When you think about cannabis culture influencing music, what decade comes to mind? Is it the folksy rock n’ roll of the ’60s and ’70s? What about modern hip-hop? How many of you brought to mind the swinging jazz era of the ‘20s and ‘30s? Believe it or not, this is the era perhaps most responsible for popularizing cannabis use among musicians and other counterculture types.
The history of cannabis and the history of jazz are inextricably connected. Let’s do a deep dive into how cannabis influenced jazz and how jazz influenced cannabis culture.
The Birth Of The Jazz Era
Imagine it’s 1920. You’re in the swampy Southern city of New Orleans. The air in the French Quarter is thick with humidity. Aromas of seafood, sweat, livestock, and illegal corn liquor intermingle—tickling your nose hairs. As you walk past a not-so-disguised bordello on Bourbon Street, you hear the syncopated rhythms of ragtime and the soulful spirit of the blues merge to create a type of music you’ve never heard before. A robust brass section blares, each horn carrying its own melody, yet somehow part of a larger tune. Quick tempo stride style piano accompanies, and the whole thing’s brought together by the thumping tones emanating from a giant double bass. You’re experiencing jazz for the time.
Like so many popular forms of American music, jazz gets its start in the southern part of the country among the African-American population. Before the bebop of Dizzy Gillespie, Theolonius Monk, or Miles Davis, there was Dixieland jazz. Nearly every speakeasy or brothel in the city of New Orleans (of which there were many) had a house band. These ensembles would combine elements from traditional blues and ragtime music but with a heavy emphasis on improvisation. Unlike the Chicago style of jazz that would come to follow, Dixieland musicians improvised on top of one another instead of passing solos back in forth while the band held the structure of the tune together. There’s something beautifully chaotic about this style of music, where so many melodies reverberate off one another. The sound surrounds you faster than you can make sense of it, and the uptempo swinging nature of the whole thing compels you to move along with the rhythm.
Jazz began in dens of iniquity and would comfortably remain there for at least half a century until the music would experience a much tamer revival. Professional jazz musicians made their livings among bootleggers and sex workers, but they often drew inspiration from another vice—reefer.
Cannabis’ Effect On Jazz
In most other forms of music, be it classical or heavy metal, songs are written and then performed. With jazz, however, both writing and performance happen simultaneously. The audience is privy to the artist’s typically intimate moment of creation. There’s something almost voyeuristic watching a great jazz saxophonist really hit his stride during an improvised solo.
The 20th-century Caribbean immigrants who came to New Orleans brought their culture, food, spices, and religion with them. It’s this special kind of cultural exchange that makes a city like New Orleans so magical, to begin with. We can also thank these immigrants for exposing America to the wonders of marijuana.
So cannabis was already prevalent in the community that would create jazz. But, when you think about it, the mind-altering effects of cannabis are perfect for an improvisational style of music such as jazz. Cannabinoids have been said to unlock creativity, as well as slow down the passage of time, which may be beneficial in achieving the flow state necessary to improvise—to act as a conduit and simply let the music flow through your fingers unimpeded. Without the influence of cannabis, who knows if jazz would sound the same as we know it today.
Jazz’s Effect On Cannabis
Before the hippies of the 1960s and 1970s popularized marijuana use, society saw cannabis as a strictly African American vice; something smoked after hours in the jazz clubs that littered 52nd street. For a while, nobody took much notice. Jazz musicians wrote songs that blatantly celebrated marijuana use. Cab Callaway had his tune, Reefer Man. Stuff Smith and his band performed Here Comes The Man With Jive, which encouraged the listener to light up and get high as well.
When cannabis prohibition came to fruition, many saw it as a way of criminalizing a marginalized group of people they already disdained and distrusted—the African American jazz performer. While hemp farmers, medical practitioners, and of course jazzmen, saw cannabis prohibition as a racist farce that only harmed the American citizen and diminished their freedom, orchestrators convinced the country prohibition was in their best interest.
Jazz legend and avid cannabis enthusiast Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong would go on to be a vocal advocate for legalization himself, and he wouldn’t be the only jazz musician to publicly condemn marijuana prohibition. Despite their efforts, we’re still trying to undo the damage done by the criminalization of cannabis nearly a century later.