Anyone who has ever studied jazz history probably knows that its unruly cast of characters was often loaded on drugs and alcohol.  Charlie Parker, one of jazz’s most iconic heroes, died very young because of his ravenous addictions to heroine and alcohol.  He had drugged and drank himself to death. The coroner estimated that Parker was between 50-60 years of age, when in reality he was 35!  Chet Baker, near the end of his career, could hardly even play or sing. Stan Getz was able to kick his heroine habit in the 50’s but instead fell into excessive drinking, tobacco smoking and dabbled with cocaine. Miles Davis shares a similar story, kicking his heroine habit but then later spent a good amount of time snorting coke.  Louis Armstrong was well known for smoking a lot of marijuana, throughout his life. I believe Dizzy Gillespie also indulged in some mystery greens.  Let’s not even go into the tragic life of Billie Holiday and her incredible appetites for illegal substances.

As for sex, I don’t believe jazz musicians are necessarily more sexually promiscuous than other people, but let’s just say the jazz musician lifestyle (especially in those days) was not very friendly to monogamy.  In Miles Davis’ autobiography, he talks about a very interesting story involving Charlie Parker, a taxi cab, fried chicken and a woman.

Hard drug use seems to be less an epidemic in the jazz community as it used to. There are certainly some who do, but mostly its just smoking pot and drinking. Among some of my jazz friends and colleagues here in New York City this seems to be the case.

Now I’m not here to argue about whether smoking pot is good or bad, nor am I writing this to offer my opinion.  If you’re interested though, Brad Mehldau wrote an interesting article about his pot smoking days.  I think we can probably all agree that hard drug use has provided sufficient evidence of self-destruction and drinking too much alcohol can definitely kill you.  All cartons of cigarettes have fatality warnings on them, at least in the United States.  I’m also not trying to discuss whether promiscuous sex is good or bad.

My real questions are: Why is it that jazz musicians seem to be so vulnerable to excessive drug and alcohol use? Does this have anything to do with being a creative mind, or is that a false concept altogether?

Also I should mentioned that I’m not really referring just to jazz musicians.  This happens to be a jazz website so it makes sense to talk about this particular crew, but lot’s of other types of musicians seem to have the same tendencies.  Think about Jim Morrison, the Beatles, Amy Winehouse, Janis Joplin, Whitney Houston. We could go on forever listing famous musicians with drug and alcohol abuse issues. And it’s not just musicians. Think about Ernest Hemingway, Van Gogh and Edgar Allan Poe.  So perhaps I’m more-so pointing out a trend that I have seen in artists and creative minds.

There are studies out that would suggest creative minds and substance abuse are connected and others that would claim that concept a fallacy.

I personally think they are connected in some ways. I feel like creative minds tend to be more susceptible to these sorts of things.  Here are some of my theories as to why this is, coming from a jazz musicians perspective:

Indulgence.

It seems to me that a lot of people that get into jazz have fairly indulgent personalities.  First off, jazz is a music that is all about self expression. In certain hands, jazz can be a fairly selfish sort of music. Also, think about how much a serious jazz musician practices.  I know for me I used to practice ridiculously long hours, lost in my complete obsession. It takes a certain obsessive personality to practice this music with such dedication. Certainly if you look back at a lot of the jazz greats this was the case for them.  I would argue that an artist needs to be indulgent to some degree to really create fine art.  I think this indulgent personality for some can trickle into other things like eating, drinking and sex.  Before you know it, there is this insatiable appetite for more and more of whatever the vice happens to be. This leads me into my next theory…

Artist are constantly seeking new experiences.

Most musicians that I know have an incredible sense of curiosity. In a lot of ways curiosity is a driving force for an artist.  How do I approach this differently? How do I take this to the next level? What can make this situation look different to me? How can I gain more perspective?   

Artists are pleasure seekers. Sure, everybody is a pleasure seeker, but remember that artists can be particularly indulgent.  They want to feel something different, be something different so that maybe they can get a different result. They are secretly hoping for a mind-opening experience that will change their perception of reality.  Creative minds are never satisfied with normality. They are always seeking stimulation in any way shape or form. This is one reason I love to travel. Seeing the world inspires me and brings new perception to my reality.  It’s also why I like living in New York. There is always something new and interesting going on to stimulate my creative senses. For some though, this desire for adventure manifests itself in seeking out substances as a means to satisfy that craving.

Stress.

The reason I include this in my theory is I’ve heard it so many times before.  Just the other week I was playing a gig and after the first set the drummer was all shook up: “Man, I sounded like s%#t that last set. Oh man. Oh man. I’m gonna go get a beer.” Why did he want to get a beer? Because of course it would help him to chill out. He was too intense and way too in his head and a little bit of alcohol would even things out a little.  The hope was that if he could relax a little bit, he would be able to just play instead of think too much.

In my experience, musicians are some of the most emotionally charged people I know. They are super paranoid about how well they are playing, and if what they did sounded good. If they mess up they get really down on themselves. If they are feeling good about their music they are on top of the world.  This sort of mentality can easily lead to using substances to help control these roller coaster emotions.

Someone I knew in college claimed he always had to smoke a joint before he played a show or else he would be too tense.  Maybe Louis Armstrong would agree with him?

Environment.

Think about where most jazz musicians tend to play: bars, clubs, restaurants and parties. All of these venues sell or provide alcohol.  Also in a lot of cases, musicians get a certain number of free drinks as part of their payment. What does this result in? Musicians who drink regularly. Of course not every musician drinks, but a lot of them do (at least in my circles).  Research has shown for a long time now that a persons environment will influence a persons actions. In addition, alcohol is considered a gate way drug, meaning it could lead to curiosity about other drugs. I’ve already talked about how curious those musicians can be!

I realize some of these observations are generalizations.  Everybody is different and not all musicians share these same personality traits. These are just things I have noticed and put together from my experiences being in the jazz scene.

What do you think? Do you agree? Have anything else you would like to add? Join the conversation on our Facebook page.

-Brent Vaartstra

To learn more about this author visit www.brentvaartstra.com.

30 Stepsto Better Jazz Playing

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