10 Famous Jazz Musicians Who Used Heroin
This list was inspired by the unusually high number of top jazz musicians whose lives were troubled by, or completely ruined by, heroin. There has been no shortage of great artists and musicians who battled serious drug addictions. For some mysterious reason, jazz musicians have seemed particularly prone to heroin addiction – and they’ve even been studied in this regard, in an attempt to clarify the significant statistical link between creativity and forms of psychopathology, which include addiction. Let’s take a closer look at this phenomenon. Here are ten famous jazz musicians who used heroine.
Charlie Parker was perhaps the most influential jazz musician ever. He was idolized by many younger musicians on the 1940s jazz scene, who continued with their own successful careers in the wake of his early and tragic death. Parker was hopelessly addicted to heroin and a chronic alcoholic to boot. His powerful influence over the younger musicians which he fostered (including Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins) has often been blamed for the epidemic of heroin addiction among his disciples, although it seems that he often tried to dissuade them from copying his drug habit.
Parker collapsed in 1946 due to the negative health effects of his addictions. He was confined to a state mental hospital and released six months later. He began to make what is widely regarded as his best music from then on, but by the early 50s he was hospitalized again and told that he must stop drinking. On top of this he was banned from the New York jazz clubs due to possession of narcotics charge, and fell out of favor with his booking agency and fellow musicians due to his increasing unreliability. His fourth marriage failed, his daughter Pree died, he made two suicide attempts, and ended up in a psychiatric facility once again. His difficult life ended not too long after this unfortunate run of luck in 1955, but his huge contribution to jazz is unlikely to ever be forgotten.
Miles Davis is now a jazz legend – the pioneer of several modern jazz styles. Few would argue that he was probably the best jazz trumpeter that ever lived, and certainly he was one of the greatest musicians of the twentieth-century. But when he started out playing in the New York clubs of the 1940s, drugs were freely available. He soon became an addict, and it took him years to recover. He was arrested for the possession of narcotics in 1950, but even after this, Davis relied heavily on heroin.
Debate still exists as to whether or not Davis produced his best work in the earlier phases of his career whilst he was still using heroin. This is of course too subjective a question to answer – but perhaps an even trickier question is whether or not Davis could really be said to have beaten his addiction in the way that he himself claimed. The commonly told story is that he locked himself away on his father’s farm and went ‘cold turkey,’ thus curing himself of his addiction. However, Davis definitely used heroin again on a regular basis after this, even if it was in smaller doses. Despite what he claimed in his autobiography, he did not recover until the mid-1950s.
Sonny Rollins began recording with Bud Powell back in 1949. In 1951, Rollins started playing with Miles Davis. Both these musicians were addicted to heroin. By 1950, Rollins was addicted too, although he put that down to the influence of Charlie Parker more than anything: “A lot of us felt that because Charlie Parker used drugs it was OK, in fact it was something we had to do because he did it."
Sony withdrew from the jazz scene in order to seek a cure for his addiction in 1954. He returned a year later. He got out of the federal prison narcotics hospital in Lexington, Kentucky, and tried to get back into the scene in Chicago. According to Rollins, resisting the drugs he was immediately offered by former friends and acquaintances was one of the greatest temptations of his life:
“When I got there, I saw a lot of old friends, a lot of the guys: ‘Hey Sonny, let’s go get high.’ I had to be strong enough to withstand that. And that’s where I faced my Goliath. It was hard, man, because some of these guys knew I was not that far from using drugs. It was one of these biblical-like temptations. I resisted–my palms got sweaty and everything, but I resisted. I went back to my custodial job, but I thought, ‘I gotta get back into music.’ It was very difficult, because to tell the truth, I just escaped that first time; I just was able to resist all my friends offering these free drugs. But I thought, ‘I’m a musician and I have to be strong enough to be around drugs,’ because that was the scene.”
Sonny successfully recovered and went on to establish a successful long-time career. He recorded several albums in between three long ‘sabbaticals’ from the music scene. He is now celebrated as one of the greatest freestylers and jazz tenor-sax players of all time.
Eccentric and enigmatic, Thelonius Monk is one of twentieth-century jazz’s most complex, creative and compelling characters. He wore unusual hats, danced spontaneously in the middle of other musicians’ solos, turned up late to gigs, fell asleep at the piano in mid-session, occasionally stared off into space, and at other times simply wandered off-stage without explanation. His music was equally erratic and unpredictable – although most modern jazz enthusiasts would nonetheless insist that Monk was an indisputable genius.
Monk suffered from bi-polar disorder, as well as intermittent periods of drug abuse which included the use of cocaine and heroin. However, Robin G. Kelly, a professor of American History, and one of Monk’s biographers, has contended that Monk suffered more from prescription drugs and bad diagnoses than he ever did from narcotics and mental ill-health.
John Coltrane was drafted into the navy during the war. Stationed in Hawaii, he played alto sax in a navy band at officers’ parties. He learned his craft and later entered the jazz scene, switching to tenor sax after his return. By 1947 he was using heroin. He achieved notoriety when he joined Miles Davis’ quintet in 1955, but by this stage his alcohol and drug abuse resulted in unreliability. Davis fired him in early 1957.
