Jazz and Death: Medical Profiles of Jazz Greats
Frederick J. Spencer
Univ Press of Mississippi
Charlie Parker's famous alto saxophone break on "Night in Tunisia," recorded for Ross Russell's Dial label March 28, 1946 may be immortal, but the fragile vessel producing such genius was not. The health and demise of jazz musicians, many who lived colorful if not dissolute lives, is often shrouded in mystery if not having been downright misrepresented in the literature. Following the lead of John O?Shea, who published Music and Medicine, a reference addressing the health and death of the great 18th century composers, Dr. Frederick Spencer has relieved a good bit of the confusion surrounding the deaths of not only Charlie Parker, but many other notable jazz musicians.
Dr. Spencer divides his investigation by pathophysiology, that is, by disease states, with lengthy sections on substance abuse, divided between alcohol and other substances. His explanations are all well within the understanding of the layman. Dr. Spencer never falls into medical lingo, always opting to explain things fully. His research of included newspapers, magazines, word-of-mouth, and death certificates. In his investigation, Dr. Spencer turned over some interesting rocks. For example, Serge Chaloff, baritone saxophonist of Woody Herman's Second Herd died of embryonal cell carcinoma of the testes (testicular cancer) which he had been suffering from for the three years previous to his death in 1957. This writer always believed accounts related to Chaloff?s considerable substance abuse. When another baritone saxophonist, Gerry Mulligan, died on January 20, 1996, the new paper reported that it was due to complications associated with surgery for a knee infection when in reality, the musician had been suffering from hepatic failure, possibly due to hepatocellular carcinoma.
In addition to these historical corrections, Dr. Spencer addresses several musicians? deaths in some detail. Chief among these is Charlie Parker and his death from either or both bleeding peptic ulcers and lobar pneumonia. A great deal of attention was devoted to whether or not Scott Joplin and Lester Young suffered from neurosyphilis (the former did, the latter did not). The suspicious death of tenor saxophonist Wardell Gray and murder of James Reese Europe receive good workouts. Other illnesses are also spotlighted. The blindness of Lennie Tristano, Art Tatum, and Ray Charles was discussed as well as the mental illness of Bud Powell and Buddy Bolden.
Not an exhaustive treatment of the subject by any means, there is a couple of bare spots. It is difficult to discuss Suzanne McCorkle's recent suicide without mentioning the extenuating circumstance of her battle with breast cancer. Likewise, any discussion of cancer and nicotine addiction as causes of death that does not include Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn is lacking. However, these are small things. The jazz fan will find this an interesting read that clears up more than a few mysteries.
Dr. Spencer closes his clinical investigation with a discussion of the effects of substance abuse on making music, addressing if performance is enhanced or detracted from because of mood-altering substance use, part and parcel, certainly does not enhance performance. It may enhance creativity by relieving anxiety and inhibitions thereby allowing the performer to take chances he/she would otherwise not attempt. A superb example of this was alto saxophonist Art Pepper's being scheduled to record with Miles Davis's first great rhythm section as described in his autobiography Straight Life. Pepper had not played in several weeks and his horn was in disrepair. His then wife Diane arranged a recording session with Red Garland, Paul Chambers, and Philly Joe Jones, who were in town with Davis. Angry for the subterfuge, Pepper administered himself a huge shot of heroin and went on to record the classic Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section that same afternoon (Contemporary/OJC 338-2).
Another example would be Charlie Parker?s infamous "Lover Man" recorded for Dial Records in Los Angeles July 29, 1947. Strung out from bad dope, intoxicated with alcohol and barbiturates, Parker produced, depending on one?s perspective, either the saddest excuse for the great ballad or the most poignant and vulnerable performance of his career. Following this session, Parker started a fire, walked into his hotel lobby naked to use the phone and was ultimately committed to Camarillo Mental Institution until after the first of the year. The result of this drug-induced consequence was Parker's classic "Relaxin' at Camarillo," recorded February 26, 1947, shortly after returning to the scene, healthy and wholesome (for the most part).
Substance use can affect performance in another way. Long term use has a desiccating effect on ones talent that may manifest in two ways. The first is it can concentrate a musician?s talent into a type of flawed perfection, beauty that is kind of ruined. The best examples of this are the late recordings of Billie Holiday?Lady In Satin (Sony 86697, 1958) and Songs for Distingué Œovers (Verve 815055, 1956), in particular. The second manifestation is when substance abuse leaves the musician a mere shell and his/her music a husk. This certainly applies to Chet Baker. In any consideration, I am unsure that true creativity and the propensity for substance abuse are significantly linked, as there exists many examples of "clean" musicians who contributed much to art. Not matter, it is a provocative thought that should be revisited from time to time, like this interesting and problematic little book.