How Booze Became the Life and Death of Jazz

With music legends like Charlie Parker, Chet Baker and Billie Holiday all succumbing to alcohol- and drug-related illness, it’s no secret that jazz has long had a tragic connection to alcohol. But for what reason? Matt Stieb on how booze became embedded in the mythology of jazz greatness.

A man of boundless talent and bottomless appetite, alto saxophonist Charlie Parker knew his way around a bottle.

In the 1940s and early ‘50s, Parker would nurse his withdrawals with whole-bottle binge-drinking—somehow without affecting his caterwauling solos on the bandstand. Pianist Hampton Hawes, recalling a gig with Bird, watched him “line up and take down eleven shots of whiskey, pop a handful of bennies, then tie up, smoking a joint at the same time. He sweated like a horse for five minutes, got up, put on his suit and a half hour later was on the stand playing strong and beautiful.”

Parker’s career was a dizzying journey of highs, hangovers and revolutionary art—the liberating Neo to jazz’s Matrix of rules and boundaries. But the saxophonist treated his body as America-at-large treated jazz musicians: appreciative of the creative product, but with utter disregard for the well being of those involved. A drinker from as early as 12 years old, Charlie Parker was dead at age 34 of liver cirrhosis and a bleeding ulcer. The coroner who inspected his body first assumed that he was a 50- to 60-year-old man.

Unfortunately, Parker was not alone—a disproportionate number of the music’s most creative and prolific musicians died this way. Jazz’s great minds have long contemplated musicians’ tragic relationship with heroin, but how did alcohol come to decimate the ranks of jazz’s all-time talent?

Emerging as a popular art form during Prohibition, jazz’s first few years should have been sober. But, like anything young and rebellious, jazz found its way to alcohol. The early, stomp-rhythm jazz musicians performed in the speakeasy environment, where, as the coolest people in any given room, they knew how to find a stiff drink. “They were out there playing for people who were dancing and drinking hard,” says Kory Cook, drummer and music director of KRTU San Antonio. “They had to join the party.”

In November of 1933—a few weeks before the 21st Amendment repealed Prohibition—Bessie Smith laid down one of jazz’s first great drinking songs, “Gimme a Pigfoot.” With the confidence of a few cocktails in her, Smith sang of a hard night of work in the Harlem underground, drinking Prohibition’s most popular liquor until the morning light—“Play me ‘cause I’m in my sin / Blame me ‘cause I’m full of gin.”

As its players began to realize jazz’s unbounded potential, alcohol abuse ate away at some of the great musician’s best years. Paid poorly and working bartenders’ hours, booze offered shelter from the pressures of performing and touring. Psychologists studying addiction among artists look to these stresses, and to the connection between the brain’s creative areas and pleasure centers, to help explain the uncannily high rates of addiction among creatives across all mediums.

On a pharmacological level, alcohol and drugs do not alter a mind’s creative ability. But, in 1994, researchers William M. Lapp, R. Lorraine Collins and Charles V. Izzo proposed that alcohol’s endorphin payoff changes people’s perception of their creativity, something that anyone who’s spent late evenings with a dorm room guitar can attest. The authors found that the “expected effects of alcohol” magnify one’s belief in their creative ability.

Dr. Paul Adams puts a rough estimate on alcohol’s impact on jazz. By subtracting the age at which musicians suffered an early death from an assumed life expectancy of 75 years old, Adams estimates that the bop generation lost a combined 461 years of collective creative output to alcohol and liver cirrhosis.

In jazz, this applied to directly to a phenomenon that has been referred to as “Chasing the Bird,” after a Charlie Parker tune from 1947. Watching Parker reinvent the improvisational process in real time, young musicians hoped to catch his creative spark by emulating Parker’s lifestyle and process. It was a great attitude in the practice room, but a death march at the bar. “Some of these smart kids who think you have to be completely knocked out to be a good hornman are just plain crazy,” Parker told DownBeat in 1949. “It isn’t true. I know, believe me. That way you can miss the most important years of your life, the years of possible creation.”

Drummer Albert “Tootie” Heath, the lively, 80-year-old caretaker of the Philadelphia beat, understands jazz’s alcohol problem as a product of environment. Tootie, the man behind the kit for Philly icons and lushes John Coltrane and Bobby Timmons, made his living on the club bandstand, where a nursed fifth might help ease the time between sets. “We were playing in bars, not churches,” Heath said over the phone. “And there was alcohol and drugs in the bars. [We drank] no more than lawyers, no more than guys on Wall Street. It’s just that musicians have a reputation for it.”

Whether Chasing the Bird or becoming casualties of the environment, alcohol abuse embedded itself in the culture of jazz. Bobby Timmons, Paul Chambers and Bunny Berigan all died from alcoholism or liver cirrhosis before the age of 40. John Coltrane, the spiritual leader of jazz, was dead at 40 from liver cancer, despite quitting ten years earlier. Trumpeter Chet Baker drank so heavily that a cocktail named after him made it into the canon—aged rum, Carpano Antica and honey, to match his mellow tone on the horn. (His abuse also transformed his look from young hunk to Breaking Bad neo-Nazi villain.) Lester Young and Billie Holiday, dependent on the bottle and on each other, were dead at 49 and 44, respectively.

Dr. Paul Adams puts a rough estimate on alcohol’s impact in jazz. By subtracting the age at which musicians suffered an early death from an assumed life expectancy of 75 years old, Adams estimates that the bop generation lost a combined 461 years of collective creative output to alcohol and liver cirrhosis.

Lucky for today’s lovers of jazz, if you buy tickets to a gig in 2016, you’re far less likely to see musicians hitting the bar between sets. In the late 1960s, jazz began moving toward the artistic margins in pursuit of the “out”—the ambitious, political, avant-garde and non-melodic. Practicing and performing this technical, athletic music required a full physical commitment.

“I think it’s a matter of understanding how difficult the art form is when you’re of a right mind,” says Jerry Tolson, pianist and professor of jazz studies at the University of Louisville. “It had a lot to do with being musicians—like Art Blakey, Dizzy Gillespie, James Moody, musicians like that who came through—and they didn’t take part in that culture and they lived long lives.”

An apprenticed art, jazz styles and improvisation techniques have long been passed between generations. Bop and post-bop musicians, witnessing the damage of widespread substance abuse, warned the next round of artists against the romantic myth of the heavy-drinking creative genius.

As the music became more technical—or, as jazz musicians folded into the mainstream—casual, full-bar jazz venues began to close. To ensure that this American art form still had a home to call its own, university systems and privately funded arts organizations provided grants and jobs for vanguard musicians. In 2016, if you’re seeing a young, high-caliber quartet outside of New York—where the scene still largely exists in bars, like a refuge for an endangered species—you’re likely to buy a ticket to a beautiful, but dry, performing arts venue to see musicians who have spent time in a jazz program.

It’s still delightfully fun music, and one that pairs well with alcohol—something simple and high-proof to sip on during complex solos, or a bourbon drink during New Orleans backline romps. But, like Parker himself, the romance of the binge-drinking performer has largely been laid to rest.

Matt Stieb is a writer based in Brooklyn, where he also works at a trashy bar. His work has appeared in MUNCHIES, New York and in alt-weeklies across the U.S.