JAZZ: Scott DeVeaux, W.W. Norton & Company


Bebop is an era that is known for its drug abuse. It's one of the tragedies of the period that – I would say that in the Swing Era most musicians, if they had any abuse problems, it was alcohol. They were drinking a lot. And of course that [was] something that for a time period was illegal but it also became legal and is extremely mainstream. [And there was] possibly also marijuana use.

But in any case with the 1940s and ‘50s you start to get heroine. And you also have Charlie Parker as being in a peculiar way – being the role model for heroin abuse. He became addicted very early in his life after an automobile accident made it, you know, sort of [a] move from opium into heroin. I don't think he was particularly proud of it, in fact he made it very clear to some musicians who saw him sort of unpacking his heroin backstage, he just said, "If you ever mess with this, you know, don't ever get involved with this, this will not help you." I mean, he was very clear that this was sort of a burden he had to carry; it was not that the heroin made Charlie Parker. In fact, if anything if he were not on heroin he would still be around today, I mean he would be probably in his 80s but you know could still be around – just really a startling thing to think about.

But there is a sense in which this heroin abuse is also a thing tied up with a certain amount of racial pessimism that also creeps into bebop. Someone like Miles Davis, for example, started using heroin – you know, he played with Charlie Parker for a number of years and was not doing any heroin because he came from a good, solid, upper-middle- class background, but at some point he began to realize that – I think it was after he came back from Paris where of course he was treated as a human being, was able to have a white girlfriend, nobody really paying that any mind. And then he came back to this country and he began to realize, man, it's just the same old stuff, I've just gotten nowhere. And I think that kind of attitude is what made him, encouraged him to use heroin. There's a sense in which a lot of musicians' lives were affected and, in fact, were destroyed by heroin, and it is the undercurrent of jazz during this period. We see great musicians who somehow are drawn into that kind of experience and, you know, they don't feel any better for doing it, but it does somehow connect with their understanding of jazz during this time period.