“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’.
Working long night shifts, many vipers prefer smoking marijuana to alcohol. It doesn’t give them the hangovers associated with excessive alcohol consumption. Louis Armstrong, born in 1901, grew up in poverty in Storyville in a rough neighborhood known as “the Battlefield”. A proud viper himself from his youth and for all of his life, he will later say that a sequel to his biography might well be about “nothing but gage”. Armstrong will remember about his use of marijuana:
”First place it’s a thousand times better than whiskey … It’s an Assistant – a friend a nice cheap drunk if you want to call it that …Good (very good) for Asthma – relaxes your nerves …”
“We always looked at pot as a sort of medicine, a cheap drunk and with much better thoughts than one that’s full of liquor.”
Along with jazz, the use of marijuana spreads to bigger cities like Chicago, Detroit, and New York. Around 1930 during the prohibition of alcohol – while marijuana is still legal – there are countless illegal ‘speakeasies’ serving alcohol, but also around 500 tolerated ‘tea pads’ (marijuana bars) in New York alone offering joints for around 20 cents. In the 1930s, viper songs celebrating the use of marijuana become the rage of the jazz world, including ‘Muggles’ (Louis Armstrong), “Sweet Marijuana Brown” (Benny Goodman), Viper Mad (Sydney Bechet), “That Funny Reefer Man” (Cab Calloway), “Viper’s Drag” (Fats Waller), or “Gimme a Pigfoot” (Bessie Smith).
The open reefer party, though, will soon be over for the vipers. From the early days in New Orleans, white officials were not at all enthusiastic about this new self-confident, vibrant black jazz culture finding its way into the heart of white audiences. The first prohibitive laws against marijuana in the southern states were clearly targeted against its users – Hispanic immigrants and black musicians. Harry G. Anslinger, the nation’s drug czar, openly used outrageous racist claims to run his campaign against marijuana and to successfully justify a nationwide prohibition in 1937. In a Senate hearing on marijuana in 1937 he infamously said:
“There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the U.S., and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz and swing, result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others. … The primary reason to outlaw marijuana is its effect on the degenerate races. Marijuana is an addictive drug which produces in its users insanity, criminality and death.”
How much did marijuana really influence the early evolution of jazz? Most of Anslinger’s claims above are, of course ridiculous, but arguably, he was not all that wrong in seeing a connection between marijuana use and jazz. Many historians clearly see this connection, but most usually play down the profound and multi-faceted influence of the marijuana high on the early evolution of jazz. First of all, they underrate the complexity of the marijuana high and its many diverse effects on the performance of musicians. Second, another aspect often completely neglected by historians is that the marijuana high affected not only individual performances, but was also crucially involved in the evolution of the sub-cultural new lifestyle of which jazz was an expression. Let us look at the latter claim first.
Life is extremely hard for black citizens in the 1920s and ‘30s in the U.S. The Jim-Crow racial segregation laws in the South are still in force and will be up until 1965. They do not only mandate a segregation of black and white citizens in public schools and other public places, but have countless other repressive regulations and norms restricting the liberties of black citizens. David Pilgrim reminds us about the thinking behind the Jim Crow ‘system’:
“(…) The Jim Crow system was undergirded by the following beliefs or rationalizations: whites were superior to blacks in all important ways, including but not limited to intelligence, morality and civilized behavior; sexual relations between blacks and whites would produce a mongrel race which would destroy America; treating blacks as equals would encourage interracial sexual unions; any activity which suggested social equality encouraged interracial sexual relations; if necessary, violence must be used to keep blacks at the bottom of the racial hierarchy.“
Black musicians are constantly humiliated by racial segregation and repression, and many of them go through extremely traumatizing experiences. Violations of the Jim-Crow laws or norms – like stepping on the shadow of a white man – are punished with incredible violence; thousands of black citizens are lynched between 1882 and 1968, most of them in the South.
