Bop Apocalypse: Jazz, Race, the Beats, & Drugs
By Martin Torgoff
Da Capo Press, $25.99
Martin Torgoff—journalist, author and film-maker—has taken a unique point of view in this book. He has covered the use of recreational and hence illegal drugs in the US since the 1920s until beginning of the 21st century. He has juxtaposed the use of drugs specifically as it relates to jazz musicians with special emphasis on musicians post WWII.
In reading the book, I noted that his references to interviews with jazz musicians, prominent jazz writers begin in the 1990s. In fact, just about every important jazz writer was interviewed. The acknowledgments at the end of book and a brief mention in the text, explain that his researches for a previous book—Can’t Find My Way Home; America in the Great Stoned Age, 1945-2000 (2004)—inspired the present volume. He wanted to expand a chapter which he called “Bop Apocalypse,” which became the basis for the present volume.
Bop Apocalypse covers in some detail the approach of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics approach to recreational drugs—marijuana, cocaine, heroin, crack cocaine, and peyote. It was Harry Anslinger, chief of Federal Bureau of Narcotics, who chose to focus on jazz musicians—especially as he felt that they were influential in popularizing these drugs to the populace. It was noted that the Anslinger file “Marijuana and Musicians” included Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, and others. The Federal Narcotics hospital and prison in Lexington, KY had such a rotating clientele of jazz musicians that they had a great jazz music library and an always outstanding jazz band.
Torgoff also details the influence of Beat Generation authors Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William Burroughs.
Bop Apocalypse is scheduled for release in mid-January 2017.
I conducted an interview with Mr. Torgoff recently, which follows:
NV: You have interviews with jazz musicians and jazz writers beginning in 1990s. How did you select those? Was it for your preparation for earlier book, Can’t Find My Way Home?
MT: I knew I needed to write about icons like Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday, but I wanted to be able to do it from a point of view that was completely authentic, with a real understanding of the meaning of drug use and addiction in their lives and music. I was very fortunate to be introduced to the great saxophonist Jackie Mclean, one of Bird’s protégés, by my friend Jeff Levenson, who’d been jazz editor at Billboard for many years, and it was Jackie who was gracious enough to take me deep into his life of music and drugs and the whole bebop scene. I couldn’t have done this book without him. It was Levenson who also introduced me to many of our preeminent jazz writers who did interviews for the book, like Stanley Crouch, Gary Giddins, and Ira Gitler, along with figures like Orin Keepnews, who worked with scores of brilliant heroin-addicted musicians like Bill Evans.
How did your previous writing experiences lead to writing this book, Bop Apocalypse?
MT: Much of the research and interviewing for this book was done in the early 90s, as I prepared my last book, Can’t Find My Way Home, which contained a chapter on the bebop era and the Beat Generation called “Bop Apocalypse.” I was so fascinated by that period and had done so much research and writing on it but had only been able to use a fraction of the material at the time. I’d always wanted to publish a book-length version of that chapter which went all the way back to the early twentieth century and the roots of jazz, fleshed out with a more complete cast of characters. This, at long last, is that book—whereas, Can’t Find My Way Home told the story of how the use of illicit drugs went from the underground to a mass experience that one in four Americans have come to know, and how that has shaped the cultural landscape of this nation.
This book tells the story of the underground itself—in essence, how the use of drugs entered the DNA of modern American popular culture in the first place. This book is largely the story of the evolution of jazz and its relationship to the Beats: the first time that drug use coalesced with music and literature, becoming a central element in the creation of an avant-garde American voice and underground cultural sensibility. Drug-using musicians like Charlie Parker were models for aspiring young writers and poets like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, who, in turn, incorporated the use of drugs into a new literary aesthetic. Ginsberg and Kerouac were both obsessed with jazz and wanted to write just like the jazz musicians played; breakthrough experimental works like On the Road and “Howl” could no more been written without the use of drugs than they could have been written without jazz.
