syphilis) and that Bessie Smith was turned away from a white hospital (simply not so). And he sheds new and rather graphic light on the deaths of legends Billie Holiday, Lester Young and Charlie Parker.

Although some of the material seems ripe for dark humor,Spencer’s tone is serious and even clinical. “Yes, some reviewers said the book had a morbid tone,but you can’t talk about disease and death without being morbid. I was pretty straightforward and clinical, but I felt I should be. I am a doctor.”

At least there are some surprise endings in the book,including the unfortunate Clarence Brereton, who died of mumps, and the equally unlucky Walter Barnes,who perished with his band and 200 audience members in a nightclub fire. Most of the endings were of a more mundane sort,however.

Other than mortality, Jazz and Death’s consistent theme is poor medical care and overall neglect of good health, primarily through substance abuse. There just don’t seem to be many jazz musicians before 1960 who didn’t abuse substances of one kind or another,and tales of drug and alcohol misuse absorb nearly one-quarter of the book. To paraphrase what Quincy Jones once said about the Lionel Hampton band,there were four groups: potheads,juicers,junkies or church people. Or take it from Earl Hines, who handled the tragic death of sideman Cecil Irwin (their band bus was hit by a truck) in typical jazz fashion: “I drank two bottles of the hardest whisky I could find, and it didn’t faze me.”

Befitting his background in public health, Spencer not so subtly points to alcohol and tobacco as lethal weapons in the hands of jazz musicians over the years. And the 79-year old Spencer even makes an argument for the legalization of marijuana, in the least for medical reasons. AIDS is noticeably absent from the causes of death. Spencer said it just didn’t come up in his research.

Lest anyone think that Spencer went around exhuming bodies and doing DNA testing on,say,Eddie Lang’s tonsils, he clarified that he stuck to the official death certificates, combined with good old-fashioned journalistic research. “Medical records on most of the older people have long since been destroyed. And very few autopsies were conducted anyway.”

There have been many mysterious deaths in jazz, including Glenn Miller, Eric Dolphy,Albert Ayler,Chet Baker and Bessie Smith. Spencer solves quite a few, but leaves many in question. As Spencer talked excitedly about the possibility of further clarifying the death of Jimmie Lunceford, it became obvious that there are even more mysteries left to solve,yet he says there will be no sequel from him. How about a sequel on rock deaths? Or blues deaths? Plenty of great material there:plane crashes,overdoses, poisonings,knifings and shootings. “No,it took me 4 to 5 years to research,write and edit this one. I won’t do another one.”

Hmm. I have to call my literary agent,as soon as I find one.

Reading this book does make one ponder one’s own ending. If I were a jazz musician, I know how I would like to die: like Doc Cheatham. The legendary trumpeter supposedly played two great sets at a jazz club in Washington,D.C.,went back to his hotel,ordered a first-class meal and died in his sleep at the age of 91.

I asked Spencer how he would like to die. “Quickly,”he said.

Amen, brother.