Many emigrate to cities in the north, but starting a life there isn’t quite exactly a stroll in the park either, especially not for black musicians moving to the bigger cities to establish a career. In his autobiography Really the Blues, jazz clarinetist Milton “Mezz” Mezzrow recalls:
“(…) it often happened that a man who migrated into town couldn’t eat unless his woman made money off of other men. But these people didn’t get nasty about it; many a guy kept on loving his woman and camping outside her door until she could let him in (…)“
The musical tradition of the blues had always helped the black community come to terms with their hostile life conditions; it expressed the sadness of many, but also created a space in which they could regain strength, faith, and joy. As Milton Mezzrow put it:
”These blues from the South taught me one thing: You take off the weight off a good man a little and his song will start jumping with joy.“
For many, marijuana takes some more weight off. We know today that medical marijuana is used very effectively to treat post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD). In the recent years, thousands of patients with PTSD in the U.S. have received medical marijuana; most of them report that it helps them better than any other medicine. A new study has shown that there are endocannabinoid receptors in the part of the brain that regulates anxiety and the fight-or-flight response; this could also explain why so many patients find that consumed marijuana can help them to reduce anxiety.
Marijuana presumably helped many jazz musicians to deal better with their traumas, fears and culturally imposed restrictions. Accordingly, we can see the heavy use of many jazz musicians at least to some degree as self-medication. At age 11, Billie Holiday’s neighbor attempts to rape her; at age 14, she reportedly has to work as a child prostitute in Harlem for $5 a client. Holiday starts smoking marijuana (and drinking alcohol) habitually before she is a teenager. Her big idol, and life-long marijuana user, Louis Armstrong has to work as a young boy to support his mother, but can not prevent her from also having to work as a prostitute. Holiday’s other idol Bessie Smith, the Queen of Blues – who, like Armstrong and Holiday, also used marijuana throughout her career – grows up in extreme poverty, is an orphan aged nine and starts to work on street corners to escape poverty.
Consumed cannabis can influences the endocannabinoid system in mood regulation, and there is another additional cognitive effect of the high which that helps users with stress relief. Many marijuana users have described in detail a hyperfocusing-effect on their attention. While high, users strongly focus their attention, often dwelling in the here-and-now, forgetting about past troubles or future problems. To say it with Cab Calloway’s 1932 viper song “The Man from Harlem”: “I’ve got just what you need. Come on, sisters, light up on these weeds and get high and forget about everything.”
Also, we know that some marijuana strains can lead to euphoria during a high – which is presumably why we call it a “high” in the first place. Louis Armstrong remembers in his biography:
”It makes you feel good, man. It relaxes you, makes you forget all the bad things that happen to a Negro. It makes you feel wanted, and when you are with another tea smoker it makes you feel a special sense of kinship.“
The ‘special kinship’ mentioned by Armstrong adds another important aspect to the picture. When thinking about the hippie era, we usually consider it a fact that a marijuana high made users more loving and empathic. We tend to forget that it had a similar effect for many musicians and their audiences in the swing era of the ‘Roaring twenties’ Twenties – which also helped to pave the way for the later 1950s beat generation. Louis Armstrong goes on to explain the nature of the kinship between the vipers:
”One reason we appreciated pot, as y’all calls it now, was the warmth it always brought forth from the other person – especially the ones that lit up a good stick of that shuzzit or gage (…).“
In a similar vein, Milton Mezzrow explains about jazz musicians using marijuana:
“We were on another plane in another sphere compared to the musicians who were bottle babies, (…) we liked things to be easy and relaxed, mellow and mild (…) their tones became hard and evil, not natural, soft and soulful (…)”
The empathic effects of marijuana probably also helps the democratization of music which plays a crucial part in the early evolution of jazz. Strong empathy is an equalizer: hierarchies become less important; solos are not only restricted anymore to singers or the classic solo instruments such as guitar or saxophone. As jazz pianist Herbie Hancock will later put it: “It’s not exclusive, but inclusive, which is the whole spirit of jazz.” Racial boundaries and prejudices are more easily overcome. Mezz Mezzrow, the white viper from a Jewish family who famously sells the good quality “mezzroles” (joints) to other musicians, declares himself to be black – out of sympathy for black lifestyle and music.
