Vipers, Muggles, and The Evolution of Jazz

“I’m the king of everything
Got to get high before I sing
Sky is high, everybody’s high
If you’re a viper…”

‘Viper’s Drag’ (1934), by Fats Waller

 

Without doubt the history of early jazz and the use of marijuana are intimately intertwined. Thousands of Hindu immigrants from India had brought the use of cannabis to the West Indies in the 1870s; where black and Mexican sailors picked up the habit and introduced marijuana use to the harbor of Storyville, the red light district of New Orleans, the city usually considered the birthplace of jazz. At the beginning of the 20th century, countless black jazz musicians performing in the bordellos of Storyville and in other locations in New Orleans smoke what they call ‘gage’, ‘tea’, ‘muggles’, ‘muta’, ‘Mary Jane’. They will later call themselves ‘vipers’ – allegedly named after the hissing sound taking a quick draw at a ‘reefer’.

Read more