During these decades, the use of marijuana and other substances became a truly interracial and multicultural nexus of American experience. Call it what you will—words like insurgent, transgressive, and oppositional have been used to describe it. It was the use of drugs by the Beats that provided the contexts for their use by the whole counterculture that emerged during the 1960s; in hindsight it was nothing less that revolutionary because it became a vital part of the development of an alternative vision and pursuit of freedom that have shaped our cultural landscape ever since. Of course, it also had a very destructive side as well.
In your researches and interviews, what did you hope to find, but didn’t?
MT: I really wanted to interview William Burroughs for the book. He was getting quite old and living in Lawrence, Kansas, but he is such a strange and remote figure that it became an almost impossible undertaking, as even people close to him like Allen Ginsberg were cooperating with. I’ll never know what doing an interview with him might have added to the book, but I know it would have been a very memorable experience.
What would you wish readers of this book, Bop Apocalypse, to take away as a learning experience?
MT: For one thing, I hope that I’ve been able to humanize addiction for the reader, and to show how this book has real relevance to what is going on today. Although a century has passed since marijuana first appeared in New Orleans and heroin powder became available on our streets, I see this as a living history in the truest sense. Seventy-five years after the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 was passed and the era of pot prohibition began, Colorado and Washington became the first states in American history to allow the sale of marijuana for recreational use in 2012; a Pew poll reported in 2014 that 75 percent of Americans believe the repeal of marijuana prohibition is now inevitable. Predictions that up to a dozen states will have legal marijuana by 2017 suddenly do not seem all that far-fetched.
It could never have happened without the tiny group founded by Allen Ginsberg to legalize marijuana called LEMAR (Legalize Marijuana), which Ginsberg helped start after more than fifteen years of experience with the substance during the ’40s and ’50s and deciding to challenge Harry Anslinger and the whole regime of pot prohibition—a bold and reckless thing to do in the late ’50s, especially for a gay Beat poet who smoked marijuana as Ginsberg did.
At the same time, a new wave of heroin has arrived. Since the arrival of heroin in the Harlem of the 1940s, any uptick in the population of heroin addicts in America is reflexively labeled an “epidemic” or “plague,” and each one has its own identify. This one is serious and notable for fatal overdoses, which have tripled in three years to more than eight thousand a year. It’s a strange version of a heroin war that has plateaued for years on an epidemic of prescription opiates. But unlike heroin epidemic of the past, in this one an antidote called naloxone, which can be injected or used as an atomizer, has been distributed to police, emergency medical workers, clinics, and laypeople to reverse overdoses and save lives. In this heroin epidemic, the national attitude toward drug addiction seems entirely different. The police chiefs most affected did not use military metaphors to urge get-tougher polices and longer jail sentences but called for treatment. “Paradigm shift,” “tipping point,” “crossroads”—such are the terms being commonly used to describe momentous changes like marijuana legalization and the unprecedented use of a harm-reduction strategy like naloxone by police, and their implications for drug policy.
But as the battlefield for of the war on drugs begins to lift a little after forty years, forty million arrests, an over a trillion dollars spent, the first thing that one sees is the vast wreckage of disproportionately black mass incarceration. Despite the fact that every study ever done shows that all races in this country use drugs at remarkably similar rates, in some states black men have been incarcerated on drug charges at rates twenty to fifty times greater than whites (as many as 80 percent now have criminal records in our major cities). To increasing numbers of people outraged by the injustice of these disparities, it appears that African Americans have been typecast and targeted—as if they were the culprits being pigeonholed and held accountable for the whole American experience with illicit drugs—and even as a movement for prison reform gathered increasing momentum during the Obama administration the question of how and why it happened this way must be asked.
My belief is that any understanding of it at all requires going back to the early part of the twentieth century, when the templates of modern drug law, policy, and culture were first established, along with the concomitant racial stereotypes. Back to the time when the whole culture war over the use of drugs in America first began. It was, after all, the racial component of Harry Anslinger’s wars on marijuana and heroin that marked the beginning of the institutionalization of racism in the drug war, and it’s hard to imagine that the crack statutes of the 1980s, or the aggressive stop, frisk, and search practices in minority communities since, could have ever been possible without Harry Anslinger.
