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

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'.


“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 …”[1]

“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.”[2]

Armstrong was so fond of marijuana that he said a sequel to his biography might well be about “nothing than gage”. 
Armstrong was so fond of marijuana that he said a sequel to his biography might well be about “nothing than gage”.

Along with jazz, the use of marijuana spreads to the 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 (…)[3]

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 neighbor 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.

Ku Klux Klan
Ku Klux Klan

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.[4]

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 (…).“[5]

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 (…)”[6]

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.

[1]   Louis Armstrong, In His Own Words, Selected Writings, Oxford University Press 1999, p. 114.

[2]   Max Jones and John Clifton Little (1988) Louis. The Louis Armstrong Story 1900-1971 DaCapo Press.

[3]    Mezz Mezzrow (1946/1990), Really the Blues, Souvenir Press, London, p.46.

[4]    Ibid.

[5]   Max Jones and John Clifton Little (1988) Louis. The Louis Armstrong Story 1900-1971 DaCapo Press.

[6]   Mezz Mezzrow (1946/1990), Really the Blues, Souvenir Press, London, p. 94.

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