Lsong before Hip Hop, and decades prior to the emergence of Rock ‘n’ Roll, the combined elements of certain illegal drugs, popular controversial music, a youth culture and its rebellious subculture, duly inspired authoritarian laws and policies to do away with all that jazz.
And, it literally revolved around Jazz.
The music, that is. For the longest time, Jazz music was perceived by some parents and many preachers, as well as politicians and the police, as the red-hot soundtrack for a subterranean so-called “underground” youth culture, where all the races mixed, and all types of drugs fueled both the music and the miscegenation.
In Bop Apocalypse: Jazz, Race, the Beats, & Drugs, independent historian and cultural commentator Martin Torgoff has written a spellbinding, sweeping account of the myriad ways in which a great deal of America’s present was scripted ages ago.
Do you think that America’s new Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, is the first ever to make bold anti-marijuana pronouncements? Not at all. In Chapter Three of this gripping book, Torgoff details the career and the agendas of Harry Anslinger, who back in the 1920s and 1930s loomed large as a top gun with the Federal Bureau of Narcotics.
Dubbed “The Paranoid Spokesman” (and, Torgoff quotes judiciously and often from the brilliant essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” by historian Richard Hofstadter, to illuminate his main points) Harry Anslinger spearheaded an official, structured, mass-media-driven, anti-marijuana campaign as the 1930s unfolded.
That multifaceted campaign had everything to do with not just making outlaws of anyone who smoked weed. There was more than that at stake. To forbid by law any and all freedoms regarding marijuana, premarital sex (interracial sex in particular), and the devil-may-care hedonism associated with the Roaring Twenties and its failed Prohibition laws – that was the ultimate goal. Torgoff sums it up like this:
“Anslinger became convinced that the only way to ensure against any possibility of a recurrence of what had happened with Prohibition—the phenomenon of a significant percentage of the American population wantonly and brazenly breaking an unpopular law they found obnoxious, living as virtual criminals until the law had to be repealed—would be through a national campaign against the weed.”
And so, Harry Anslinger and his Federal Bureau of Narcotics used the mass media of the day (major magazines, movies, plus newspaper articles). Torgoff notes:
“Before 1935, the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature lists not a single article about marijuana in any major national magazine. From July 1935 to June 1937, four appeared; between 1937 and 1939, there were seventeen.” More and more, those stories highlighted terrible crimes and murder sprees committed by individuals who were allegedly high on marijuana. Demonizing weed at the precise cultural moment when alcohol was again legalized became a crusade that’s still in effect today.
And, suddenly, as the Swing Era uplifted millions of Americans’ hearts and had their dancing feet flyin’ high toward the end of the 1930s, it was clear that for one, brief shining interlude, Swing music would invite Jazz right into America’s living rooms and kitchens and bedrooms (or, wherever else radios blared), and dangers lurked.
Of course, clubs, ballrooms and theaters for big band gigs became beehives.
No matter how white the Swing Era seemed to be, with Benny Goodman crowned “the King of Swing” (a title he rejected, by the way) or Glenn Miller or Tommy Dorsey (as well as his brother, Jimmy Dorsey) finding the perfect middle ground between Jazz and orchestrated dance music – no matter how popular the great big bands became—their music was still rooted in the Blues, and black culture at large.
Benny Goodman was warned by managers and promoters about hiring masterly black musicians a’ la Teddy Wilson, Lionel Hampton, and guitar genius Charlie Christian. Goodman broke “the color line” and Tommy Dorsey followed when he hired arranger-composer Sy Oliver to write classics, like “Swing Time Up in Harlem” and “Opus One.” The Swing Era was integrating culture long before baseball did.
It’s no accident that one of drummer Gene Krupa’s biggest hit records was “Let Me Off Uptown,” with “Uptown” being a code word for Harlem. Just as it was no accident that Krupa was eventually framed and busted for marijuana charges, or, that “Let Me Off Uptown” incited controversy because white vocalist Anita O’Day and black trumpet-man Roy Eldridge sang the lyrics as a flirty, jive-like duet.