So, our current knowledge concerning the medical uses of marijuana and reports from viper jazz musicians strongly suggests that their use of marijuana played a positive role in the evolution of an early jazz culture. But can a high also positively influence the performance of a jazz musician? And if so, how? The effect most often cited as an answer, is the altered sense of time during a high. Dr. James Munch, pharmacologist and associate of Harry G. Anslinger during the 30s and 40s, produced many ridiculous claims about the alleged horrible effects of marijuana, but clearly expressed this point years later, when he said about musicians using marijuana:
“(…) the chief effect as far as they were concerned was that it lengthens the sense of time, and therefore they could get more grace beats into their music than they could if they simply followed the written copy. (…) if you are using marijuana, you are going to work in about twice as much music between the first note and the second note. That’s what made jazz musicians.”
Munch’s point about the altered sense of time and its role in jazz music is important; however, this is only one of several crucial effects of marijuana which can play a positive role for jazz performers. If we want to understand them better, we have to look at the way these effects are interrelated. One of the fundamental effects of marijuana is to hyperfocus attention. Mezzrow remembers this hyperfocus for his auditory experience when he first got high:
“The first thing I noticed was that I began to hear my saxophone as though it was inside my head, but I couldn’t hear much of the band in back of me, although I knew they were there. All the other instruments sounded like they were far off in distance;(…)”. 
This hyperfocusing allows him to concentrate more fully on his immediate tactile sensation of his instrument, which improves his control:
”Then I began to feel the vibrations of the reed much more pronounced against my lip (…) I found I was slurring much better and putting just the right feeling into the phrase.” 
During a high, the hyperfocusing of attention not only allows for a more analytic perception of whatever it is directed at, the narrowing down of informational processes in the attentional focus probably also leads to mind-racing, which may then lead to an altered sense of time. In his 1938 report Marihuana, America’s New Drug Problem, R. P. Walton states:
“The exaggeration of the sense of time is one of the most conspicuous effects. It is probably related to the rapid succession of ideas and impressions which cross the field of consciousness.”
The connection between the prolonged sense of time and ‘mind-racing’ seems intuitively plausible and is backed by the experiential reports of many marijuana users throughout history. In his 1877 report about a marijuana high, the French doctor Charles Richet explained:
“Time appears of an immeasurable length. Between two ideas clearly conceived, there are an infinity of others undetermined and incomplete, of which we have a vague consciousness, but which fill you with wonder at their number and their extent. With hashish the notion of time is completely overthrown. The moments are years, and the minutes are centuries; but I feel the insufficiency of language to express this illusion, and I believe, that one can only understand it by feeling it for himself.”
Richet mentions an infinity of ideas between two ideas clearly conceived – we can take his “ideas” to refer to what we would usually call thoughts today. The acceleration of a stream of “ideas” or thought processes is sometimes experienced as a stream of associatively connected thoughts, memories or imaginations, much depending on the dosage consumed. Obviously, the acceleration of mental processes in a narrowed down tunnel of attention can help a musician to more rapidly play an improvised solo, or to keep up with the speed of fellow musicians. While this acceleration during a high probably leads to a musician’s ability to “work in about twice as much music between the first note and the second note”, it can also hinder musicians in keeping in time with others. We will come back to this particular downside later on. Beforehand, we should look at some other effects of the marijuana high which may have had a positive effect on the musical performance of the vipers.
With their mind unusually focused to the present moment or thought, marijuana users sometimes forget about the original subject framing the discourse. This often leads to a “what-were we-talking-about?” moment when we are loosing the thread of the conversation. Whereas inexperienced users – especially when using high dosages of certain strains – become disoriented, skilled users who consume certain other strains of good quality marijuana can keep the thread. Still, their stream of thought is usually less constrained by the original theme or frame where it started, and also less constrained by the goal where it was intending to go. The stronger concentration on the here-and-now allows a stream of thoughts or imaginations to ‘jump’ more freely along unusually wider associations.
