Calling it “the craziest thing I’ve ever done,” Stan Getz is photographed in the back of a police car following his 1954 arrest for attempting to steal narcotics from a Seattle drugstore.
It is a photo of the arrest of one man — and Stan Getz’s career is fortunately not defined by this arrest — but it is an image of a generation of jazz musicians hooked on drugs, and would cause Martin Torgoff, author of Can’t Find My Way Home: America in the Great Stoned Age, 1945 – 2000 to devote an entire chapter of his book on the scourge, calling it “Bop Apocalypse.” “The craving necessity of a constant supply alone would drive many to crime and humiliation and self-destruction,” Torgoff writes. “Sonny Stitt would steal and pawn every musician’s horn he could get his hands on; Red Rodney would invent elaborate criminal scams that involved check machines and faked deaths; Stan Getz would walk brazenly into a Seattle pharmacy and try to hold up the place. Some, like Miles and Jackie [McLean] and Dexter Gordon, would somehow manage to look clean and togged out in their suits no matter how strung out they were; others, like Sonny Rollins, would appear unkempt, hollow eyed.”
At the center of this addictive storm, of course, was Charlie Parker, whose virtuosity fellow musicians could connect to his drug use, and helped fuel the creative dreams of his peer generation. The pianist Hampton Hawes said that “those of us who were affected the strongest felt we’d be willing to do anything to warm ourselves by that fire, get some of that grease pumping through our veins. He [Parker] fucked up all our minds. It was where the ultimate truth was.”
For musicians like Getz and Hawes and countless others, their musical careers, while scarred by the pain of abuse (a low point for Getz must have been when the judge in his Seattle case called him a “poor excuse for a man”), ascended to highs no drug could possibly replicate, with Getz, for example, becoming one of the most influential musicians of his era — his “Sound” turning heads even to this day.
“My life is music, and in some vague, mysterious and subconscious way, I have always been driven by a taut inner spring which has propelled me to almost compulsively reach for perfection in music, often — in fact, mostly — at the expense of everything else in my life.
– Stan Getz
Be sure to visit “The Sound,” the official page of Stan Getz, produced by his daughter Bev. It is a great celebration of her father’s career and a frank history, including a detailed description of the 1954 Seattle arrest. Here is a brief excerpt:
He had been on heroin for nine years, and wanted to get off of it before he went to prison. While on this tour he swallowed barbiturates and drinks liberally to lessen the inevitable withdrawal symptoms. He was strung out during the entire tour and tried to pick fights with other musicians on the bus. By the time they arrive in Seattle, he was in misery with muscle cramps. Gaunt and sickly, he walked into a drug store across the street from his hotel, pretended he had a gun under his coat and staged a stick-up. A woman named Mary Brewster was behind the counter that morning, and when Stan approached he tells her, “Give me a capsule of Morphine. Don’t scream. If you don’t, I’ll blow your brains out.” She calmly assists two other customers, and whispered, “Stick up,” to one of them who left quietly and called the police. Turning back to Stan, she said, “Let me see your gun.”
At this unexpected challenge, Stan turned and ran out of the store and back to his hotel room across the street as the other customers watched. He then called to apologize to Mary Brewster. A cop was already there and listened in on another phone. Stan said, “I’m sorry for the crazy thing I did. I’ve never done anything like that before. I’m not a stick-up man. I’m from a good family. I’m going to commit myself on Wednesday.” Brewster asks “Why don’t you commit yourself today?” “I can’t. If I don’t get drugs, I’ll kill.”
If this topic is of interest to you, check out this snippet taken from my 2004 interview with Martin Torgoff, author of Can’t Find My Way Home: America in the Great Stoned Age, 1945 – 2000
JJM You wrote, “As surely as reefer had come to be associated with swing, heroin would mark the transition from swing to bop.” As we know, heroin is clearly a much different drug than marijuana
MT It’s a classic example of the lack of drug education. No one knew how destructive heroin was. Take Charlie Parker, for example. He encountered the drug as a teenager in Kansas City, when it just started trickling out from cities on the East Coast. There was not much of it around. Narcotics were declared a controlled substance in 1914. At that time, the basic drug addict in this country was a very conventional, middle class woman who had become addicted to some sort of opiated medication that a doctor had prescribed for her, like Laudanum or something like that. So, when the law went into effect, there was an instantaneous black market for drugs. People still wanted it and could no longer get it. Some of the doctors continued to prescribe it and were arrested. They had clinics for a while where these people could go, but they were shut down eventually, and the only place to get it was in the underground.
