Monthly Archives: June 2013

Jazz and Drugs

‘Doctor Jazz ‘ Words – Walter Melrose, Music – Joe ‘King’ Oliver

Jazz and drugs, from reefers to benzedrine inhalers to smack and coke, have quite a history in common. There’s no point in being prudish or judgemental about it. Think of those Ravers dancing all night to Barber or Mick Mulligan. Just break that inhaler you bought over the counter and that strip inside will keep you going for hours. Then there was grass and hash – not for nothing did it come to be known as the ‘jazz woodbine’. All kinds of dope could be bought over the counter, scored from mates of found in the medicine cabinet at home – GPs back then prescribed barbiturates when your dad couldn’t sleep and amphetamines when your mum needed to shed a few pounds. Nobody really thought that much about it and even when it came to harder stuff there was a lot of naivety around.

James Lincoln Collier wrote in The Making of Jazz (1981) that between 50-75% of bop players in America had some experience with hard drugs, that between 25-33% were seriously addicted and that as many as 20% were killed by it. Heroin never cut quite such a swathe through British jazz in the 50s and 60s but quite a few got hooked and a few of those gave their lives for it. Then there were those who, maybe, never took Heroin – Ronnie Scott tried it once but it made him sick and that put him off – but liked a line of coke or ‘Peruvian marching powder’ as Ronnie sometimes called it.

And before we start getting prissy, let’s not forget that this scene has always run on booze. Think of the Speakeasy’s in the States or the clubs and pubs at home where most of us first heard this music. There was something magical about sitting there, a beer in front of you – legal or underage – watching and hearing those guys on stage seen through a blue haze of cigarette smoke. There’s lots of things we know better now and a whole lot more we don’t. But from the 30s through to the 60s, part of the appeal of jazz was its sense of danger and the forbidden.

On 15th April 1950, forty police officers raided Club 11 in Carnaby Street. This was, of course, the birthplace of British modern jazz. They found about 200 men and women, black and white, aged between 17-30. Ten were in possession of Hashish, two other had a small amount of Cocaine each and one a similar amount of Morphine. In addition, another 23 wraps of Hash, a number of joints, another packet of Cocaine, some Opium and an empty morphine ampoule were picked up by officers from the club floor. The club closed and these miscreants, including Ronnie Scott, walked away with heavy fines. Ronnie was probably quite lucky. After all, he already had a conviction for possessing Cocaine.

Those readers old enough to remember will recall all that stuff in the 60s about drug-influenced rock music and ‘experts’ on ‘serious’ news programmes waffling about how this or that related to Marijuana or LSD. There was some truth in that waffle, however. Some rock musicians certainly might have tried to convey what it was like to be stoned on some really heavy gear or how a trip might sound if you could just put it to music. Others, who didn’t inhale, maybe didn’t want to seem unhip and jumped on the wagon as it passed by. But it is hard to hear in most British jazz of the 60s any such drug influences, unless it’s the obvious one of cider upon Acker and his Paramount Jazzband.

To understand drug use in jazz back then, you don’t need a degree in Sociology. In one sense, it kind of goes with the territory of late nights, long journeys by road to get back from a gig, lengthy recording sessions that pay the rent and a certain amount of scuffling just to get by. It’s a way of life where you meet all sorts – John McVicar was a Scott Club regular when he wasn’t doing time, whilst the famous Regency Club was owned by the Kray twins. Jazz brought people together across cultures, sometimes those where use of certain drugs was perhaps more culturally acceptable than it was within the mainstream. This was not a ‘9-5, mortgage, pipe and slippers, Sunday roast’ kind of life. It was marginal and at the margins, different rules sometimes apply.