The era covered in this book is fascinating and controversial period that teaches us much about the conflicts and questions that surround drugs today. It is my sincere hope that by looking to the past, we will be able to make more informed decisions as we face the challenges of the future.
What question that a skilled interviewer should have asked, but this one didn’t?
MT: How have drugs effected the music of jazz itself? It’s a two-part question. The first pat is about how drugs may have effected the playing of the music itself—an intriguing question that comes up over and over in the evolution of the jazz of this era. It’s something I discussed with some of our most prominent jazz writers, critics, and musicians, and although one can have fun conjecturing, it’s something that can never be answered with any absolute certainty because very few of them actually talked about it.
The possible effects of marijuana were many on the jazz of the 1920s, from limiting inhibition and increasing one’s ability to improvise and experiment to stretching time and changing metrical structure, to experimenting with melodic phrase, slurs and offbeat syncopations that became the cutting-edge sound. Louis Armstrong, the man who would become jazz’s first and most influential soloist, singer, personality, folk hero, and one of the most beloved entertainers in the history of America, was a life-long pothead. This was the first instance when an association was made between an artist being high and his “chops”—indeed, his very musical personality—and there can be no doubt that the marijuana he smoked on a daily basis has to have has a very important impact on how he experienced and played music. Also on how and why so many other musicians picked up the practice of smoking it.
Likewise, the tenor saxophonist Lester Young one of the greatest musicians of the Swing Era and the man who invented “cool jazz” and the whole cultural notion of what “cool” really meant, was a devoted pothead, a was Billie Holiday, who literally pioneered the art of jazz singing. One is tempted to make parallels between their personalities, the effects of the marijuana they smoked, and the musical innovations they became known for—the way Lester used space and in the sweet splendor of his playing; the way Billie sang like a horn, slurring, singing off the beat, groaning low from the back of her throat. Did that come from being high on reefer as a girl back in a brothel in the Fell’s Point neighborhood of Baltimore as she listened to her first scratchy jazz records on a gramophone? This really the first book to pose those kinds of questions. Of course, by the mid-1940s Billie Holiday was also a full-blown heroin addict, which brings us to the second part of the question, because from that time until 1960 the music was shaped to a remarkable degree by the comings and goings of musicians into and out of their addiction to heroin.
Any personal drug experiences that you are willing to share for publication?
MT: My own personal journey through the experience of drugs began the first night I smoked pot as a teenager on November 4, 1968, and it ended at the age of thirty-seven as an addict and alcoholic who needed to change his life. When I emerged I felt like I’d lived through something very significant. As I wrestled with the meanings and consequences of drugs in my own life, I began thinking about how they had changed and shaped my generation, and that led to thinking about how they’d changed and shaped the entire pop cultural landscape of America. It was the beginning of a 25-year odyssey through this subject—a classic case of a writer whose life becomes the work and whose work becomes his life.
Early on I realized that the subject of illicit drugs was a great way to tell the American story—although it is a subject that is grossly misunderstood, often demonized or romanticized, and highly charged with emotion and ideology. Despite the fact that the use of drugs has now been deeply embedded in the cultural DNA of this country for generations, I am continually astounded by how ignorant people are about them. This is because we live in a society where there was never supposed to be a drug culture in the first place, where the prohibition of drugs has been the law of the land or over a century—and where so many of us for so many reasons do not talk openly and honestly about them.
As a result we suffer from a kind of cultural amnesia about them, where real knowledge about them is not passed on and each generation now seems destined to go through its own journey through them and find out for itself what they mean, often making the same mistakes. All of this makes it a very significant subject for me. As a writer I’m always looking for ways to tell the American story, and the story of drugs is a fascinating way to try and do it.