You are on page 1of 14

Jesse Washmon

Crude Manners Maketh Music: An Analysis of the Impact of Charlie


Parkers Narcotics Usage on Jazz
How the role of substance abuse converged with the emergence
of one of the greatest contributors to bebop music is a question
of vital importance in many respects. Charlie "Bird" Parker, is
largely credited with single-handedly codifying the bebop
language, an intricate extension of improvisation, broadening the
harmonic palette introduced in swing music. Though his
accomplishments are vast and long-standing in the realm of jazz,
the man himself, was beset by a life of great pain and
instability. This exhibits a trend characteristic in the
manifestation of jazz music that promotes the notion of drugs and
the development of jazz as inseparable. Would Parker have
achieved such creative heights crucial to the development of jazz
without the aid of illicit substances? In this paper, the role
narcotics played on Parker's musical career will be assessed
biographically in five main periods, detailing how his drug usage
counterbalanced his creative genius and influence the entire
genre of jazz. It will then asses the origin and development of
narcotics usage in jazz music through various drug phases.
Following it will assess certain occupational and artistic
factors of jazz musicians that account for Parkers particular
vulnerability to narcotics. The final section will use Parkers
career as a model in the context of drug usage among notable
musicians of the time, illustrating how his drug-ridden career

shares key characteristics with a high number of influential jazz


artists.
A constant theme in Parker's life was extremism. This is
evident even in Parkers childhood, a soul furiously passionate
for music, but with certain ineptitudes. Though he became one of
the greatest jazz innovators, at a young age, was in no respect
considered gifted or talented (Russell 1995, 32). Parkers
extreme interest for jazz can readily be explained by his
upbringing in Kansas City during the 1920's, when the city proved
a jazz mecca (Russell 1995, 42). Parker first took up the
Baritone Saxophone in High School, soon switching to alto, yet
proved the least talented of all the band members (Russell 1995,
38-39). Determined to pursue music, nonetheless, he appeared at
jam sessions around the city (Russell 1995, 63-64). These
appearances were often to Parker's embarrassment, in one instance
legendary drummer Philly Jo Jones hurled a cymbal in the air when
Parker was next to solo (Russell 1995, 84-85). These atypical
experiences Parker had as a youth caused a marked impression on
Parker's determination (Russell 1995, 89-96). He soon imposed
immensely high standards of discipline on himself, only feeding
his extremist tendencies and path toward addiction (Harrison
1961, 6-10).
Parker transcended his former inadequacies and enjoyed
moderate amounts of success during his next phase, yet these were

soon countered by the formation of destructive excesses (Harrison


(6-10). He left the summer after the cymbal incident on a retreat
with Bandleader George E. Lee, honing his skills and returning as
a very proficient and reliable sideman (Russell 1995, 89-96).
Unlike more moderate youths, Parker was exposed to illicit drugs
at a very young age, given narcotics by his brother when he was
only 12 years old and introduced to heroin at age 15 (Harrison
1961, 6-10). He further developed these tendencies of substance
abuse while working as a sideman in Kansas City, the money he
earned supplied his addictions (Harrison 1961, 6-10). For Parker,
drugs served to counterbalance an extreme self-discipline he
exacted on himself and fellow band members (Harrison 1961, 6-10).
As a new member of the McShann band, Parker imposed rigorous
rehearsal schedules, setting extremely high precedent for their
performance (Harrison 1961, 12). On his own playing, he was
constantly seeking new sounds and expression (Harrison 1961, 12).
Parker claimed to have an epiphany on 7th avenue in 1939,
realizing upper-extension chord-tones were the sounds he was
searching for (Harrison 1961, 12). These new precedents soon
made Parker famous and changed the scope of jazz forever.
However, they did not go without repercussion, as it was this
period with the McShann band in which Parker began to grow a
reputation of unreliability (Harrison 1961, 14). At this stage,
his addiction to narcotics seemed only to affect his

