Super Lawyers
William C. Altreuter

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

In his otherwise fine obit of Jackie McLean, Stanley Crouch says something that rings completely false to me:

"With few exceptions, most of the bebop generations had drug problems because so many of the men they admired, like Charlie Parker, were addicts."

First of all, I think Crouch is telescoping his timeframe here. McLean is post-Parker, to be sure, and to my way of thinking that really makes him post-bebop as well. But more importantly, to attribute the addiction of men like McLean (or Art Pepper or any of the others about whom this has been said) to hero worship impresses me as being mindlessly reductive. It is interesting and sad to think about how heroin ravaged jazz but I sincerely doubt that anybody who tried it continued using it because they thought it made them better players. It seems much more likely-- and is much more consistent with the histories and biographies that I have read-- that these guys started on drugs mostly because they were bored, and smack was available. Bored and sleep disrupted, maybe. Sometimes bored and sleep disrupted and maybe having other health issues that they were self-medicating. Certainly the hip cache that Parker and others may have given heroin cannot be completely gainsaid, but almost no jazz memoir is complete without an anecdote about seeing a musical hero strung out. These guys weren't taking drugs because it was glamorous.

It was and is a hard life being a professional musician. Your hours are rough, the only way you can make any money is to be on the road all the time, and if you are good enough to fill a room, you didn't get that way without a lot of long hours practicing. By the time you are good enough the axe may be the only thing these cats know-- they haven't had the time to develop other outside interests, and even if they had any, when would they indulge them? You're on a bus in the day time, and you are working at night. Even the most avid reader would get worn down by this routine-- and let's face it, most of these cats weren't long on book learning. McLean at least grew up in Harlem, but quite a few of these men were from pretty rustic backgrounds. And oh, yeah-- a lot of them were black, which further limited the places they could go and the things that they could do. With nothing else to do, narcotics probably seemed like a fair way to pass the long hours when they weren't on the bandstand. Young, stupid (or uneducated, I suppose) and exposed to temptation. It all ends up a recipe for the plague of addiction that is one of the major sub-themes of this music.

I'm surprised that Crouch, who is pretty astute about this sort of thing, falls for the story that these artists fell into drug abuse out of a desire to emulate the musicians they admired. That explanation winks at the reality-- that these were men who were taken advantage of by the sons of bitches who sold them the drugs, or gave them the drugs. When you read about poor Bud Powell, or Monk, or Parker-- and you realize that they were abused victims of both the dealers and the cops. Caught in the middle like that, often unable to get a job because of stupid cabaret laws, it is remarkable that these musicians were able to accomplish as much as they did. It is certainly no surprise that so few of them made it through.

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