Martin Torgoff not only connects the dots, but he guides the reader with clarity:
“Anslinger was prepared to put forth a number of signature images to isolate what he saw as the greatest threats being posed to American civilization. If the first image was that of an ax murderer and the second that of a degenerate schoolyard pusher, the third was equally threatening and pernicious: the Negro jazz musician.”
Now it all congeals. Just as the early Jazz of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Roaring Twenties gave way to the Swing Era that tipped out of the Thirties and into the Forties, the all-American craze for alcohol and tobacco was supplemented by the rise of marijuana.
At the same time, a new generation of young writers-in-the-making consolidated around Columbia University during the World War II years: Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and others bonded there and had endless encounters and escapades long before the media puffed them up as Beat Generation archetypes in the Fifties.
And Kerouac’s writings, from the get-go, were in many ways his prose attempts to capture and replicate his unconditional love for Jazz. It was Lester Young, in particular, who enraptured young Kerouac with his ethereal, long-line, tenor-sax flights of musical bliss amidst the Count Basie Orchestra in the 1930s and 1940s.
On this note, Torgoff hits the bull’s-eye. He reminds us that when “Kerouac sat down in April 1951 and spewed forth the 125,000 words that would become On the Road in a cathartic 20-day marathon, the manuscript contained a dithyrambic evocation of the history of jazz in America, later published as ‘Jazz of the Beat Generation’—a long jazz-rhythmed passage that used Lester Young as its central driving force and inspiration, and that epitomized the essence of Kerouac’s developing spontaneous prose style.”
The tremendous power of this book arises from the effortless way that Martin Torgoff ascertains such overlapping connections all over the map. We see how everyone from Lester Young to Billie Holiday and Miles Davis and John Coltrane and others (as Swing gave way to Be-Bop and then Hard Bop) lived their lives in a state of constant social tremors, with their musical quests often impeded or redirected by the torment of drugs in their milieus. Busts and jail time and revoked cabaret cards were forever colliding with classic recording sessions and detox struggles.
At the same time, after the Great Depression was resolved by World War II, and then the postwar years were suddenly plagued by Joe McCarthy and the Red Scare, not to mention the wholly unexpected Korean War (add in the rise of Rock ‘n’ Roll as the 1950s were gradually transformed from Radio USA to TV Nation), the literary movement known as the Beat Generation set the stage for tumult in the 1960s.
Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” and the works of Kerouac and William S. Burroughs were affected (and inflected) significantly by the sounds and rhythmic cadences of Jazz.
It’s the convergence of all the racial, musical, literary, and social permutations through those decades that gives this book its heft. And, there are times when a choice quotation from decades ago leaves the readers stunned with its relevance.
Here’s something Billie Holiday said in the late 1950s, when her memoir Lady Sings the Blues was widely reviewed and sold quite well. Her words are haunting:
“On a recent Sunday, Judge Jonah Goldstein talked about the narcotics problem in New York. He told the people the same thing I’ve been trying to tell them; that narcotics has to be taken out of the hands of the police and turned over to the doctors. He said that in all his years on the bench he’d never seen anybody but poor people brought before him for violation of the dope laws.”
This chronicle neither romanticizes nor minimizes the grim dread and the fatal doom induced by the abuse of hard drugs. The tragic demise of alto-saxophone wizard Charlie Parker (who died at age of 34) and the death of Billie Holiday (at 44) were heroin-related fatalities. And, Torgoff devotes lengthy, worthy passages to the heroin abuses suffered and gradually overcome (cold turkey) by Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and others.
Martin Torgoff’s new book is not just something of a sequel to his excellent earlier work, Can’t Find My Way Home – America in the Great Stoned Age, 1945-2000.
What’s most riveting about Bop Apocalypse: Jazz, Race, the Beats, & Drugs is not just the reams of material explicating America’s past, but how the material mirrors our troubled contemporary era.
(M. J. Moore’s novel For Paris – With Love & Squalor will be published in May 2017.)
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