Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Lester Young, John Coltrane – the list of jazz greats who battled drug and alcohol addiction goes on and on. Contemporary stars like Amy Winehouse seem to be following the same pattern. Now in a review of the psychological and biographical literature, Gerald Tolson and Michael Cuyjet have rejected the romantic notion that musical genius needs the succour of drugs in order to thrive.
A survey conducted in 1957 by Nat Hentoff of 409 New York City jazz musicians confirmed the extent of the problem: More than half had tried heroin, with 16 per cent being regular users. Over half used marijuana.
Tolson and Cuyjet said the jazz greats turned to drugs to release their creativity, to enhance the natural high of performing, and to cope with the strain of a disapproving society. The musicians of the 40’s and 60’s spent much of their lives in nightclubs where drug use was rife. They further had to contend with racism, often being required to arrive through the service entrance of clubs and were often forbidden from mingling with the patrons, many of whom were white.
As psychologist Charles Winick wrote in the 60’s “The substances they imbibed may have been instrumental in liberating these artists mentally from preoccupation with their life circumstances and subsequently, may have provided the opportunity for these artists to tap into their utmost level of creativity.”
Yet tragically, for many of the jazz stars, their addictions invited trouble with the law, and led ultimately to poor health and early death. Saxophonist Charlie Parker, for example, died age 34 and Billie Holiday age 44. “The untapped potential that was languished on drugs and alcohol by these artists shall never be fully revealed,” Tolson and Cuyjet wrote.
Indeed, book critic Jonathan Yardley, said reading Jazz Anecdotes led him to feel that “alcohol has been in jazz an instrument of distraction and debilitation masquerading as inspiration.”
In truth, the link between drug use and creativity has yet to be fully empirically tested, Tolson and Cuyjet concluded, but they said that whatever the creative benefits may have been, “the reality is that for most jazz artists, particularly during the creative period from 1940-1960, substance abuse did more harm than good, and rather than being the road to creative genius, it was the pathway to premature death.”
Tolson, G.H. & Cuyjet, M.J. (2007). Jazz and substance abuse: Road to creative genius or pathway to premature death. International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, 30, 530-538.