Many marijuana users have also reported an enhanced ability to see new patterns during a high and they often find new similarities between various patterns. In a musical performance, these effects can then lead to a rapid improvisation over known musical themes, which loosely associate them to new patterns and ideas or they can also lead to new connections or transitions between musical themes. Subjectively, this leads to the feeling of a rapid and effortless flow of ideas.
Furthermore, innumerable marijuana users have described that a high enhances their imaginative abilities – visually, auditory, gustatory or otherwise – a capacity which is crucial for the production of new ideas. It goes without saying how important an enhanced ability for auditory imagination could be for a musical performer coming up with a new improvisation on stage, or for a composer working on a new song.
In Mezzrow’s first high, the interrelated effects of a hyperfocus of attention, mind-racing, an enhanced pattern recognition ability and an enhanced imagination lead to a smooth, imaginative flow in his playing:
”All the notes came easing out of my horn like they’d already been made up, greased and stuffed into the bell, so all I had to do was to blow a little and send them on their way, one right after the other, never missing, never behind time, all without an ounce of effort. The phrases seem to have continuity to them and I was sticking to the theme without ever going tangent. I felt I could go on playing for years without running out of ideas and energy”.
Apart from these interrelated cognitive effects of the marijuana high, Mezzrow mentions another interesting and important way in which marijuana affected jazz:
“Us vipers began to know that we had a gang of things in common: (…) we all decided that the muta had some aphrodisiac qualities too, which didn’t run us away from it.”
Many commentators who cited Mezzrow’s passages about the influence of marijuana on his performance on stage usually forget to mention that his high adventure on stage ends in an ecstatic group experience similar to scenes witnessed decades later at the height of Beatlemania.
“The people were going crazy over the subtle changes in our playing; (…) some kind of electricity was crackling in the air and it made them all glow and jump. (…) it seemed like all the people on the dance floor were melted down into one solid, mesmerized mass; (…) looking up at the band with hypnotic eyes and swaying (…). An entertainer (..) was throwing herself around like a snake with the hives. The rhythm really had this queen; (…) what she was doing with (..) her anatomy isn’t discussed in mixed company. “Don’t do that!” she yelled. “Don’t do that to me!”
That’s probably what Duke Ellington meant when he said about jazz, “By and large, jazz has always been like the kind of a man you wouldn’t want your daughter to associate with.”
I have argued in various places that for skilled users, the marijuana high can lead to various cognitive enhancements, which can also lead to a fundamental enhancement of empathic understanding of others. This effect goes way beyond stronger emotional bonds or the warm sense of sympathy between the vipers as mentioned above. The enhancement of empathic understanding actually allows marijuana users during a high to actually better understand what others are feeling and thinking. In his study On Being Stoned, Charles Tart found that many marijuana users who had received his questionnaires agreed that the following effects are characteristic or frequent for moderate levels of a high:
“’I have feelings of deep insight into other people, how they tick, what their games are when stoned (…).
I empathize tremendously with others; I feel what they feel; I have a tremendous intuitive understanding of what they are feeling.
I feel so aware of what people are thinking that it must be telepathy, mind reading, rather than just being more sensitive to the subtle cues in behavior.
Can marijuana really help people during a high to better understand others? Countless users have not only described that they understand others better while high; they have given detailed descriptions of empathic insights during a high. If we look at some other cognitive effects of marijuana, this makes sense. Take, for instance, the numerous reports of enhanced episodic memory retrieval during a high. Marijuana users have reported in detail how they vividly remember previously forgotten episodes from their past during a high – often, they feel as if transported to the past. This enables them to for instance better emphasize with kids. They have also reported all kinds of enhanced pattern recognition abilities. This can lead to an enhanced ability to read motion patterns in body language, which may, for example, allow you to empathically understand that your friend shows signs of insecurity in a conversation.
Musicians with a better empathic understanding of each other communicate better – both on and off stage. When performing live together, jazz musicians improvise and do not follow strict pre-meditated rules; their performance as a group is crucially dependent on their mutual understanding, reacting to each other within the flow of their performance. Empathic understanding is not only helpful for jazz musicians; it is absolutely crucial to their new and liberated form of music, which depends upon a mutual interplay between musicians spontaneously reacting to each other during their performances.