dependability, not his musical development or performance


(Harrison 1961, 22). By maintaining a balance between narcotic
excess and rigorous discipline, Parker continued to expand his
harmonic vocabulary beyond the conventions of swing in this
period (Harrison 1961, 18,19). By 1944, Parker was on the cusp of
becoming a full-fledged jazz icon, still not without his thirst
for narcotics (Harrison 1961, 26).
During the years of 1945-1946, Parker's new codification of
harmonic ideas giving rise to "bebop" finally came to fruition,
he was now recognized as the key originator behind the new idiom,
yet these strides were soon countered by more drastic narcotic
excess (Harrison 1961, 28). The primary force behind these
monumental developments was the formation of his own group
including bebop trumpet pioneer Dizzy Gillespie (Harrison 1961,
28). Parker's new style garnered varied reactions. On the East
Coast, he was applauded for his work, yet experienced outright
rejection on a tour with Gillespie to Hollywood (Harrison 1961,
35-36). This varied acceptance to Parker's new, individual style
ultimately resulted in his further refuge in narcotics, as his
time in the West coast stands as evidence that Parker's excesses
no began to affect his music directly (Harrison 1961, 37-38). A
famous recording session in 1946 with Ross Russell at Dial
Records proved to be one of Parkers darkest hours (Harrison
1961, 37-38). During the recording, Parker was under the

influence of illicit substances, thus his technique and


musicality showed severe flaws (Harrison 1961, 37-38). He is
heard stumbling through melodies and chord changes most notably
on the tune "Lover Man and Bebop (Pryor 2011, 10; Vail 1996,
19). The following night, Parker was jailed for arson and
institutionalized for six months at the notorious Camarillo
California State Mental Hospital (Pryor 2011, 10; Reed 2014, 43).
Parker's time at Camarillo was productive, inspiring his tune
"Relaxin' at Camarillo", and upon exiting, he had freed himself
from addiction, temporarily (Pryor 2011, 10; Vail 1996, 20-21).
The period after Parker's internment at Camarillo was a
fruitful time of healing for the artist, yet it was not longlived (Pryor 2011, 10). Parker now enjoyed a peaceful, domestic
lifestyle upon returning to New York in 1947 (Harrison 1961, 41).
While Parker experienced yet another climax in artistry, a time
fueled by restoration and clarity, it was soon clouded by his
former destructive tendencies (Harrison 1961, 46). Through the
latter part of 1947 onward, Parker reacquired some of his former
extremist behavior, yet continued to produce music with
remarkable success, touring Europe and recording with Machito's
Orchestra (Harrison 1961, 49-59). His creative genius and
"aggressive broad-mindedness" persisted, yet struggled with the
modernist paradox of remaining true to artistry and appealing to
audiences (Harrison 1961, 53). This was exemplified by his sordid

interactions with booking agents, critics, and band members,


alike (Harrison 1961 52- 58). His dependence on narcotic
substances backfired once again as Parker lost any semblance of
dependability, arriving at his final phase an outcast (Harrison
1961, 58).
In 1953, Parker's extremism finally reached a breaking
point. That year his daughter, Pree, died of pneumonia (Harrison
1961, 63). Parker then attempted suicide on two separate
occasions, then admitted himself to Bellevue Hospital in New York
(Pearl 2009, 1041) Parker, again, recovered temporarily and found
brief moments of success, appearing at Carnegie hall and making
his final recording I Love Paris for Verve Records in December
of 1954 (Harrison 1961, 68; Vail 1995, 167). These achievements
were soon obscured as Parker soon left his wife and even his
closest bandmates began to reject him (Harrison 1961, 68). On the
4th of March, when Parker arrived drunk to a performance at
Birdland, bassist Charles Mingus, told Parker directly "If you go
on like this, you'll kill yourself" (Harrison 1961, 68). Eight
days later, Parker died of a stomach ulcer in the apartment of
the Baroness de Koenigswarter-Rothschild (Harrison 1961, 68).
During his lifetime, Parker experienced the most extreme heights
of musical expression and imagination with which his only means
to counterbalance, drugs, proved his final undoing.

The trajectory of Parker's career in regard to its lasting


impact on jazz and its infusion of narcotic excess, as outlined,
is no mere coincidence. It reflects longstanding patterns of drug
abuse within jazz music organized into three periods: the
marijuana era 1900-1939, the heroin era 1939-1965, and the final
era 1965-present (Singer and Mirhej 2006, 4). The correlation
between jazz music and drugs dates long before Parker' use of
heroin with the popularity of marijuana, known as "muta" during
the early 1900's in New Orleans (Singer and Mirhej 2006, 8). By
no mere accident, this coincided with the development of Swing
music in the latter's mecca. Musicians, predominately of lower
classes, almost exclusively used marijuana (Singer and Mirhej
2006, 8). Reefer songs by famous composers and bandleaders such
as Cab Calloway and Milton Mezzrow's "That Funny Reefer Man" and
"Sending the Vipers, respectively, were numerous and widely
popular (Singer and Mirhej 2006, 10). During this period, Louis
Armstrong, largely credited as the most influential swing
musicians to have lived, continuously used Marijuana throughout
his life (Singer and Mirhej 2006, 11-13). In this sense, he
directly paralleled Parker in his impact on jazz and his
association with the drug that defined the era. Swing music
spread up the Mississippi and throughout the U.S., bringing
marijuana along with it, yet during creation of the darker, more