I think we also need to understand that often people do not try a drug because they or their lives are deficient in some way. They might do it out of peer pressure or simply out of curiosity and, if it were to prove a pleasurable experience, they might begin to use more regularly. Drugs – including alcohol – can be fun, can be nice, can be pleasurable. Depressant drugs like alcohol, Heroin, Morphine, Opium, Barbiturates and Cannabis – Cannabis is a bit of a hybrid, also having potentially psychedelic effects – can relax you and make you feel at peace with yourself and the world. Psychedelics like LSD, Mescaline and Peyote offer distortions of reality through the senses that some find exciting and even profound. Take Aldous Huxley, for example. Then there are the stimulants like Cocaine and Amphetamine – coffee and tobacco also contain stimulants in caffeine and nicotine. These drugs offered heightened sensations. People feel very powerful, excited, in control and vibrant under their influence and they provide a sometimes incredible rush through the central nervous system that some find addictive in itself. And different drugs serve different situations and mood states. I hate to state the obvious but we – including those of us who drink tea, coffee and alcohol and smoke tobacco – use drugs because of what they do for us. The differences lie as much in differential levels of harm and in their legal/illegal status.

Clip of Reefer Madness

In August 1960, Stan Tracey was gaoled for six months for possession of Cannabis with intent to supply. He had bought the dope from a Nigerian acquaintance, who had agreed to send him ‘Indian hemp’ for £25 per pound but the shipment was intercepted. There is a kind of almost period charm to the Melody Maker account. Stan’s solicitor told the court in mitigation that six months ago, “Tracey was tempted to try an Indian hemp cigarette and he found it gave him a ‘fine feeling of well-being and inspiration’.” Unfortunately, however, his solicitor continued, “he did not have the strength of will to tell the Nigerian to stop further supplies.” Maybe at the time, this might have seemed shocking even to fans of the music. Now, the feeling is more one of ‘so what’ and ‘tough break, man!’. After all, long before Bob Dylan introduced The Beatles to the delights of Mary Jane, smoking pot was commonplace on the jazz scene.

Stan has always been upfront about his past drug use. His use of Cocaine and Heroin isn’t something he is proud of but neither is it something that requires penance of any kind. His story tells in an intriguing way how he started doing Heroin.

“Because before I started using heroin I was into cocaine and I got hooked on the mechanics of snorting, the chopping up and snorting.  One night, the guy I used to get the coke from didn’t have any but he had some heroin – I never did inject.  He said, ‘You just crush it up the same as you do with coke and away you go.’  So, I did and I liked the effect.  So, I used it for a few nights or maybe a week and then suddenly I discovered I was very pooped out and tired in the afternoon – I didn’t realise I was having withdrawals.”

The pattern Tracey describes is not unusual.  Quite a lot of cocaine users slide into using heroin either out of curiosity or in the absence of their drug of choice or as a means of coming down from the high of cocaine.  Bobby Wellins’ addiction followed a similar pattern to Tracey’s and for him, as with Tubby Hayes, one factor seems to have been a dissatisfaction with his art.  In Hayes’ case, this focused on doubts about his own playing.  In Bobby Wellins’ case, as we noted earlier, his frustrations lay in a perceived sense that British musicians were seen as second-rate, even within their own country.

“I didn’t even drink.  I can only speak for myself when I say that I became disillusioned with the fact that British jazz musicians – as far as I was concerned – were third- class citizens and everyone else who came either from Europe or America were like the ‘bees’ knees’.  The sudden shock of a young man, who at my age was very sensitive anyway and who was working hard to be a better and better musician but who didn’t have a great deal of confidence, I suppose you could say I was disillusioned and I just found solace.  It was nothing to do with playing better I can assure you of that.  It didn’t do anything to make one play better.”

He continues,

“Others from the community at the time suddenly get hooked and I think it was for the same reasons that I’ve been talking about.  The American Federation of Musicians had made an agreement with the British Musicians’ Union and, as soon as the Americans started coming in, the floodgates were open and we were in our little corner trying to get work.  And as much as we were delighted that we were hearing all of our idols in the flesh, we suddenly realised that they were doing all the tours around the country, so our work suffered very badly.”

Ironically, it was Tubby Hayes who first gave Wellins some cocaine, as he tells me, “‘Try a bit of this, old boy,’ he said.  ‘That will cheer you up.  That was the start of it.”  He was then introduced to heroin by another musician, whom he declined to name, saying, “Yes, there was no cocaine available and the person in question said, ‘I’ve got a bit of this, if you want to try it.’ and so I did.”

