Smack and the Alto Sax

Heroin, some wag once said, isn’t so much the occupational hazard of jazz musicians, it’s the occupation. It doesn’t trigger the schizophrenic visions induced in acid rockers by LSD, and it doesn’t set off the manic bursts of energy–anathema to the lyrical mood–of cocaine.  Instead, it acts as a warm blanket or hot bath on the psyche at the same time that it absorbs large quantities of time, the bane of musicians on the road or during periods of unemployment.  (Kids reading at home:  Please ask mom or dad’s permission before shooting up.)  As a result, it’s the drug of choice for those who’ve grown bored of the low-octane euphorics of marijuana.

I’m sorry–I couldn’t resist.

While smack is an equal opportunity parasite, afflicting practitioners of all instruments in the jazz orchestration, it worked particular damage on alto saxophonists during the twentieth century.  Frank Morgan, Art Pepper and Charlie Parker–the greatest of them all–all lost valuable time they could have spent creating to the drug.


Morgan and Pepper made it back from the brink, in Pepper’s case celebrated by the song “Straight Life.”  Parker struggled with the drug, growing plump during periods when he kicked the habit by feeding on his favorite food, chicken (yardbird, hence his nickname) then turning wraith-like when he fell off the wagon.

Charlie Parker, during a clean period

Some altos steered clear of the drug entirely; Paul Desmond, whose quicksilver phrasing you hear on Dave Brubeck’s “Take 5,” was satisfied with a dry martini.  Johnny Hodges, whose career linked Sidney Bechet and Duke Ellington, seems to have stayed away from the stuff, as did Benny Carter.

Charlie Parker, Johnny Hodges, Benny Carter.

Parker’s inability to kick the habit was perhaps a reflection of his musical persona; protean, a fire hose of ideas whose solos–even his off-hand riffs–were torrents compared to his peers’ glasses of beer, or in lesser cases, eye droppers.  Perhaps he needed the drug to turn off his rational madness from time to time.

Parker died sitting before a television set watching the Dorsey Brothers show, but this is no reflection on their sweet sound.  He died of any or all of four causes; pneumonia, a bleeding ulcer, cirrhosis and/or a heart attack.  His body was so ravaged by the effects of heroin that the coroner estimated his corpse to be that of a man between 50 and 60.  He was 34.


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