“I’m the king of everything
Got to get high before I sing
Sky is high, ever’body’s high
If you’re a viper…”
‘Viper’s Drag’ (1934), by Fats Waller
Without doubt the history of early jazz and the use of marijuana are intimately intertwined. At the beginning of the 20th century, black jazz musicians perform in the bordellos of Storyville, the red light district of New Orleans. They smoke ‘gage’, ‘tea’, ‘muggles’, ‘muta’, ‘Mary Jane’ and will soon call themselves ‘vipers’ – allegedly named after the hissing sound when they take a quick draw on a ‘reefer’ (joint).
Working long night shifts, they prefer smoking marijuana to alcohol. It doesn’t insensate their playing and sparks up their imagination without giving them hangovers. Louis Armstrong, a proud viper himself since his early days in New Orleans, will remember later:
„First place it’s a thousand times better than whiskey … It’s an Assistant–a friend a nice cheap drunk if you want to call it that …Good (very good) for Asthma – relaxes your nerves …” 
“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.” 
Along with jazz, the use of marijuana spreads to bigger cities like Chicago, Detroit, and New York. Around 1930 during alcohol prohibition – while marijuana is still legal – there are around 500 ‘tea pads’ in New York alone offering joints for around 20 cents; viper songs become the rage of the jazz world, including ‘Muggles’ (Louis Armstrong), “Sweet Marijuana Brown” (Benny Goodman), Viper Mad (Sydney Bechet), “That Funny Reefer Man” (Cab Calloway), “Viper’s Drag” (Fats Waller), or “Gimme a Pigfoot” (Bessie Smith).
The many influences of the marijuana high on jazz
How much did marijuana influence the early evolution of jazz? Many historians clearly see a connection, but usually underrate the profound influence of the marijuana high on the development of jazz – for at least two reasons. First, they underrate the complexity of the marijuana high and, connectedly, its many positive uses by musicians.
Second, the marijuana high affected not only individual performances. It was crucially involved in the evolution of the rebellious sub-cultural new lifestyle of which jazz was an expression. Let us look at the latter claim first.
Marijuana and the “Viper Culture”
Life is extremely hard for the black population in the 1920s and 30s – and even more so for black musicians moving to the bigger cities to establish a career. In his autobiography Really the Blues, Milton “Mezz” Mezzrow recalls:
„(…) it often happened that a man who migrated into town couldn’t eat unless his woman made money off of other men. But these people didn’t get nasty about it; many a guy kept on loving his woman and camping outside her door until she could let him in (…)“ 
The Ku-Klux-Klan had 4-5 million members. Black musicians were constantly humiliated by racial segregation and repression, and many of them went through extremely traumatizing experiences. At age 11, Billie Holiday’s neighbour attempted to rape her; at age 14, she had to work as a child prostitute for 5 $ a client in Harlem. Billie Holiday started smoking marijuana habitually before she was a teenager.
We now know that marijuana is used very effectively medically to treat post-traumatic stress syndrome, fears and depression. Marijuana must have helped many musicians to better deal with sadness, traumas, fears, and a culturally imposed inhibition.
The musical tradition of the blues had always helped the black population come to terms with their hostile life conditions; it expressed the sadness of many, but also created a space in which they could regain strength, faith, and joy. As Milton Mezzrow put it:
„These blues from the South taught me one thing: You take the weight off a good man a little and his song will start jumping with joy.“ 
Marijuana takes some more weight off. Many marijuana users have described in detail what I have called the “Zen-effect” of marijuana: while high, users hyperfocus their attention, often dwelling in the here-and-now without caring too much about past troubles or future problems. Additionally, some marijuana strains lead to euphoric feelings during a high. Louis Armstrong remembered:
„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.“
The ‘special kinship’ mentioned by Armstrong adds another important aspect to the picture. When thinking about the hippie era, we usually considered it a fact that a marijuana high made users more loving and empathic. We tend to forget that it had a similar effect for many musicians and their audiences in the swing era of the ‘roaring twenties’ – which paved the way for the 1960s beat generation. Louis Armstrong later wrote:
„One reason we appreciated pot, as y’all calls it now, was the warmth it always brought forth from the other person – especially the ones that lit up a good stick of that shuzzit or gage (…).“ 
The empathic effect of marijuana helps the social cohesion of the vipers:
“We were on another plane in another sphere compared to the musicians who were bottle babies, (…) we liked things to be easy and relaxed, mellow and mild (…) their tones became hard and evil, not natural, soft and soulful (…)” 
The empathic effects of marijuana probably also help the democratization of music which plays a crucial part in the early evolution of jazz. Strong empathy is an equalizer: Hierarchies become less important; solos are not only restricted anymore to singers or the classic solo instruments such as guitar or saxophone. As Herbie Hancock will later put it: “It’s not exclusive, but inclusive, which is the whole spirit of jazz.”
Racial boundaries and prejudices are overcome more easily. The Jewish Mezz Mezzrow, the white viper who famously sells the good quality “mezzroles” (joints) to other musicians, declares himself to be black – out of sympathy with black lifestyle and music.
To sum up then, various psychological effects of marijuana played a positive role in the evolution of the early jazz culture. In part II of this essay we will take a look at how individual musicians used those and other mind-altering effects of the marijuana high to enhance their performance.
“I never sing a song the same way twice”
Billie Holiday (1915-59)
“Jazz is about being in the moment”
How can a high positively influence the performance of a jazz musician? The effect cited most often as an answer is the altered sense of time during a high. Dr. James Munch, pharmacologist and associate of drug czar and infamous marijuana prohibitionist Harry J. Anslinger during the 30s and 40s, produced many ridiculous claims about the alleged horrible effects of marijuana, but expressed this point crisp clear years later, when he said about marijuana using musicians:
“(…) the chief effect as far as they were concerned was that it lengthens the sense of time, and therefore they could get more grace beats into their music than they could if they simply followed the written copy. (…) if you are using marijuana, you are going to work in about twice as much music between the first note and the second note. That’s what made jazz musicians.” 
Hyperfocussing, mind racing, and an altered sense of time
Munch’s point about the altered sense of time and its role in jazz music is important; however, this is only one of several crucial effects of marijuana which can play a positive role for jazz performers. One of the fundamental effects of marijuana is to hyperfocus attention.
Mezzrow remembers this hyperfocus for his auditory experience when he first got high:
“The first thing I noticed was that I began to hear my saxophone a though it was inside my head, but I couldn’t hear much of the band in back of me, although I knew they were there. All the other instruments sounded like they were far off in distance;(…)”. 
This hyperfocus allows him to better concentrate on his immediate tactile sensation of his instrument, which improves his control:
”Then I began to feel the vibrations of the reed much more pronounced against my lip (…) I found I was slurring much better and putting just the right feeling into the phrase.” 
During a high, this hyperfocus of attention allows not only for a more analytic perception of whatever comes into this focus; it might also lead to mindracing, another effect often described by marijuana users probably related to the prolonged sense of time mentioned above. 
In his 1938 report “Marihuana, America’s New Drug Problem”, Walton states:
“The exaggeration of the sense of time is one of the most conspicuous effects. It is probably related to the rapid succession of ideas and impressions which cross the field of consciousness.” 
The acceleration of thought processes is sometimes experienced as a stream of associatively connected thoughts, memories, or imaginations, which also depends on the consumed dosage. Obviously, the speeding up of mental processes in a narrowed down tunnel of attention can help a musician to more rapidly play an improvised solo, or to keep up with the speed of others.
If we want to better understand what happens during such an accelerated stream of thought during a high we have to look at some other related effects of marijuana.
Short term memory disruptions, enhanced pattern recognition & imagination
With their mind unusually focussed on the present moment or thought, marijuana users sometimes forget about the beginning of a thought chain or about the original “frame” of the discourse. This often leads to a “what-were we-talking-about?”- moment; they are loosing the thread. While this is often only negatively described in the scientific literature on marijuana as “short-term memory disruptions”, it can also have positive aspects. 
While inexperienced users – especially when using high dosages – become disoriented, skilled users using good quality marijuana can keep the thread, but feel that their stream of thought is less constrained by the original theme or frame, and less constrained by the goal it was intended to go towards. This allows a stream of thoughts or imaginations to ‘jump’ more freely along unusually wide associations.
Many marijuana users have also reported an enhanced ability to see new patterns during a high. They find new similarities between various patterns. In a musical performance, these effects can then lead to a rapid improvisation over known musical themes, which loosely associate them to new patterns and ideas or they lead to new connections or transitions between musical themes. Subjectively, this leads to the feeling of a rapid and effortless flow of ideas.
Marijuana users have also described that a high enhances their imaginative abilities – visually, auditory, gustatory, or otherwise – a capacity which is crucial to the invention of new ideas. Needless to say how important an enhanced ability for auditory imagination can be for a musical performer coming up with a new improvisation on stage, or for a composer working on a new song.
In Mezzrow’s first high, the interrelated effects of mind-racing, a hyperfocus of attention, an enhanced pattern recognition ability and an enhanced imagination lead to an explosive performance:
”All the notes came easing out of my horn like they’d already been made up, greased and stuffed into the bell, so all I had to do was to blow a little and send them on their way, one right after the other, never missing, never behind time, all without an ounce of effort. The phrases seem to have continuity to them and I was sticking to the theme without ever going tangent. I felt I could go on playing for years without running out of ideas and energy”.
The aphrodisiac effect of marijuana
Mezzrow mentions another way in which marijuana affected jazz:
“Us vipers began to know that we had a gang of things in common: (…) we all decided that the muta had some aphrodisiac qualities too, which didn’t run us away from it.” 
Many have cited Mezzrow’s passages above to illustrate the influence of marijuana on jazz, but they never mention that his high adventure on stage ends in an ecstatic group experience like decades later at concerts of the Beatles:
“The people were going crazy over the subtle changes in our playing; (…) some kind of electricity was crackling in the air and it made them all glow and jump. (…) it seemed like all the people on the dance floor were melted down into one solid, mesmerized mass; (…) looking up at the band with hypnotic eyes and swaying (…). An entertainer (..) was throwing herself around like a snake with the hives. The rhythm really had this queen; (…) what she was doing with (..) her anatomy isn’t discussed in mixed company. “Don’t do that!” she yelled. “Don’t do that to me!” 
That’s probably what Duke Ellington meant when he said about jazz:
“By and large, jazz has always been like the kind of a man you wouldn’t want your daughter to associate with.”
“Jazz is a very democratic musical form. It comes out of a communal experience. We take our respective instruments and collectively create a thing of beauty.”
Max Roach, jazz drummer (1924-2007)
I have argued in various places that for skilled users, the marijuana high can lead to the enhancement of empathic understanding of others.  In his ground-breaking study On Being Stoned, Harvard psychologist Charles Tart found that many marijuana users who had received his questionnaires agreed that the following effects are characteristic or frequent for moderate levels of a high:
I have feelings of deep insight into other people, how they tick, what their games are, when stoned (…). I empathize tremendously with others; I feel what they feel; I have a tremendous intuitive understanding of what they are feeling. I feel so aware of what people are thinking that it must be telepathy, mind reading, rather than just being more sensitive to the subtle cues in behaviour. 
Jazz, marijuana, and the enhancement of empathic understanding
Can marijuana really help people to better understand others during a high? Countless users have not only described that they understand others better while high; they have given detailed descriptions of empathic insights during a high.  If we look at some other cognitive effects of marijuana, this makes sense.
Take for example the often reported enhanced episodic memory during a high. Marijuana users have reported in detail how they vividly remember long gone episodes of their lives when high – often from a point of view of their former selves. Naturally, if you can remember better how you felt as a teenager confronted with a big exam, you will understand your teenage kids better in this situation.
Marijuana users have also reported all kinds of enhanced pattern recognition abilities. This can lead to an enhanced ability to read body language, which may for instance allow you to empathically understand that your friend shows signs of insecurity in a conversation.
Musicians with a better empathic understanding of each other communicate better – off stage and on stage. When performing live together, jazz musicians improvise and do not follow strict pre-meditated rules; their performance as a group is crucially dependent on their mutual understanding, reacting to each other in the flow of their performance.
In the swing era, legendary Billie Holiday and Lester Young were known for their almost telepathic performance; both were experienced vipers and used marijuana a lot before performing and in between sets.  Like many other jazz vipers, their use of marijuana may have helped them to come to this close understanding.
A note of caution
In an interview, clarinettist and band leader Artie Shaw said he once got frustrated with viper Chuck Peterson, his first trumpet player in the band, because Shaw felt Peterson made the band lag when playing high. He confronted Peterson, who felt he was playing just fine, so they came to a deal. Shaw, who had been smoking marijuana for a while as a young adult suggested to perform high together – if that would work, they would turn on together every night from then on:
He gave it to me, I smoked it, and I was playing over my head. I was hearing shit I’d never heard before in those same old arrangements. I finished and turned to him. ‘You win,’ I said. ‘No, man,’ he said. ‘I lose.’
He had been giving me incredulous looks during the evening and I thought he was thinking, ‘Man, this guy is blowing his head off.’ I was hearing great things. But the technical ability to do it – it’s like driving drunk. You feel great, but you don’t know what you’re doing. At least he was honest about it.’ 
Does this show that Jazz musicians smoking marijuana were generally undergoing a delusion about their performance during a high? Hardly. Experienced vipers like Satchmo, Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Lester Young, Cab Calloway, Fats Waller, Theloneous Monk, Anita O’Day, Lionel Hampton, Count Basie, Duke Ellington and many others were doing more than just fine playing under the influence.
Dizzy Gillespie, who wrote he was turned on to pot when he came to New York in 1937, remembers in his autobiography that almost all jazz musicians he knew were smoking pot and some of the older musicians had been smoking pot for 40 or 50 years. Surely, they were not all victims of a self-delusion when it came to performing high.
However, Artie Shaw’s story reminds us that not every musician can perform well while high; as with other activities, a true viper has to master the effects of the high and has to learn how to ride a high – just like a surfer has to learn how to ride a wave with a surfboard. Note, however, that even for musicians who cannot deal with marijuana on stage, the high can still turn out to be helpful.
Artie Shaw notes above that under the influence of a high, he was hearing thing in old arrangements that he had never heard before when sober. This new perception could have also paved the way for him for new interpretations or arrangements.
A marijuana high can help a creative process or activity in many ways and in various phases of creative activities.  A writer for instance may feel that he can generate great ideas during a high which he shortly notes down, while actually feeling that the high doesn’t really help or even strongly interferes with the process of actually writing down the details. If used in the wrong way, marijuana can certainly also have a negative influence on creative performances.
The marijuana high probably enhanced Satchmo’s performance; he was an expert in riding a marijuana high and loved it. But that certainly does not mean that his musical ability can be reduced to the influence of marijuana. It was made possible by his enormous talent, his character, his discipline, training, and experience. Likewise, the evolution of jazz was not only driven by marijuana use, but was made possible by many factors, like the sociological process of urbanizations.
But if we look at the many known cognitive changes during a high we come to understand that marijuana substantially contributed to the evolution of jazz. It helped countless skilled vipers to repeatedly come up every night with new inventive solos, fluid, rapid, and imaginative playing; and it helped them not only in their individual performances, but, also, to better understand each other and to „click“ on stage.
“If you don’t live it, it ain’t come out of your horn”, Charlie Parker once said. From the beginnings in New Orleans, the marijuana high was also integral to the early evolution of a free, joyous, empathic, rebellious, disinhibited, imaginative, and creative viper culture, which they celebrated with their jazz. 
- Louis Armstrong, In His Own Words, Selected Writings, Oxford University Press 1999, p. 114.
- Max Jones and John Clifton Little (1988) Louis. The Louis Armstrong Story 1900-1971 DaCapo Press.
- Mezz Mezzrow (1946/1990), Really the Blues, Souvenir Press, London, p.46.
- Max Jones and John Clifton Little (1988) Louis. The Louis Armstrong Story 1900-1971 DaCapo Press.
- Mezz Mezzrow (1946/1990), Really the Blues, Souvenir Press, London, p. 94.
- Larry “Ratso” Sloman (1998), Reefer Madness. The History of Marijuana in America, pp. 146-147.
- Mezz Mezzrow (1946/1990), Really the Blues, Souvenir Press, London, p. 72.
- Compare Sebastian Marincolo (2010) High. Insights on Marijuana, Chapter 6, “Intensified Imagination, Mindracing, and Time Perception Distortions”, Dog Ear Publishing, Indiana.
- Walton, R.P. (1938), Marijuana. America’s New Drug Problem, Philadelphia, Lippincott, S.105.
- Compare Andrew Weil (2004). The Natural Mind: A New Way of Looking at Drugs and the Higher Consciousness. Houghton Mifflin, Boston.
- Mezz Mezzrow (1946/1990), Really the Blues, Souvenir Press, London, p. 93.
- ibid, p. 73.
- Compare Sebastian Marincolo (2010) High. Insights on Marijuana, Dog Ear Publishing, Indiana, and Sebastian Marincolo (2013), High. Das positive Potential von Marijuana, Klett-Cotta/Tropen, Stuttgart.
- Tart, Charles T. (1971). On Being Stoned: A Psychological Study of Marijuana Intoxication. Palo Alto, Cal.: Science and Behavior Books., p. 133.
- Check for instance Lester Grinspoon (ed.), marijuana-uses.com
- See Donald Clarke (2002), Billie Holiday: Wishing on the Moon, DaCapo Press.
- Aram Saroyan (August 6, 2000), „Artie Shaw Talking“, Los Angeles Times
- See my „Marijuana and Creativity – A Love Story“
- For a great source on cannabis and music take a look at Jörg Fachner’s publications on the subject. Also, see Russell Cronin (2004), „The History of Music and Marijuana“, Cannabis Culture Magazine
3 thoughts on “Vipers, Muggles, and The Evolution of Jazz”
Brillant, well researched, and well thought out article!! Thank you for your insightful writing on the culture and development of music, medicine, soul, science, and art.
Good morning Jennifer,
I hope you’re having a great day!
Thanks so much for your support, I’m glad you enjoyed the article.
The development of music, medicine, and art is fascinating!
I hope you continue to enjoy the blog,
Wonderful essay, I enjoyed it hugely.