Misc. Jazz Related Topic

Don’t Bogart That Joint

As Maryland voters have recently legalized recreational marijuana, it seems propitious to take a look back at the historical pot prohibition and its impact on the jazz community. While the smoke-filled rooms of nightclubs in 20th century cities like New Orleans, Chicago and New York shaped the contours of  jazz, America’s only indigenous art form, it was the furtive backroom smoke of weed that became a distorting presence.

Although Thomas Edison patented the phonograph in 1878, its commercial viability awaited a popular music that was to arrive a generation later, courtesy of rhythmic innovations such as the ragtime of Scott Joplin (1868-1917) and the blues of W.C. Handy (1873-1958). Out of this primordial mix of African beats and European scales emerged a sort of Prometheus–Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong, who metaphorically stole a heavenly trumpet from the music gods and gave it to men. Jazz was born.

Marijuana use became a common, if hidden, part of this jazz milieu. The general public might never have known that Satchmo and other high-profile jazz musicians smoked pot if it had not been for Armstrong’s very public trial. In Louis: The Louis Armstrong Story, 1900-1971 (1971), Max Jones and John Chilton give a cultural context for “Satchmo’s” 1931 arrest and conviction for marijuana possession: “Tea, muggles, reefers, and a dozen more names for marijuana were common parlance among jazz musicians and friends who were ‘vipers.’ This word has a period ring today, but was much used (as was the tea) in some jazz circles during the ’30s.”

Moreover, “Satchmo” made an unrepentant confession to his biographers: “We did call ourselves Vipers, which could have been anybody from all walks of life that smoked and respected gage. That was our cute little name for marijuana, and it was a misdemeanor in those days. Much different from the pressure and charges the law lays on a guy who smokes pot– a later name for the same thing.”

Bluntly speaking, prejudices animate the law. With the “moral crusade” apparatus attending the noisy, failed attempt at alcohol prohibition already set up, a shift from demon rum to demon pot took place. Two events signaled the change: Reefer Madness, Hollywood’s 1936 anti-pot propaganda film, and the ascendancy of Harry Anslinger, a J. Edgar Hoover look-alike who masterminded the formation of the old Federal Bureau of Narcotics. He led that agency’s anti-pot inquisition for decades.

“Since the early 1930s,” Martin Torgoff’s Bop Apocalypse: Jazz, Race, the Beats & Drugs (2016) informs us, “Anslinger has directed the Narcotics Bureau to keep a file on jazz musicians that would come to be known as the ‘Marijuana and Musicians’ file.” Torgoff continues, “Anslinger considered it his personal mission to go after musicians, dreaming of a large-scale national roundup of ‘teahound’ jazz musicians that would result in stiff prison sentences and a windfall of publicity.”

According to Torgoff, “In addition to Louis Armstrong, the file came to include the likes of Les Brown, Thelonious Monk, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Dizzie Gillespie, Jimmy Dorsey, Lionel Hampton, Billie Holiday and many others.”

Surely, Anslinger must have noticed Mezz Mezzrow (1899-1972), a curious figure in jazz history. He played a Dixieland style clarinet and collaborated with the meteoric cornet sensation Bix Beiderbecke (1903-1931) along with other Chicago devotees of the seminal New Orleans Rhythm Kings.

In his autobiography, Really the Blues (1946), Mezzrow reveals the camouflage whereby he deflected prying eyes because this associate of “Satchmo” was also a notorious Harlem pot merchant. He spoke in a mysterious hipster patois, a slang that referred to the likes of Mezzrow as “gray;” that is, a white guy who identifies as black.

As with many subcultures, the use of marijuana engendered its own lexicon of slang. Imagine Anslinger, the priggish “knocker,” attempting to make sense of Mezzrow’s following biographical passage:

Second Cat: Hey Mezzie, lay some of that hard-cuttin’ mess on me. I’m short a deuce of blips but I’ll straighten you later.

Me: Righteous gizz, you’re a poor boy but a good boy– now don’t come up crummy.

Second Cat: Never no crummy, chummy. I’m gonna lay a drape under the trey of knockers for Tenth Street and I’ll be on the scene wearing the green.”


Second Cat: Hello Mezz, give me some of that marihuana that makes all the others look silly. I’m short ten cents but I’ll pay you later.

Me: O.K., gizzard, you’re poor but you’re honest– now don’t disappoint me. [Gizzard has a subtle overtone here: a gizzard is stuffed, and “stuff” means jive or kidding in hip talk, so the implication is: don’t kid me, make sure that you pay me.]

Second Cat: I never lie, friend. I’m going to bring a suit to the pawnshop to raise ten dollars, and I’ll show up with some money.”

By legalizing recreational marijuana– a sea change– Maryland voters have defanged the officious Harry Anslingers among us. The permissive pot vote emphatically affirmed philosopher David Hume’s skeptical moral maxim: “Is” does not imply “ought.” That is, just because marijuana WAS illegal, it didn’t follow that it SHOULD be illegal. A new social experiment begins. Will legalized pot have a positive impact on a disjointed, so to speak, 21st century jazz scene? High hopes abound.

Gregory L. Lewis is a longtime Baltimore attorney whose jazz reflections frequently appear under the Caton Castle’s “show review” tab at catoncastle.com and at reflectionscatoncastle.blogspot.com.

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