The first drug dealers were ethnic immigrants in the neighborhoods of New York — Jews, Italians, and Irish, primarily — who began procuring this stuff, but until the Mafia started organizing a global trade, there was just piddling amounts of it. But it found its way into the life of Parker, a teenage alto player in Kansas City, and, “Bird” being “Bird,” with his voracious appetite for all kinds of experiences, became addicted to it by the time he left Kansas City to go first to Chicago, and then to New York. So, Parker’s addiction to heroin coincided with the emergence of his genius, which coincided with heroin’s wider distribution in Harlem. It was a simultaneous happening. As he became a hero, he was influencing the lives of his fellow musicians who were also getting into the drug. By 1948, after he had his breakdown and was enjoying his comeback in New York, heroin was beginning to flood the neighborhoods of Harlem as a result of gangsters like Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky, as well as corrupt New York City narcotics police and intelligence agencies — some of whom allied themselves with the gangsters as a way to counter the influence of the communists in places like the port of Marseille in France.
So, while these drugs were coming into Harlem in 1948, by1950, you had the brightest young jazz musicians in America already addicted to heroin — Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Art Blakey, Dexter Gordon — I could go on and on. No one really knew how bad the drug was, but they certainly found out quickly enough once they became addicted to it.
JJM Parker’s use of the drug certainly influenced the image of “hip” also, and that must have had an enormous affect on people like the pianist Hampton Hawes, who said, “Those of us who were affected the strongest felt we’d be willing to do anything to warm ourselves by that fire, get some of that grease pumping through our veins. He fucked up all our minds. It was where the ultimate truth was.”
MT I don’t think anyone has articulated it quite as good as he did right there.
JJM So, what affect did Parker have on the Beat writers’ use of drugs?
MT Well, they idolized him. Parker’s most famous statement about art was, ” They teach you that there is a boundary line to music, but man, there is no boundary line to art.” That is exactly what the writers of the Beat generation were after; they were trying to blow out the boundaries of writing. So, Parker was a god to them, really. Jack Kerouac likened him to the Buddha in Mexico City Blues. Not only that, but conceptually, when Kerouac wrote On the Road, his famous taping together of Japanese rolling paper was done so he could type words on his typewriter in a continuous flow of consciousness exactly the way Bird was blowing jazz with his saxophone. Ginsberg adopted what Kerouac called a long saxophone line, used in his poem Howl. Parker’s influence on them was not only around his drug use and creative innovation, but also the conceptual thinking identified with the jazz of the time. They brought it into their writing.
JJM Herbert Huncke said of Parker’s recording of “Lover Man,” “You can hear his agony, one junkie to another, and the people I was with felt the same way about it.”
MT Yes. The famous Los Angeles recording session of “Lover Man,” when Bird broke down, is a powerful episode in this whole story. He went to Billy Berg’s on the West Coast with Dizzy Gillespie to bring bebop there, but Dizzy had to let him go because he was so strung out. He just sort of fell into an abyss at that point. Subsequently, Howard McGhee got him a recording session for Dial where he recorded “Lover Man.” He plays it with everything he can possibly muster, but he is right on the edge — you can hear the pain. The musicians of his era who were trying to achieve breakthroughs in music viewed this as a triumph of Bird’s, in a way. He was strung out, he broke down, they sent him to Camarillo, yet he came back out more brilliant and stronger than ever. What it meant to them is that Bird had created great art out of this pain.
JJM And his death made him even more legendary.
MT Yes, it did. One of the remarkable things about that is that you would think that the stories of the likes of Charlie Parker and Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix would be cautionary tales serving to prevent people from ever doing this kind of thing. In fact, that did not happen, and in a lot of cases they may have even stoked the embers. That has always just blown me away. I was about twenty when Hendrix, Janis and Morrison went down, and it had no restraining impact on us at all.
Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd on the Perry Como Show