Clip from Cocaine Fiends

There’s a certain innocence to these stories that nowadays seems quite astounding. When Ginger Baker first tried Heroin, it was as if his playing had reached a whole new level, as he told me in an interview in 2009. “The first time I used it, I was working with the Johnny Scott Quintet.  It was a gig in Brighton and all the band turned round to me afterwards, ‘You played fucking amazing tonight’ and I thought I’d found the answer.  I wasn’t aware at that time that it was habit-forming.  I thought it was just like smoking dope.  That is how I got into it.”

As he explained, it took many years to get off drugs despite its impact on his personal and professional life.

“I was a registered addict by 1961.  That cost me a lot of work.  It cost me the Dankworth job.  I did the audition for the Dankworth band and all the band were raving about it and somebody told John I was using smack and Ronnie Stephenson got the gig and became a bigger junkie than me, which was really quite funny.”

Author and drug worker Harry Shapiro offers a possible insight into the kinds of processes that were going on within individuals and within their milieu when he notes, “But I think it was very much part of this sense of being an outsider in society.  And, of course, they knew about Charlie Parker and people like that.  Jack Bruce said to me that they called this the Charlie Parker death wish, that somehow in order to reach the heights of somebody like Parker you had to get into the depths of heroin to look for the inspiration, which was misguided clearly.  But it had a certain sense to it in the way…. not that heroin was an inspiration to great music but that somehow it let them insulate themselves from the world.”

But there is another side to this. Not everybody on the scene used Heroin or Cocaine. Many preferred alcohol and maybe an occasional joint with speed being an occasional extra for that little lift – “Mother’s Little Helper”, as Jagger and Richards called it. At the same time, there was a degree of tolerance on the scene, certainly of those like Phil Seamen and Tubby Hayes who could still take care of business. This was a peer group of outsiders, that combined a relaxed tolerance of aberrant behaviour with cool detachment.  If this was your bag and you could still play, that was all that really mattered. Bassist Coleridge Goode describes his embarrassment when the Joe Harriott Quintet supported Dave Brubeck and Seamen, who had just shot up, vomited on stage. Brubeck was watching from the wings. As Goode says, “I wanted the stage to open up so I could just disappear.  It was horrible, really horrible.” But Seamen’s unreliability did not stop people hiring him. He was, after all, a master on his instrument.

Phil Seamen in the film ‘The Golden Disc’

Throughout the sixties, Britain operated a benevolent treatment-oriented approach to drug addiction (established in 1926 following the report of the Rolleston Committee), one that allowed for maintenance of the habit rather than ‘cure’. That system came under pressure from various quarters. Some doctors, like John Petro and Lady Frankau, writing scripts for cash and that brought the disrepute on what was with hindsight a sensible and laudable approach. It is true that the character of the drug dependant population that came under the Rolleston system had begun to change. Originally, those registered tended to be middle-class, often with injuries acquired in war or accidents and needing strong forms of pain relief. Or they were involved in medicine in some way and had become addicted through access to these kinds of medication. By the end of the fifties and certainly by the end of the sixties, the balance had shifted more in terms of recreational users, including jazz musicians. Even so, back then numbers of those addicted barely stretched into four figures. Now, a reasonable estimate of the number of users of Heroin and ‘Crack’ Cocaine would between 250 and 300 thousand. The ‘war on drugs’ will certainly not be over by Christmas.

The approach to other forms of drug use in Britain in the 60s contrasted greatly with the benign Rolleston regime. In terms of pills, Cannabis and LSD, the full weight of the law was frequently brought to bear and as attitudes to the illegal use of ‘soft’ drugs hardened, this increasing emphasis on the criminalisation of drugs and users was another factor in the eventual abandonment of the Rolleston approach.

Clip from The Man with the Golden Arm

Mercifully, few British musicians saw their lives were cut short by Heroin use. We would have to note here Tubby Hayes, Phil Seamen, Graham Bond, drummers Dickie Devere, Benny Goodman and Red Reece, saxophonists Glenn Hughes and John Marshall, singer Joy Marshall and multi-instrumentalist Alan Branscombe. Others like Stan Tracey, Peter King and Bobby Wellins survived and have continued to bless our scene, whilst another fine pianist, Terry Shannon, left jazz in order to escape addiction. These weren’t the only British musicians to use Heroin (and/or Cocaine) by any means but their mention is surely enough to allow us to understand something of what ‘hard’ drug use meant to British jazz in this period.