In the swing era of the 1930s, legendary Billie Holiday and Lester Young were known for their almost telepathic performances; both were experienced vipers and used marijuana regularly. During the time of performing in the Cafe Society, Billie Holiday used to go on taxi rides between the sets to smoke some marijuana, because smoking marijuana wasn’t allowed in the club. Like many other jazz vipers, their use of marijuana may have helped them to come to a closer mutual understanding. We will never know for sure in individual cases how much of a positive influence the marijuana high had on the mutual understanding of musicians; but from what we know about the influence of the high on empathic understanding and from personal reports of jazz musicians and their friends, it certainly seems like many jazz musicians profited from this effect of the high.
In an interview, jazz clarinetist and bandleader Artie Shaw said he once got frustrated with viper Chuck Peterson, the first trumpet player in his band. Shaw felt that Peterson made the band lag when playing high. He confronted Peterson, who thought he was playing just fine and they came to a deal. Shaw, who had smoked marijuana for a while as a young adult suggested they perform high together – if that worked he said, they would turn on together every night from then on:
“He gave it to me, I smoked it, and I was playing over my head. I was hearing shit I’d never heard before in those same old arrangements. I finished and turned to him. ‘You win,’ I said. ‘No, man,’ he said. ‘I lose.’
He had been giving me incredulous looks during the evening and I thought he was thinking, ‘Man, this guy is blowing his head off.’ I was hearing great things. But the technical ability to do it – it’s like driving drunk. You feel great, but you don’t know what you’re doing. At least he was honest about it.’
Now, does this show that jazz musicians smoking marijuana were generally undergoing a delusion about their own performance during a high? Hardly. From all we know, experienced vipers like Loius Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Lester Young, Cab Calloway, Fats Waller, Theloneous Monk, Anita O’Day, Lionel Hampton, Count Basie, Duke Ellington and many others were doing more than just fine performing under the influence of marijuana. Dizzy Gillespie, who wrote he was turned on to pot when he came to New York in 1937, remembers in his autobiography that almost all jazz musicians he knew were smoking pot and some of the older musicians had been smoking pot for 40 or 50 years. Surely, they were not all victims of a self-delusion when it came to performing high.
However, Artie Shaw’s story reminds us that not every musician can perform well while high; a true viper has to master the effects of the high and has to learn how to ride a high – just like a surfer has to learn how to ride a wave with a surfboard. Note, however, that even musicians who cannot deal with a marijuana high on stage, the high can still turn out to be helpful to them in other ways. Artie Shaw notes above that under the influence of marijuana, he was hearing things in old arrangements that he had never heard before when playing straight. This new perception could have also paved the way for him for new interpretations or arrangements. A marijuana high can help creative processes or activities in many ways and in various phases.
For instance, a writer may feel that he can generate great ideas during a high, while actually feeling that the high doesn’t really help or even strongly interferes with the process of actually writing down the details. If used in the wrong way, marijuana can certainly also have a negative influence on creative performances. The lesson to learn here is that generally, if you want to use marijuana positively for creative purposes, you have to learn how much of which strain can help you in a specific phase of a certain creative processes.
The marijuana high probably enhanced Louis Armstrong’s performance; he was an expert in riding a marijuana high, and he loved it. But that certainly does not mean that his musical ability can be reduced to the influence of marijuana. It was made possible by his enormous talent, his character, his discipline, training and experience. Likewise, the evolution of jazz certainly was not driven solely by marijuana use, but rather was made possible by many factors including the cultural mixture of African, European and Caribbean music and lifestyles, the sociological process of urbanization, amongst many other factors. The aforementioned red light area of New Orleans Storyville, for instance, played a big role in the early development of jazz: “it was a rough area where white values of taste were absent. This made it easier for musicians to develop expressive techniques, slow tempos (for sexy, slow dances) and timbre variation.” 
