Narcotics and the Jazz Musicians Part One


PLAYBOY: Our purpose, gentlemen, in this first PLAYBOY Panel, is to discuss narcotics addiction and the jazz musician. We might put it another way: to what extent is addiction a special problem of the jazzman? How common is the use of narcotics among musicians, and to what degree is the public attitude a reflection of the facts? We aren’t in search of dogmatic conclusions: rather, we’d like to stimulate thought, to ventilate the subject and let in the light of knowledge and experience – which you men have.

Stan Kenton, you have not only been in the very forefront of advanced big-band jazz since the early Forties, you’ve also been a long-time, articulate spokesman for jazzmen. Vhy don’t you lead off? There are an estimated Sixty thousand drug addicts in this country: how common is narcotics addiction in the jazz field?

KENTON: It exists, of course, and it exists as a very real problem – exactly as it does among other occupational groups jazzmen tend to be mavericks; they are not only non-conformist, they refuse to pretend, to play it safe, to pose as if they are other than they are. And they are on display before the public at their times of greatest tension, when the men who are addicted may feel their greatest need – so the few addicts among them are more readily revealed. But I’d say there is an immense over-emphasis on the degree of addiction among jazzmen.PLAYBOY: Billy Taylor, is a top-ranking pianist with long and wide experience among the modernists, how do You feel about it?

TAYLOR: I’m certain it’s not at all as common as the newspapers would lead you to believe. The addiction of musicians is played up completely out of proportion to their numbers, simply because they’re newsworthy.

PLAYBOY: Duke Ellington, you’ve been a vital part of jazz history since the Twenties – as composer, leader, pianist. Would you say there is some factor – some force – which links drug addiction and the jazz musician?

ELLINGTON: I don’t believe that drug addiction is an occupational hazard.

PLAYBOY: Maxwell T. Cohen, as an attorney who is also Secretary of the Musicians’ Clinic, who is a recognized specialist on narcotics and the law, and who represents many leading musicians and entertainers, what’s your opinion?

COHEN: We know that possibly thirteen percent, and more realistically, twenty percent of the drug addicts in the United States are juveniles. Of the remaining eighty percent we know, again in a general way, doctors are in first place. Next are nurses. Third, housewives. Fourth, professional criminals. Musicians would come possibly around eleventh or twelfth on the list.

PLAYBOY: Let’s hear from Shelly Manne , one of the major influences on drums in contemporary jazz, former associate of Les Brown, Stan Kenton, Woody Herman and a man who’s had many combos of his own. Shelly, do you agree that the segment of the public that automatically associates jazz and dope is greatly misinformed?

MANNE: I do- yet the musician is accessible to the pusher.

TAYLOR: He’s accessible because many of the nightclubs, many of the places in which jazz musicians work, are easily accessible to the people who want to push narcotics.

PLAYBOY: Before we Start tossing this back and forth, let’s hear from another panelist, Jimmv Giuffre – ace reed man, arranger, composer.

GIUFFRE: I’ve been a musician for over thirty years, and I’ve played in clubs all over the country, and all over the world, and no one has ever approached me about this kind of thing in nightclubs. In my opinion, addiction has more to do with a man’s background – his upbringing – than with his occupation.

PLAYBOY: Nat Hentoff is, of course, one of the few serious jazz critics in the world who is admired by musicians as well as jazz fans. Let’s hear from you, Nat.

HENTOFF: Although it’s absurd to make jazz musician synonymous with addict, let’s be practical. There is addiction in the fields. I think that someone here once said that it would be hard to get a big band together of really first-rate talent without having guys with problems.

PLAYBOY: Dizzy Gillespie, your pioneering on trumpet, your leadership of big bands and combos, and your superb musicianship don’t require elaboration here. From your experience, do you think Hentoff’s statement a fair one?

GILLESPIE: I’ve had addicts in my band. Once I was playing in a club in Chicago, and I walked down in the basement and I caught one of my musicians with a tie around his arm and a spoon on the table. I fired him immediately. Immediately! I said, “You get Out of here, get out of here right now!”

ADDERLEY: Maybe he was just going to eat some spaghetti.

PLAYBOY: Well, Diz, you’ve sort of anticipated our tackling another aspect of the problem – how a leader handles addicted musicians – but before we do, it seems apparent, right now, that we’re all generally agreed that being a jazz musician does not presuppose addiction or a special susceptibility to addiction, despite some uninformed opinion to the contrary. It’s probably fair to say, though, that part of that mistaken notion is based on a belief that drugs in some way inspire a musician to play his best. What about that?

ELLINGTON: Since playing an instrument is a matter of skill and coordination, it seems to me that a man’s best performance would be when he had complete control of his faculties.

COHEN: A musician is first of all keeping time down to thirty-seconds of a beat. He is reading music. He is attuned to what the musician next to him is playing. There is manual dexterity involved in playing an instrument. It is impossible for a musician to be that finely coordinated if there is any degree of retardation resulting from alcoholism or drug addiction.

HENTOFF: Are you saying that nobody who’s playing first-rate jazz can be on?

COHEN: I don’t say that. I say that an addict is not coordinating perfectly. He may think he sounds good, but to the auditor, he doesn’t. He is wild, uncoordinated.

PLAYBOY: Nat Adderley is looking a bit troubled. Nat, as a cornet player who’s been involved with jazz since childhood, let’s hear what you have to say.

ADDERLEY: I disagree with Max Cohen. I can’t tell basically-unless it’s a very extreme case of a guy being high- whether he’s been using or not.
COHEN: Is it physically possible for a man tinder the influence of heroin to perform with a group?

PLAYBOY: Cannonball, do you want to answer that?

ADDERLEY: I’m afraid that I have played with many musicians who were stoned out of their minds and played like never before. I wish it were a truism that if a guy were addicted to narcotics, I could say, “Well, he’s high, he can’t play,” but ….

COHEN: I ask Dizzy point blank – is it possible for a musician under the influence of narcotics to play in an ensemble?

GILLESPIE: I think it is. It’s according to the degree of genius in the musician, I think. Because I know some musicians stoned high and they still can play, but I know some musicians who sit down and they’re high and they’re slobbering all over their instruments. I’ve seen a well-known musician under the influence of narcotics – I know he was high because he was nodding and you’d wake him up and he’d start playing and just play, play, play, play, play – and I’ve seen the same musician under the influence of alcohol and I had to call him off, and say, “Look, think about all your fans out there.” He’s dreaming. He’s going around with a fifth of whiskey all the time, and maybe he’s trying to substitute for the drug by drinking the whiskey. He’s playing nothing – absolutely like a beginner – and I know this guy’s a genius.

HENTOFF: In other words, although we’re not advocating the use of drugs, I think the only way to get a useful discussion of this problem is to do away with what ever moralistic myths we can. And one is the myth that if you’re on you can’t coordinate. It’s just not true.

TAYLOR: I worked with Charlie Parker, and Bird said a couple of times in print that he felt some of his worst performances were when he was under the influence of drugs. And I think this is borne out by some of the records that he made – Relaxing at Camarillo and some things like that – and he was in pretty bad condition on some of those records. He was such a sensitive guy, it’s very difficult to understand how he could stay on dope, because he knew it was suicide, that he was killing himself, but his other personal problems were just such that he wasn’t physically or mentally able to stay off.

MANNE: Actually, I think that the reason some musicians do feel better equipped to play, with their addiction, is that, like a lot of people, they feel inferior. I think that taking junk sort of frees them of their inhibitions. And they can get up and feel on equal terms with the people who are listening to them, have more confidence, and open up in their playing. But I don’t think they play better. it’s just their imagination.

GIUFFRE: I’m sure that there has passed through the minds of some immature musicians the idea that some very famous musicians have used drugs, and maybe that was part of their secret. But I think it was coincidental with their greatness.

MANNE: I think that Billie Holiday was great before she was an addict. She would’ve been great if she had not been in addict. I’ve studied junkies when they were stoned, and I’ve studied them when they were straight, and I feel that when they can think clearly and speak coherently, they can perform better.

GIUFFRE: From what I’ve observed, under the influence of any kind of stimulant, there may be high points reached, some kind of a quick inspiration, of abandon, but in the long run I don’t believe that those high points are really that high or that they happen that often. And there are so many low points. I’ve seen musicians so lethargic under the influence of drugs that they tend to be very lax, and don’t have the awareness and sharpness to perform.

PLAYBOY: You all seem to be pretty much agreed, then, that some musicians can play well under the influence of drugs and others can’t, but in general a musician’s quality is not improved by narcotics – although they may give him a sense of self-confidence that he needs to perform. is that a major factor in jazzmen becoming addicts, do you think?

MANNE: Well, a jazz musician has to capture that spontaneity every night, so drug addiction may be a little more predominant among jazz musicians. A studio musician, through his experience and knowledge, can sit down and do a good job even if he doesn’t feel like it that night, and he doesn’t have to produce for, say, five thousand people sitting in an audience looking at him. He’s not constantly creating like a jazz musician.

  TAYLOR: One thing that drives guys either to drink or to dope is the one-nighter. You make impossible jumps. You’re working with big bands – so you work tonight in Bangor, Maine, and you’ve got a one-nighter scheduled right after that gig, and you have to get in the bus and go out to Minneapolis. You’re driving to the gig, and then you’ve got to drive all day and you barely make it in time for the one-nighter. You’ve been sitting up in the bus; the only time you have off is to go to the john or get something to eat, and you’re dirty, you’re sweaty, you’ve got to go right on – and the people are all freshly shaved and freshly showered, all the girls look nice and you feel like a dog. And the spotlight is on you – and you need a shave, you feel terrible, you don’t want to go near anybody because you feel you smell like a ram. And this kind of thing, when you do it night in and night out – it’s understandable why a musician would want to find some “out,” some sort of relief, to make him feel good, too.

Part Two