An Excerpt from “This Is”

Aaron Gilbreath

Listen while you read—click here to find links to many of the songs/performances discussed in this essay.

On February 19, 2007, jazz pianist Freddie Redd performed The Connection soundtrack in its entirety at New York’s Merkin Concert Hall. He wrote the music in 1959 as the score for Jack Gelber’s play of that name, a story about heroin-addicted jazz musicians. Redd not only composed the music, which Blue Note released, he acted in the original stage production in New York, London, and Paris, as well as the 1961 film adaptation. He was seventy-eight years old now, and he hadn’t publicly performed the whole soundtrack in at least a decade.

When The Connection debuted at Manhattan’s Living Theatre on July 15, 1959, it sent what some described as shock waves through the American theater community. First, there’s the subject matter. The play is about junkies waiting around for their “connection” to deliver drugs. The dealer’s name is Cowboy, and like most dealers, he keeps his customers waiting. The entire play takes place in a single, dingy Manhattan apartment, while eight addicts pace and fret and kill time. Some of the men are jazz musicians, and between loose, seemingly improvised riffs about money, happiness, loneliness, and need, they play songs. Like windsocks brought to life by a fleeting gust, the musicians rise from whichever surface they’re slumped on, play a tune, then settle back on their piano or stool. The story’s plot is best summarized by the title of saxophonist Tina Brooks’s 1961 Blue Note album The Waiting Game. In the Aristotelian sense, there’s little action. Many modern viewers would complain: “Nothing happens!” But that’s what makes The Connection such a lifelike document: downtime is not only the addict’s curse, it’s the primary unit of measure in a musician’s life.

As author Sam Stephenson says in his book The Jazz Loft Project: “Jazz musicians spend a lot of time waiting. Waiting to get called for gigs, then waiting for the gigs; waiting for a pianist or drummer to show up; waiting for a turn to solo; waiting to get paid by a club or label owner. Bassist Bill Crow said, ‘There was a lot of idle time in the afternoons. We learned which museums and galleries were free, and we’d go look at the art in the afternoons, when we weren’t practicing.’ ” Others passed the time getting high or attempting to.

It’s no exaggeration to call the Bebop and Hard Bop jazz eras the Heroin Age. What cocaine was to the white-collar, urban 1980s, and LSD to the ’60s, junk was to jazz between the mid-’40s and early-’60s. As sick as it sounds, the list of the era’s players who used heroin, however briefly, reads as the ultimate who’s who: Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Sonny Clark, John Coltrane, Paul Chambers, Art Blakey, Hank Mobley, Jimmy Heath, Jackie McLean, Tina Brooks, Grant Green, Bobby Timmons, Billy Higgins, Lee Morgan, Dexter Gordon, Tadd Dameron, Sonny Stitt, Chet Baker, Art Pepper, Stan Getz, Stan Levey, Fats Navarro, Gene Ammons, Gerry Mulligan, and Ike Quebec, not to mention jazz vocalists Billie Holiday and Anita O’Day. It’s tempting to treat this all-star lineup as proof of some connection between intoxication and creativity, but it’s really only a case of overlapping chronologies: a heroin epidemic struck during a key phase of jazz’s development.

After WW II, dope was everywhere, plentiful and cheap. Veterans returned from war with morphine habits because of injuries. Organized crime reopened supply routes from Turkey and the Far East and funneled heroin into America’s black urban neighborhoods, where it decimated communities with a particular fury. Harlem alto saxophonist Jackie McLean, who played a musician in The Connection and recorded on the soundtrack, remembers its arrival: “It came on the scene like a tidal wave. I mean, it just appeared after World War II. I began to notice guys in my neighborhood nodding on the corner, you know, and so we all began to find out that this is what — they were nodding because they were taking this thing called ‘horse.’ We called it ‘horse’ at that time.” McLean was fourteen when the war ended in 1945. Charlie Parker was twenty-five and already addicted. Like so many jazz musicians at the dawn of Bop, Parker’s inventive and dexterous playing entranced McLean, and the young musician ended up emulating his idol. “I didn’t care if someone said I sounded like him,” McLean said. “That’s what I wanted to do, and that’s all I dreamt of doing. I didn’t want to be original. I wanted to play like Charlie Parker.” Not only did he and other acolytes copy Parker’s playing, they copied his lifestyle. “A lot of guys in my community that idolized and worshipped Charlie Parker began to experiment with this drug,” he said, “including myself.” McLean spent the late 1940s and most of the ’50s using, and only achieved a lasting sobriety in 1964.

In the New York City lofts and clubs where musicians hung out, heroin seems to have moved through their ranks like a cold through a group of friends. Which isn’t to suggest that its use was universal. The list of artists who never got wrapped up in it is as impressive as the list of users: Horace Silver, Clifford Brown, Donald Byrd, Benny Golson, Kenny Burrell, Tommy Flanagan, Roy Haynes, Curtis Fuller, Wayne Shorter, Lex Humphries, Wynton Kelly, Freddie Hubbard, Duke Pearson, Art Farmer, Milt Jackson, Herbie Hancock, Pepper Adams, Lou Donaldson, Louis Hayes, and Freddie Redd. It’s only to say that addiction was, along with racist club owners, audiences, and police officers, a force that shaped this thriving new music.

Read the rest of this essay by downloading the free Amazon digest version of The Kenyon Review here.

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