But if we look at the many now better known cognitive changes during a high we come to understand that marijuana substantially contributed to the evolution of jazz. It helped countless skilled vipers to repeatedly come up with new inventive solos, fluid, rapid and imaginative playing; it helped them not just in their individual performances, but also, to better understand each other and to ”click” together on stage. Off stage, the use of marijuana changed the thinking and lifestyle of many jazz musicians from an early age. “If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn”, Charlie Parker once said. From the very beginnings in New Orleans, the marijuana high was integral to the early evolution of a free, joyous, empathic, rebellious, uninhibited, imaginative and creative viper subculture and lifestyle. They celebrated this lifestyle with their jazz – a radically new form of music, one of the greatest cultural achievements to come out of the U.S. and a lasting inspiration to people all around the world.
 Armstrong, Louis (1999), In His Own Words, Selected Writings, Oxford University Press, p. 114.
 Jones, Max, and Little, John Clifton (1988) Louis. The Louis Armstrong Story 1900-1971 DaCapo Press.
 Statement of Anslinger, H.J., Commissioner of Narcotics, Bureau of Narcotics, Department of the Treasury, http://www.druglibrary.org/schaffer/hemp/taxact/anslng1.htm
 Pilgrim, David (2000/2012), „What was Jim Crow“, www.ferris.edu/jimcrow/what.htm
 Mezzrow, Mezz (1946/1990), Really the Blues, Souvenir Press, London, p.46.
 Snyder, William (March 6, 2014), “Discovery sheds new light on marijuana’s anxiety relief effects.”http://news.vanderbilt.edu/2014/03/discovery-sheds-new-light-on-marijuana-anxiety-relief-effects/
 Jones, Max, and Little, john Clifton (1988) Louis. The Louis Armstrong Story 1900-1971, DaCapo Press.
 Mezzrow, Mezz (1946/1990), Really the Blues, Souvenir Press, London, p. 94.
 Sloman, Larry “Ratso” (1998), Reefer Madness. The History of Marijuana in America, pp. 146-147.
 Mezzrow, Mezz (1946/1990), Really the Blues, Souvenir Press, London, p. 72.
 Compare Marincolo, Sebastián (2010) High. Insights on Marijuana, Chapter 6, “Intensified Imagination, Mindracing, and Time Perception Distortions”, Dog Ear Publishing, Indiana.
 Walton, R.P. (1938), Marijuana. America’s New Drug Problem, Philadelphia, Lippincott, S.105.
 Mezzrow, Mezz (1946/1990), Really the Blues, Souvenir Press, London, p. 93.
 ibid, p. 73.
 For a detailed argument on how a marijuana high might positively affect empathic understanding compare Sebastian Marincolo (2010) High. Insights on Marijuana, Dog Ear Publishing, Indiana, and Sebastian Marincolo (2013), High. Das positive Potential von Marijuana, Klett-Cotta/Tropen, Stuttgart.
 Tart, Charles T. (1971). On Being Stoned: A Psychological Study of Marijuana Intoxication. Palo Alto, Cal.: Science and Behavior Books., p. 133.
 Compare for instance Lester Grinspoon (ed.), marijuana-uses.com
 See Clarke, Donald (2002), Billie Holiday: Wishing on the Moon, DaCapo Press, p.160.
 Saroyan, Aram (August 6, 2000), „Artie Shaw Talking“, Los Angeles Times, http://articles.latimes.com/2000/aug/06/magazine/tm-65218/2
 See my „Marijuana and Creativity – A Love Story“.
 Devaux, Scott, and Giddins, Gary (2009) “Jazz” , College edition online, chapter 4, 8. Storyville, http://www.wwnorton.com/college/music/jazz/ch/04/outline.aspx
 For a great source on cannabis and music take a look at Jörg Fachner’s publications on the subject. Also, see Cronin, Russell (2004), „The History of Music and Marijuana“, Cannabis Culture Magazine. http://www.cannabisculture.com/content/2004/09/08/History-Music-and-Marijuana-Part-One.
This essay was first published here: