There was a lot of dope around the music scene and a lot of musicians were deep into drug, especially heroin. People--musicians--were considered hip in some circles if they shot smack. Some of the younger guys like Dexter Gordon, Tadd Dameron, Art Blakey, J. J. Johnson, Sonny Rollins, Jackie McLean, and myself--all of us--started getting heavily into heroin around the same time. Despite the fact that Freddie Webster had died from some bad stuff. Besides Bird, Sonny Stitt, Bud Powell, Fats Navarro, Gene Ammons were all using heroin, not to mention Joe Guy and Billie Holiday, too.There were a lot of white musicians--Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan, Red Rodney, and Chet Baker--who were also heavily into shooting drugs.
-Miles Davis in "Miles: the autobiography", page 129
Jazz and heroin have an interesting relationship that I will attempt to explore here. First off, I will talk about the heroin addictions of three prominent jazz musicians: Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday and Miles Davis. After giving a survey of each musician's habit, I will then try to determine what affect their addiction had on their music. Finally, I will explore my thoughts about the reasons for their addictions.
Anyway, all these people kept coming by and Bird would disappear into the bathroom with a dope dealer and come out an hour or two later. In the mean time, everybody was sitting around, waiting on Bird to finish his nap. Then, he would come back all fucked up and shit. But after Bird got high, he just played his ass off.
-Miles Davis in "Miles: the autobiography", pg 76
The most talked about case of heroin addiction in the jazz world is that of Charlie Parker. Parker's addiction is unique in its duration and intensity. It is also unique in that it was incredibly high profile and had a ripple effect through jazz circles. Miles Davis said that "the idea was going around that to use heroin might make you play as great as Bird." In the mid-forties, the man to emulate in jazz was Parker. Young musicians trying to make it big were often under the impression that the best way to achieve the success that Parker enjoyed was to imitate him, musically and otherwise. This meant that in many jazz circles, the thing to do if you wanted people to think you were hip was to shoot heroin. That was the case at many of the after hours jam sessions where Bebop was incubated. It was in this way, Parker passed his addiction on to an entire generation of jazz artists.
When Parker was in his late teens he was in an automobile accident with his first wife. He began using heroin shortly after that to control the pain from injuries he sustained. He quickly became addicted to the drug and he dealt with that addiction for nearly two decades until his death in 1955.
Parker occasionally went without heroin, whether by choice or lack of availability. One such time was in 1946. Parker and Dizzy Gillespie traveled to California in December of 1945. Parker decided to stay and Dizzy returned to New York. Parker had only one source of heroin in Los Angeles at the time. When his dealer was arrested, Parker turned to heavier and heavier drinking. The lack of the drugs his body was accustomed to and the excess of alcohol began to affect his mental health. On June 29th 1946 a severely intoxicated Parker set fire to the bed in his hotel room and left the building bereft of clothing. He was arrested and ended up spending six months in Camarillo State Mental Hospital. While there, he received shock treatment. He was released in January of 1947 and returned to New York in March.
The last time I saw her alive was when she came down to Birdland where I was playing in early 1959. She asked me to give her some money to buy some heroin and I gave her what I had. I think it was about a hundred dollars.
-Miles Davis in "Miles: the autobiography", page 235
Billie Holiday's heroin addiction was very similar to Parker's. She was a frequent user of heroin for over a decade and it was most likely responsible for her death. She spent time in jail more than once for heroin possession.
Holiday's heroin use is commonly linked to her second husband Joe Guy, whom she married in 1943. In 1947 she was arrested and charged with possession of heroin. She was sentenced to 8 months in prison. After she was released, she continued the downhill trajectory of drug and alcohol abuse.
In 1959 Holiday was placed under arrest while on her death bed for possession of heroin. She died on July 17th 1959 at the age of 44. She was undergoing treatment for kidney failure at the time as a result of drug and alcohol abuse.
"What do you mean, a habit?" I said.
Matinee told me, "Your nose is running, you got chills, you weak. You got a motherfucking habit, nigger." Then he bought me some heroin in Queens. I snorted the stuff Matinee copped for me and I felt just fine. My chills went away, my nose stopped running and I didn't feel weak no more.
I continued my snorting by when I saw Matinee again, he said, "Miles, don't waste that little money on getting some to snort, because you still gonna be sick. Go on and shoot it, then you'll feel much better." That was the beginning of a four-year horror show.
-Miles Davis in "Miles: the autobiography", page 132
Miles Davis was introduced to heroin by Gene Ammons, who was in a band with him. At first he snorted it but eventually he moved to actually using it intravenously.
In 1950, Davis, Bird, Art Blakey and Dexter Gordon were in Los Angeles at the end of a tour. On their way to the airport, Blakey decided to stop off and get some drugs from someone he knew. After acquiring drugs, they were followed to the airport by the police and busted. Davis called his father from jail who contacted a family friend in Los Angeles who sent a lawyer around to get him out. Down Beat magazine did a major article on drugs ruining the jazz scene which talked about the drug bust. The article resulted in Davis being locked out of a lot of clubs. In January of 1951 Davis was acquitted, though he still had some problems with performing in certain places.
Eventually, Davis asked his father for bus fare back home. Davis returned to his father's home and got off of heroin. After suffering through withdrawal, he set off for Detroit. He knew he was likely to relapse and he knew for certain that he would if he went back to New York right away. Plus, the heroin he could get his hands on in Detroit would be much less pure than what he had been using in New York. He did relapse a little in Detroit but eventually he worked through the mental aspects of the addiction and quit entirely.
The Effects of Heroin
In the case of Billie Holiday, heroin and general excess had a very profound effect on her music, other than simply prematurely killing her. As time passed, all of the drugs and alcohol began to have a profound effect on her voice. For a singer, it is much more difficult to perform when they're in poor health. So the health effects of long term drug abuse are much more pronounced in Holiday than some other musicians. Also, after her drug conviction, she lost her cabaret card which meant that it was incredibly difficult for her to play clubs in New York. So, in Holiday's case, drug use had profoundly negative effects on both her music and her ability to make a living performing it.
In the case of Charlie Parker, heroin's largest effect on his music was in striking him down at an extremely early age. Parker also lost his cabaret card for periods which prevented him from playing in clubs in New York. Aside from that, drug use made his performances inconsistent. This ranged from him being too fucked up to perform at all to him being late to performances in his search for his next fix. The perfect example of this is Jazz at the Philharmonic in 1946 where he missed the first set while out acquiring heroin.
In the case of Miles Davis, I really couldn't make any conclusions about the effects of his heroin addiction on his music. First off, his addiction only ran about 4-5 years. This is much shorter than Parker or Holiday's habit, so the health effects were less severe. On top of this, Davis did plenty of wonderful work after he kicked the habit. While Parker and Holliday's careers can be plotted as a downward trajectory near the end of their careers, the end of their careers coincided with the end of their habits. So in the case of Davis, it's possible that any downward movement was merely a blip lost in the noise of the rest of his career.
Their Reasons for Addiction
Many think Charlie Parker was in pain his whole life after the car accident. Regardless of whether or not the ghosts of broken ribs haunted him his whole life or only during the period immediately following the accident, the point is that Parker's heroin addiction has a pretty direct correlation to physical pain.
Billie Holiday had an incredibly difficult existence, both in her childhood and her adult life. I think a pretty good argument can be made that in Holiday's case, heroin wasn't about physical pain but rather psychological pain.
Miles Davis, however, didn't seem to have much of a reason at all for heroin. He came from an affluent family. His personal problems, compared to Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker, seem rather mundane. He suffered no ongoing injury at the time. And I'm sure that these are the reasons that Davis was not destroyed by heroin in the way that Parker and Holiday were.
"Miles: the autobiography", Miles Davis with Quincy Troupe