Vipers, Muggles, and The Evolution of Jazz, Part III

"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.


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.[1] In his groundbreaking 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 feelingI 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 behavior.[2]

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.[3] 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.

Billie_Holiday,_Downbeat,_New_York,_N.Y.,_ca._Feb._1947_(William_P._Gottlieb_04251)
Billie Holiday, 1915-59

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.[4]  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, clarinetist 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.’[5]

Dizzy_Gillespie,_Tadd_Dameron,_Hank_Jones,_Mary_lou_Williams,_Milt_Orent._Ca.August_1947_(Gottlieb)
Dizzy Gillespie (left), 1917-93

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.[6] 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.[7]

[1]   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.  

[2]   Tart, Charles T. (1971). On Being Stoned: A Psychological Study of Marijuana Intoxication. Palo Alto, Cal.: Science and Behavior Books., p. 133.

[3]   Check for instance Lester Grinspoon (ed.), marijuana-uses.com

[4]   See Donald Clarke (2002), Billie Holiday: Wishing on the Moon, DaCapo Press.

[5]   Aram Saroyan (August 6, 2000), „Artie Shaw Talking“, Los Angeles Times

[6]   See my „Marijuana and Creativity – A Love Story“, https://sensiseeds.com/en/blog/marijuana-creativity-part-love-story/

[7]   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

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