intellectual bebop, musicians faced harder realities and heroine


became the drug of choice (Singer and Mirhej 2006, 9-15).
While Parker was the most resounding product of the bebop
era, heroin use affected many other notable bebop musicians, whom
will be discussed later (Singer and Mirhej 2006, 17).
Similarities pervaded in heroines capacity for destruction in
bebop musicians careers, and by the 1960's, save for the use of
hallucinogenic substances by avant-garde musicians, drug use
slowly dissipated with rising jazz musicians (Singer and Mirhej
2006, 27-29). In 1960, the famous trumpeter Nat Adderley declared
that, The fad was over (Singer and Mirhej 2006, 29). Parker can
thus be seen as part of an unfortunate set of circumstances, a
particularly creative soul caught in the most potent period of
hard drug use in jazz.
Merely stating that Parkers involvement in narcotics
stemmed from his presence as a jazz musician during a drug
phase does not detail the artistic and occupational factors that
gave rise to the drug-infused culture (Cuyjet and Tolson 2007,
530). One highly-conducive element in the involvement of jazz
musicians with narcotics is the environment and lifestyle that
accompanied being a musician (Cuyjet and Tolson 2007, 534). The
type of institutions jazz musicians played in from the turn of
the century on were ripe with excess, and constant exposure to
such an environment facilitated dependencies of even the most

moderate of musicians (Singer and Mirhej 2006, 17). Already of an


extreme disposition, Parker was no exception, often visiting bars
before arriving at the club, consuming even more once he arrived
(Singer and Mirhej 2006, 20).
Along with their environment, the expectations of a working
musician, the rigors of constant travel, performing for extended
periods of time every night, as well as other factors paired with
the duty to satisfy the audience, caused much drug abuse in jazz
(Singer and Mirhej 2006, 18-19). Louis Armstrong retells using
marijuana to relax during performances lasting all night long,
and various bebop musicians used heroin to stay fresh on very
little sleep while touring (Singer and Mirhej 2006, 12; Cuyjet
and Tolson 2007, 534). Parker exemplified this to the greatest
degree. In one instance before a performance he would take down
eleven shots of whisky, pop a handful of bennies, then tie
[shoot] up, smoking a joint at the same time (Cuyjet and Tolson
2007, 534).
Along with certain work-related pressures, jazz musicians
used drugs as a means to facilitate the creative process. In
early New Orleans, swing musicians used marijuana in order to
change how they experienced music, ultimately aiding in their
creativity (Singer and Mirhej 2006, 8). Similarly, with the birth
of the avant-garde in the 1960s, musicians such as John Coltrane
extended definition, creating music inspired by psychedelic

drugs, including LSD (Singer and Mirhej 2006, 27). In the case of
Parker and the birth of bebop, heroine acted as a pacifier for
the enormous creative expectation he placed upon himself (Cuyjet
and Tolson 2007, 537). As Parker ventured into unknown artistic
territories, heroine provided a similar, unconventional
counterbalance (Cuyjet and Tolson 2007, 537). This pattern
directly emerged in many other notable bebop musicians as well as
indirectly with a younger generation who merely emulated Parker
(Cuyjet and Tolson 2007, 531). Thus Parkers entrenchment in the
depths of the heroine era was so deep, he unintentionally
furthered the impact of the drug in jazz music to the extent he
progressed bebop as a genre (Singer and Mirhej 2006, 17).
Lastly, it is important to understand how the pattern of
Parkers drug use, as previously outlined, emerged in the careers
of other jazz musicians to varying degrees. The strongest
correlation to Parker in terms of the extent of his involvement
in narcotics and the magnitude of his impact in jazz occurred
with Billi Holiday (Singer and Mirhej 2006, 19-24). Holidays
story almost directly parallels Parkers as she was exposed to an
extreme lifestyle at a very young age as a working prostitute
(Singer and Mirhej 2006, 21-22). She began her jazz career as a
passionate vocalist with severe technical setbacks, including a
very limited vocal range, much akin to Parkers early struggles
with musical proficiency (Cuyjet and Tolson 2007, 537). Much like