LSD use amongst British jazzers was less common. I know of a couple of players who took psychedelics a few times but only a few such as pianist Mike Taylor, saxophonist Dave Tomlin and, of course, Graham Bond used regularly. LSD certainly contributed to Taylor’s mental health problems and, perhaps, indirectly to his early death. However, most musicians I have interviewed suggested that the visual and auditory hallucinations associated with heavy end psychedelic drugs such as LSD and Mescaline would make playing a music as complex as jazz extraordinarily difficult. The other drug in fairly common use in the sixties was Amphetamine Sulphate in its various forms. Some musicians may have used it as a means of keeping going through long hours on the stand coupled often with day jobs in recording studios or at the BBC. Others may have used it because it gives confidence and seems to take the edge off stage fright. To my knowledge only two musicians developed a serious problem with Amphetamines. Stan Tracey acknowledges that he was using ‘speed’ in the late 60s and early 70s. His big band album Seven Ages Of Man (Columbia) was, in his view at least, affected negatively by his use of ‘speed’.

“Yeah, I’m not entirely happy with that one.  I was treating myself to certain substances during Seven Ages and some of the stuff I wrote came out of a place it shouldn’t have done.  It was bloody Dexedrine.  I got into it the same way I got to taking everything else.  I got so that I wouldn’t write unless I had some.  You know that album with Ben Webster – Webster’s Dictionary – that was entirely Dexedrine.  It just used to spark me off but Seven Ages I was trying too hard.”

Stan dealt with that, as he had his dependence on Heroin. Not so, however, the brilliant saxophonist Mike Osborne. Osborne probably had a predisposition for Schizophrenia but his use of Amphetamine and Cocaine certainly did not help. He was hospitalised several times as a result of psychotic episodes that were in part a consequence of his use of stimulants. From 1980 onwards, that wonderful and unique voice and gift that Ossie had was silent.

But perhaps the strangest tale of addiction that I came across in writing Trad Dads, Dirty Boppers and Free Fusioneers concerned trumpeter Bert Courtley. In a way, it seems to sum up the confusion of British drug policy then and since. Bert’s addiction was to a proprietary brand of medicine dating back to Victorian times, called Dr. Collis Browne’s Chlorodyne.  It could be bought at pharmacists and even corner stores as a remedy for all manner of complaints and was certainly still available well into the seventies.

Bert Courtley was married to that fine tenor saxophonist Kathy Stobart and died in 1969.  He had played with Ted Heath, with Don Rendell in the Jazz Committee and the Jazz Six and had done sessions for pop groups like the Beatles. As Stobart tells me, her husband’s problems began when he was asked to share lead trumpet duties in the Heath band.  Courtley was very talented but lacked confidence in his abilities.  What began as a ‘stiff one’ before a gig to calm his nerves became something else all together. At some point, he started taking Chlorodyne and it killed him. As Kathy told me,

“I remember opening a cupboard and a whole load of them falling out.  I couldn’t believe my eyes.  When the doctor found out what he’d been taking, he said that the medical profession had been trying for years to get it taken off the market.  Eventually, it was taken off the market but not until it had finished Bert’s liver.”

Dr. Collis Browne’s potion was advertised in the late 19th century as “a liquid medicine which assuages pain of every kind, affords a calm refreshing sleep without headache and invigorates the nervous system when exhausted.” Given that it was a mixture of hydrochloride of morphine, chloroform, ether and prussic acid, with treacle, liquorice and peppermint to make it palatable, it would surely meet current advertising standards!  It did exactly what it said on the tin – and more.

For me, the very fact that one could be busted for possession of Cannabis but take a perfectly legal but extraordinarily dangerous medicine like this tells us a great deal about the morally-determined character of British drug laws.

‘Who Put the Benzedrine in Mrs. Murphy’s Ovaltine’ by Harry ‘The Hipster’ Gibson

NB: This lecture was originally given at the National Jazz Archive, Loughton, Essex in March 2013. It is based on the chapter on drugs and British jazz in ‘Trad Dads, Dirty Boppers and Free Fusioneers’.


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