How Cannabis Helped Create Jazz Music

At the turn of the 20th century, a swathe of musicians began smoking reefer and jamming out in ways never seen before. Here's how cannabis helped shape jazz music in America.

We note that the subject contained in this article represents illegal activity in certain jurisdictions. Whilst we do not condone any acts which are contrary to any such laws, we understand that readers in those jurisdictions which have decriminalised cannabis may find this article of interest.

Where it all began…

Jazz made its beginnings in New Orleans, Louisiana, right as America was coming out of prohibition in the early 1900s. Jazz music was unpredictable and often unwritten – it came from emotion and is recognised as a major form of musical expression. With musical roots in ragtime and blues music, jazz was often faster and more erratic. 

Underground clubs were prolific during the prohibition era and in New Orleans, these underground bars became the hive of jazz activity. Although cannabis wasn't in the public eye at the time, many jazz musicians smoked it daily. Jazz clubs were spaces of loud music, provocative dancing and weed smoking.

Although these bars sound like a great time, American officials weren't impressed. Jazz was music coming from Black musicians and was quickly becoming an embodiment of Black empowerment, which scared government officials.

From 1923, one state after another declared cannabis an illegal drug and by the 1930s, Harry J. Anslinger could begin to make his racist attack on marijuana in America.

The Foundation of the War on Drugs

In an attempt to demonize Black musicians and 'save' white women from being seduced by them, Anslinger created his anti-cannabis campaign and focused on creating a false public identity for jazz music, calling it satanic. Within his racist vitriol, Anslinger would claim that smoking marijuana made "darkies think they're as good as white men."

There was a focus on jazz music and underground clubs in an attempt to abolish the Black pride these musicians had. Anslinger suggested that using marijuana "lengthens the sense of time, and therefore [jazz musicians] could get more grace beats into their music than they could if they simply followed the written copy." 

The jazz greats weren't even immune from Anslinger's attacks.

Billie Holiday was harassed by Anslinger's Federal Bureau of Narcotics (which later became the DEA) after a performance of her song 'Strange Fruit' in 1939. The Bureau hunted her for years – using undercover agents, raiding her house and charging her with possession of narcotics – and this stress is said to have been a contributor to her substance and alcohol addictions and her eventual death in 1959.

"We always looked at pot as a sort of medicine, a cheap drunk and with much better thoughts than one that's full of liquor."Louis Armstrong

Louis Armstrong was one of the leading jazz musicians of the 20 and 30s, and was famous for being a 'viper' – a weed smoker. But in 1930, he was arrested for smoking a joint out the front of a jazz club in Los Angeles with his drummer. Armstrong spent nine days in a downtown LA jail and received a six month suspended sentence – thought to have been reduced by studio-heads in the jazz world.

Armstrong was one of many jazz musicians who relied on marijuana to ease anxiety and to help with musical flow on stage. Along with most musicians at the time, Armstrong was perpetually stoned.

Years later in 1953, Armstrong was returning to the US from a jazz tour as a cultural ambassador and ran into then-Vice President Richard Nixon, who would become the President who started the War on Drugs in 1971. Armstrong was lining up with his suitcase to head through customs, but Nixon ushered him through as an ambassador, skipping customs altogether.

If Armstrong had gone through customs, they would have found three pounds of cannabis in his suitcase. Nixon himself smuggled pot into the US.

When he wasn't bringing pounds back from tours, Armstrong bought his weed from Mezz Mezzrow – a white man from Chicago. Mezzrow was such a huge dealer in the jazz scene that Mezz became slang for marijuana and he was known as the 'Muggles King'. Mezzrow was a jazz clarinet player, but at his own admission, wasn't that great. He considered himself a 'voluntary Negro', and believed that he had crossed the divide between Black and white Americans. He even asked to be jailed in the Black cell block during segregated prison systems!

The Great Migration

Although jazz is credited as starting in the south, the Great Migration saw Black communities moving in large numbers to northern cities like Chicago, New York, Detroit and Philadelphia.

These cities saw huge increases in Black communities in the 1910s and 1920s, just as jazz was forming in New Orleans. In the coming years, musicians who had moved north continued to create jazz music, and each city began forming its own jazz music identity.

In Chicago, jazz mutated to become Dixieland Jazz and Chicago Blues. Chicago style jazz tended to have faster tempos and longer solos – featuring saxophones and string bass. Chicago musicians began working in 4 beat measures which became the foundation for swing.

New York was reasonably slow to the jazz game, but quickly became known for its home grown jazz talent. The first native New York style was Harlem stride – a boisterous piano style.

Jazz to R'n'B to Rap

Jazz music and jazz culture eventually morphed into various other music forms including R'n'B, hip hop and rap. These music genres were and still are dominated by Black musicians and stay true to jazz roots.

Plenty of rap artists today are strong advocates of marijuana use. Snoop Dogg is one of the most vocal and most famous weed-using artists in the rap world today. His influence on both rap music and weed culture is enormous, and his success in the music industry wouldn't be what it is without the emergence of jazz music and subculture in the 1920s.

Early jazz musicians used cannabis as a creative tool and as a medicine. Marijuana is an important part of jazz subculture, and it formed the backbone of a strong Black community. Anslinger's thinly veiled racist attacks on cannabis use in the 1920s and 1930s irreparably impacted the jazz community which set the bar for Nixon's later War on Drugs.

These racist origins are still felt in the US today, with incredible disparities within the legal system of arrests and convictions linked to cannabis use and possession. By acknowledging the history of marijuana and its links to racism, we can start working towards a reform which does not demonize the plant or the users.

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Laura Desmond
Laura Desmond

Laura Desmond is an Adelaide-based writer with a keen interest in the arts, gender politics and social change. She is currently working to obtain a Master in Writing through Swinburne University.

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