High Notes: Jazz and Drugs in the 21st Century

Separating the reality from the tired stereotypes

Chet Baker
Billie Holiday
Robert Aaron album cover

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In the days following actor Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death on Feb. 2, headlines flaunted the story of the “jazzman” accused of selling heroin to the actor. Never mind that Robert Vineberg was better known as a session sideman for an array of high-profile pop acts-David Bowie, Mick Jagger, Wyclef Jean-than for any notable contribution to jazz, his sole leader credit (as Robert Aaron) a little-heard 2010 album called Trouble Man. The mere fact that Vineberg played the saxophone was enough for media outlets like the New York Daily News to cast him as a “druggie jazz musician.”

A month later, Hoffman’s life and career were celebrated at the Academy Awards, filmdom’s most important event, without his tragic death seeming to tar the good name of Hollywood. Meanwhile, his alleged source was held up as representative of an art form where he was peripheral at best, the latest poster child for the junkie jazz cat. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that this ‘jazz saxophonist’ was whoever wrote the article’s distant memory of a cliché,” says saxophonist Dave Liebman. “It still persists from Charlie Parker, the perception that those guys up there with the weird hats and the strange music also have strange habits. Of course, they’re also to a large extent African-American.”

Saxophonist Chris Potter began his career playing with Parker’s contemporary Red Rodney, and notes that the trumpeter had long since kicked his own habit, a cleanup reflected in the music as a whole. “I would guess drug use in the jazz scene at present is no higher than in the population at large, and probably even a little lower,” Potter writes via e-mail. “The bebop-era stereotype of the junkie jazz musician has always been unfortunate, irrelevant and more than a little racist, so it’s irksome to see this anachronistic myth trotted out yet again in this isolated and completely unrepresentative case.”

The ever-outspoken trumpeter Nicholas Payton immediately took to his blog, citing the stories as further support for his cause to outlaw the name of “jazz” in favor of “BAM” (Black American Music). “How did the narrative get twisted from one about a deceased actor with an addiction to one about Jazz?” Payton wrote.

Mentioning the Daily News’ references to Charlie Parker, Joe Guy and Billie Holiday, he continued, “Why evoke the names of 3 Black musicians who passed on over half a century ago to tell your story about a White drug dealer and abuser with whom they share little to no association? Did Black people or Jazz musicians invent heroin? Were Blacks the first to do it or bring it into America? And why does it take a celebrated White actor to die for the police to crack down on the supply of contaminated dope that’s been killing folks for weeks?”

In a 2012 story on the BAM controversy for the Philadelphia City Paper, I wrote about Payton and saxophonist Gary Bartz raising the issue of drugs as one of their rationales, saying, “This would seem to be a problem mainly with older listeners; it’s not likely that many would-be younger fans even see the music as hip enough to get mixed up in such scandals.” In my view, it seemed that jazz had become tethered to stodgy concert halls and academic institutions, long detached in the popular perception from its roots in seedy nightclubs. The problem with the general impression of the music was not that it was too low-class but that it was too highbrow, a museum piece seen alongside classical music as musty and cerebral.

Apparently, I may have been overestimating the mass audience’s knowledge of jazz. According to baritone saxophonist Brian Landrus, “I think jazz, by the nature of it, is mysterious to a lot of folks. People don’t necessarily understand what the art form is, and I think the perception of drugs just goes with being a musician. The first image that pops into people’s head is someone who’s strung out, because it was so ingrained in the bebop era.”

The musician, jazz or otherwise, struggling with drug or alcohol addiction is a hoary Hollywood cliché, but as opposed to the more familiar spectrum of pop music, for many Bird or Round Midnight might be their sole exposure to jazz and its history. Even when a biopic’s subject isn’t, strictly speaking, a jazz musician, the association remains: In Ray, it’s the jazz-reared saxophonist David “Fathead” Newman who turns Ray Charles on to heroin. (While both Charles and Newman suffered from addiction, the saxophonist denied introducing Charles to the drug.)

More recently, John Goodman showed up in the Coen brothers’ latest film, Inside Llewyn Davis, as a junkie jazz musician with a penchant for passing out mid-sentence. Each of these films is set at least 50 years in the past, but that remains the era of jazz most celebrated in the popular imagination.

The romance of that era and its drug problems infected the jazz scene itself for years. So many of the genre’s founding fathers were users that it became part of the music’s mythology, and no matter how ugly the reality there was no such thing as an unhappy ending. Those who beat their addictions, like John Coltrane, were redemption stories; those who didn’t, most notably Charlie Parker, became immortalized as tragic seekers. For romanticized figures like Chet Baker and Anita O’Day, it’s nearly impossible to separate the music from the storied decades of addiction and despair.

“When Bird and Trane were using, I think young musicians thought that was part of the path,” says one jazz vocalist who wishes to remain anonymous due to the fact that she has yet to go public with her own decade-long struggle with addiction. Her profile bucks the stereotypical bebop-era image of the junkie jazz musician: white, female, educated, hailing from an affluent and supportive family. She nonetheless became hooked while on the road with a famous older musician who hid his own addiction so well that his name isn’t usually mentioned in the same breath with his more famous addict peers.

“Older black jazz musicians were almost ‘expected’ to be junkies,” the singer writes via e-mail. “Some were; some were not. In fact, there was a badge of honor in a sense: Those who used and then stopped and can talk about ‘those days’ are seen as the real-deal, authentic musicians who lived the life and so forth. … Using heroin does not enhance your playing. Not one little bit. It just so happens that some of the more creative people in the world also have problems with addiction.”

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