Parker, she was a very tenacious person who continued on to


achieve wide success, despite certain ineptitudes. She invented a
distinct, idiomatic vocal style that proved powerfully
influential jazz (Cuyjet and Tolson 2007, 536). Lamentably, like
Parkers, Holidays career proved brief. Dissolved by her
involvement with narcotics, her vocal abilities diminished and
her dependability as a professional waned (Singer and Mirhej
2006, 23-24). She died four years after Parker, her career in
shambles (Singer and Mirhej 2006, 23-24). Many other notable
musicians also followed Parkers destructive pattern, including
Art Pepper and Chet Baker, though not a rite of passage for all
jazz musicians (Singer and Mirhej 2006, 21-27). Many of the most
influential icons in jazz experienced destructive episodes of
involvement with narcotics they later overcame, including Miles
Davis and John Coltrane (Singer and Mirhej 2006, 27-28). This
trend was verified in a 1957 study conducted by Nat Hentoff of
409 New York jazz musicians, 82% of whom had used marijuana and
53% heroine (Cuyjet and Tolson 2007, 531). Of the lineage of
greatly influential jazz icons pre-1960s, only a few never
grappled with substance abuse, most notably Clifford Brown and
Dizzie Gillespie (Cuyjet and Tolson 2007, 531). Though Parkers
model serves well as a platform to draw upon in comparing the
extent of drug usage during the time, it merely reflects the
needs common then to many progressive jazz musicians, in no way

serving as a necessary step in musical development. Parker


himself reaffirmed this, any musician who says he is playing
better on tea [marijuana], the needle, or when he is juiced, is a
plain, straight liar (Cuyjet and Tolson 2007, 531).
The impact of substance abuse throughout the life of Charlie
Parker on the development of jazz music as a whole, through
careful examination of its manifestation in various stages, can
now be understood as the natural product of an individual with
extremist tendencies. These tendencies converged in Parker, who
became entrenched in the deepening patterns of drug usage
throughout jazz history, making him particularly susceptible to
the conditions that fostered such usage. His model proved widely
characteristic of many great jazz musicians, yet remained
unmatched in its embodiment of both the splendor and darkness
that so well define jazz as we know it today.
2353 Words

Cuyjet, Michael J. and Tolson, Gerald H. 2007. "Jazz and


substance abuse: Road to creative genius or pathway to premature

death." International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, 30: 530-538.


Accessed September 25, 2015. doi:10.1016/j.ijlp.2007.09.004.

Harrison, Max. (1960) 1961. Kings of Jazz: Charlie Parker.


London: Cassell and Co. Ltd. Reprint, New York: A. S. Barnes and
Company, Inc.

Parker, Charlie. 1954. I Love Paris (Jazz Quintet). By Cole


Porter. Recorded December 10, with Walter Bishop, Billy Bauer,
Teddy Kotick, and Art Taylor. On The Complete Verve Master
Takes: Charlie Parker, Verve 00440 065 601-2 02/51429336, compact
disc.

Parker, Charlie. 1947 Relaxin at Camarillo (Jazz Septet). By


Charlie Parker. Recorded February 26, with Howard McGhee, Wardell
Gray, Dodo Marmarosa, Barney Kessel, Red Callender, Don Lamond.
On The Legendary Dial Masters Vol. 1: Charlie Parker, Stash
Records ST-CD-23, Compact Disc.

Parker, Charlie. 1947. Lover Man (Jazz Quintet). By Charlie


Parker. Recorded July 29, with Howard McGhee, Bob Kesterson,
Roy Porter. On The Legendary Dial Masters Vol. 1: Charlie
Parker, Stash Records ST-CD-23, Compact Disc

Pearl, Phillip L. 2009. "Neurological Problems of Jazz Legends."


Journal of Child Neurology, 24 (8): 1037-1042. Accessed September
25, 2015. doi: 10.1177/0883073809332765.

Pryor, William A. 2011. "Charlie Parker at Camarillo." IAJRC


Journal 44 (4): 9-10. Accessed September 25, 2015.

Reed, Ishmael. 2014. "Who are the Jazz Martyrs?" Black


Renaissance 14 (1): 42-49,183. Accessed September 25, 2015.

Russell, Ross. 1995. Bird Lives: The High Life and Hard Times of
Charlie (Yardbird) Parker. New York: Da Capo Press.

Singer, Merrill, and Greg Mirhej. 2006. "High Notes: The Role of
Drugs in the Making of Jazz." Journal of Ethnicity In Substance
Abuse 5 (4): 1-38. Accessed September 25, 2015.
doi:10.1300/J233v05n04-01.

Vail, Ken. 1996. Bird's Diary: The Life of Charlie Parker, 19451955. Chessington, Surrey: Castle Communications.