How Weed Influenced American Jazz

CANNABIS CULTURE – Let’s start at the worst of it because both jazz and marijuana arrived here with violence.

It’s a story we can all vibe to: the underestimated, apparently weaker kid facing Goliath and finding out that all the haters were wrong. This is the story of jazz. It is also the story of cannabis. It is the story of deeply entrenched elements of culture demonized and disparaged yet unable to be uprooted. It’s no wonder then that their stories are intertwined in ways that go far deeper than their connections to the creative world.

Jazz, Cannabis, and a Climate of Slavery, Racism, and Xenophobia     

The industrially effective but recreationally useless strain of cannabis, hemp, has been a part of the American economy since the colonial era. However, any recreational use of cannabis was uncommon in America until the early 1900’s when a wave of Mexican refugees fleeing the Mexican Revolution entered America and brought Marijuana—both the name and the narcotic use of the plant—with them.

The recreational use of cannabis was a deeply entrenched part of many South American and Caribbean cultures because it had been used to pacify slaves. It was originally introduced by the British to Jamaican slaves and by the Portuguese to Brazilian slaves. Because it was so profitable as a source of tax revenue, and as an effective tool of mollification for slaves subjected to cruel working conditions, it gained in popularity as a commercial crop. By the time that Mexican refugees arrived in the US, it was a well-established part of culture.

But it was new to Americans, as was the influx of Spanish-speaking brown folks. The “Marijuana Menace” quickly became associated with immigrants, the impoverished, and people of color, and it should be pretty clear that the collective consciousness of the white majority—the dudes in power—was not okay with any of that drama. Thus began a 100 year war of prohibition on cannabis based exclusively on racism-invoked paranoia. It also marked the beginning of a resilient subculture that presented marginalized communities with a way to live through the daily carrying of discrimination’s unbearable weight.

In the red light district of Storyville, one of those communities—black musicians—harnessed cannabis’ power to create a new genre of music: jazz. The elements of jazz that make it such a beloved genre are the same ones that make it the subject of scorn. It is all about improvisation, creativity, and the chemistry between musicians. It isn’t something that can be learned in a classroom or memorized. Jazz is a spirit that maybe starts with written music but certainly doesn’t stay there. It goes on tangents, changes subjects, and may or may not return home. The way cannabis made musicians feel helped them experiment with this new way of making music.

The man considered the father of jazz music, Louis Armstrong, described the way that cannabis made him and the other “vipers” (the name jazz musicians who smoked cannabis gave themselves) feel in his biography: “It makes you feel good, man. It relaxes you, makes you forget all the bad things that happen to a Negro. It makes you feel wanted, and when you are with another tea smoker it makes you feel a special sense of kinship.”

It’s easy to gloss over those words, but they are worth real reflection. In the 1920’s, America was split into two totally contrasting experiences: the grandeur and celebration of the “Roaring Twenties” captured by The Great Gatsby, and the intense poverty that gripped the lives of more than 60% of Americans and was exacerbated for blacks who endured horrible racism as well.  While alcohol compounded the feelings of anxiety black Americans experienced during this time, cannabis assuaged them and gave them a way to feel good about something in a world that repeatedly told them their utility was in their labor and ability to entertain.

The profound relationship between jazz, cannabis, and race made jazz musicians a target for the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Harry Anslinger who targeted jazz musicians like Armstrong, Thelonius Monk, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Billie Holiday. Anslinger hated jazz musicians for the same reasons that made cannabis such a compatible drug to the genre.  In an interview with Dr. James Munch, a chemist working under Anslinger during this time, Munch explained the reason Anslinger targeted jazz musicians. “If you are a musician, you are going to play the thing the way it is printed on a sheet. But, if you’re using marijuana, you are going to work in about twice as much music in between the first note and the second note. That’s what made jazz musicians. The idea that they could jazz things up, liven them up, you see.”

This political warfare also solidified the paradox that occurs when an aspect of a culture of color is scoffed at and treated as illegitimate while simultaneously appropriated by the culture in power. Although jazz came out of black communities, black communities were still regarded as inferior even while the nation enjoyed this genre.

This pattern is evident in cannabis culture as well. Even though black, Hispanic, and white folks consume cannabis at comparable amounts, blacks and Hispanics make up a disproportionate amount of marijuana possession arrests and convictions. So yeah, cannabis is being legalized in more states, but the legal industry is hard if not impossible to get into if you’ve got a drug related conviction on your record. Guess who that effects the most? The people of color who should never have been arrested because cannabis should have never been illegalized in the first place.

The relationship between cannabis and jazz makes one wonder if jazz would even exist if it weren’t for cannabis, if it weren’t for the suffering that black people endured. And if cannabis had been socially acceptable, perhaps it would have been primarily accessible to white folks and excluded from black communities. It’s impossible to say what would have happened had things been different. What is clear, though, is that cannabis and jazz tell a story about resilience. And perhaps this story of ash-born beauty moves us because it gives the marginalized sides of ourselves hope; it empowers us with visions of the unrealized so that we can reach for them. And that’s the power of art, isn’t it?