1957 is an important year in the official Coltrane story. He quit heroin, and claimed that his recovery had led him to a spiritual awakening. This spiritual awakening culminated in his magnum opus, the album ‘A Love Supreme’. On the liner notes of the album, released in 1964, he said this:
“During the year 1957, I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening, which was to lead me to a fuller, richer, more productive life. At that time, in gratitude, I humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music. I feel this has been granted through His grace. All praise to God”.
However, despite his claims to have recovered, and the clean persona he presented, Coltrane did not escape drug use completely. From 1965 until his death in 1957 at the age of just forty, he was known to have performed under the influence of LSD.
With a prodigious talent for playing the trumpet and movie star good-looks, Chet Baker seemed set for stardom early on in his career. At one point he even acted in a Hollywood movie and was offered a contract, which he seems to have turned down due to the company’s anti-narcotics policy. Heroin addiction was already curtailing his potential. Known as ‘the James Dean of jazz,’. Baker’s life was excessive, difficult and fast-paced from the get-go.
Things got worse for Baker throughout the 1950s.His addiction led to arrests, jail sentences, and time in a santorium. Methodone finally helped Baker to kick the habit, but his career had by that stage suffered a lot of negative criticism. He made a comeback in the 1970s, and though his addiction had affected his singing voice, many believe his best trumpet playing happened in the final decade of his life. Tragically, having beaten heroin and reached his musical peak, Baker died in a freak accident at the age of 58, falling from a hotel room window whilst in Amsterdam.
Alto saxophonist Art Pepper began playing on the jazz scene of the late Forties after being discharged from military service. He was addicted to heroin by 1950. He served his first prison sentence for possession of narcotics in 1953. Over the next thirteen years, Pepper continued using heroin and spent more time in jail than out of it. “I’m a junkie,” he said, “and that’s what I will die as – a junkie.”.
In 1969, his spleen ruptured, causing him significant health problems. He booked himself into a rehabilitation facility in the same year. It was there that he met Laurie, who became his third wife (they married in 1974). She was also an important factor in his ultimate recovery from addiction.
Despite his troubled life, Pepper managed to make over a dozen recordings with fellow musicians or as a band leader in his own right. He died of a cerebral hemorrhage resulting from a stroke at the age of fifty-six.
He was known as ‘the poet of the piano’ and, due to his classical training, ‘the Chopin of jazz’. He burst onto the scene in the 1950’s, gained notoriety performing with Miles Davis, and eventually became one of the most influential pianists of his time. However, Evans’ work is said to have suffered through the 60’s because of his heroin addiction.
Evans had picked up the habit whilst playing with Miles Davis in 1958. Davis liked to bait the painfully shy Evans, and some have suggested that this compounded Evans’ problem. Evans was said to have suffered from "a paralysing combination of perfectionism and self-doubt". But Peri Cousins, who was living with Evans when he first began using, remarked, ''When he came down, when he kicked it, which he did on numerous occasions, the world was – I don't know how to say it – too beautiful. It was too sharp for him. It's almost as if he had to blur the world for himself by being strung out.''
Though he managed to quit with the help of methadone and made something of a comeback with his 1971 album, ‘The Bill Evans Album,’ the specter of addiction cannot be said to have ever truly left Evans. He soon became addicted to cocaine instead, and died shortly afterwards in 1980 at the age of just 51. The writer Gene Lees referred to Evans’ life as “the longest suicide in history".
Billie Holiday – otherwise known as ‘Lady Day’ – was perhaps the most exceptional popular music singer of the 20th century. She was certainly the preeminent female jazz vocalist. Sadly, she was also addicted to heroin for roughly twenty years, not to mention cruel and abusive men.
Raped at the age of 10, she was accused of being “provocative” and sent a reformatory run by nuns. She worked as a prostitute in her early teens. While the discovery of her talent and the jazz scene of the 1930’s might be seen as something of a saving grace, Holiday’s remarkably abusive childhood seemed to follow her closely. It soon showed up in the form of a tragically low self-regard. Although she was earning as much as $1000 a week at one point, most of this money was wasted on drugs.
Holiday’s friends described her character as “don’t care-is”. This quality of recklessness led her into several relationships with violent men and a steady downward spiral of drug use. Heroine addiction ravaged her voice and led her into serious legal strife. She was locked away in a rehabilitation facility for a year at one point, and banned from the New York nightclubs. She was even arrested for heroin possession whilst she lay dying in a hospital.
Anita O’Day was one of the most renowned jazz singers of the 1940’s and 50’s. She was a brazen character, nicknamed the ‘Jezebel of Jazz’ due to her wild, hard-drinking and drug-taking behavior. She had two failed marriages and is said to have had more than a dozen abortions over the years. “I tried everything,” she said. “Curiosity will make you go your own way.”
It was her drummer and lover, John Poole, who introduced her to heroine in the 1950’s. At the hight of her career, when she was headlining at the world’s top jazz clubs and earning as much as $2,500 a week, O’Day was scoring drugs on street corners. In 1947 she was sent to jail for possessing marijuana, convicted of possessing heroin in 1953, and was even pronounced legally dead after an overdose in the 1960’s (LINK 47), but eventually kicked the habit just as she was turning 50. Despite her hard-living lifestyle, O’Day died from cardiac arrest whilst recovering from pneumonia at the ripe old age of 87.
Copyright HTR Williams 2015.