The Black Side of Swing
By George D. Lottman
SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE - MAGAZINE SECTION - June 19, 1938 Copyright 1938, King Features Syndicate Inc.
“The Black Side of Swing” By George D. Lottman (Author, with Tommy Dorsey, of “Love in Swingtime”)
The Vicious Part that Potent Marihuana Plays in Stimulating Certain Melody Makers to Fantastic Heights of Inspiration and the Efforts Made to Eliminate the Evil.
TO THE READER/ Let it be understood that this story does not apply to the thousands of modern young people who dance gaily to the strains of swing music. Neither does it apply to the average swing band or swing musician but only to the pitiful minority whose enslavement to marihuana smoking has come gradually to public attention. To be complimented are the leading maestros who have combined to wipe out the marihuana evil in the ranks of their precession.
“Hey Gate, whaddya say we go down to the pad and burn the bush.” It’s mellow as a cello, Jackson.
“Yeah viper, let’s light the fire and drink the tea. I haven’t torched the roach in a month, and I sure am anxious to get out of this world before we have that clambake tonight.”
Two men looking no differently than you or I are talking this mysterious language in some large city in the United States. They are swing musicians---members of that strange fraternity of melody makers whose barbaric rhythms and weird harmonies have swept the younger generation like a wildfire in the past several years.
They are talking on some street corner some hangout of swing musicians. Maybe it’s famous 52nd Street in Manhattan, or it might be 145th Street in Harlem eastside the Savoy Ballroom or Basin Street in New Orleans, or Beale Street in Memphis, or in some shadowy alley in Chicago’s notorious South Side. They are talking the secret lingo of the marihuana habit in this country. As a commonly taken drug. Its potency and harm are exceeded only by opium and cocaine.
“Prolonged use of marihuana,” says the International Narcotic Education Association, “frequently develops a delirious rage which sometimes leads to high crimes, such as rape, assault and murder.” The two gun-girls who recently murdered a bus-driver in New Jersey blamed their crime on the use of “weed.” And social studies have shown that an important cause of sexual immorality in juveniles is this insidious drug.
But nobody has traced the connection between “muggles” and musicians. You can definitely paste this fact in your hat. Were it not for certain types of swing musicians and their odd drug habits, the addiction to marihuana would not have spread as widely as it has today.
But let’s go back to our two “hep-cats,” or swing musicians. Translating their code into everyday language, here is what they meant:
“Hey, swingster, let’s go to a place where we can smoke marihuana and light up some cigarettes. It’s exhilarating smoker.”Marihuana is known to the brother-hood under many aliases muggies, reefers, tea, loco weed, Mary Warner, mooters, grass, hay, sonadora and grife. The addicts are generally called “vipers.”
In order to realize why many swing musicians smoke the weed so regularly, you have to know something about swing music and how it is played. Unlike every other kind of music known, swing is not played by notes. The true swing band plays without any sheet music in front of it in fact, many swing musicians (called “gates” or “cats”) can’t even read music. The quality that makes swing so appealing to certain ears (that "sends" them) is this fact that swing musicians improvise as they play and are always inventing new and spontaneous melodies as they go along. This Is what gives swing music its kick. Because no matter how many times a real swing band plays the same song, it never sounds the same twice.
Well in order to play this way, the “cats” must be inspired---or, as he puts it, “out of this world.” Since a swing band often plays for twelve and fourteen hours at a stretch, some “cats” need some powerful stimulant to keep them inspired. And marihuana, they discovered, was just what filled the bill. For them no jam session (which is the musicians’ term for a very hot evening of swing) is complete without a “stick” or two of marihuana, which is furtively passed along from musician to musician. Three or four deep drags are enough to give these swing-sters the “lift” they require to improvise hot licks and starling, uncanny melodies. One of the reasons swing sounds so wild is that it is often produced by men under the influence of this potent drug!
It is hard to say just when the “gates” discovered the potency of marihuana as an aid to the playing of swing, but most “vipers” in the know agree that it was around 1924. Prior to that, marihuana had been well known in Mexico, where it grows abundantly. It was brought into the United States by Mexican beet-workers. Marihuana comes from the Indian hemp plant, which also produces hasheesh, another widely-used narcotic, especially in Oriental countries. Since hemp is a hardy plant, which flourishes almost anywhere, marihuana plantations soon began to thrive secretly in almost every part of this country.
The reefers themselves are made by crushing the flowering tops of the plant. Reefers, or marihuana cigarettes, are usually as long as an ordinary cigarette, but considerable thinner and heavier. They sell from a nickel to seventy-five cents apiece. The “roach,” or butt end, of the marihuana cigarette is highly valued by these swing musicians because it has a dynamite potency. Some of the richer swing stars have their private marihuana plantations, and one famous swinger owner a two-acre marihuana field in upper New York State.
Marihuana first began to loom large in the world of swing when a well-known colored band introduced it in Chicago in 1924. (For obvious reasons, the names of the bands and musicians who smoke “weed” cannot be given, as many of them have become solid citizens since swing became commercially profitable). Around this time Chicago was the hotbed of swing, and the musicians, both colored and white, who fraternized because of their common musical interest, quickly took up the new fad. All swing musicians were thrilled by the revelation that this queer type of cigarette when smoked would produce a mysterious lightness in the head, a zippy feeling of exaltation and an intensification of emotions. When the “viper” takes a few deep puffs from his reefer, he finds that persons and things outside himself grow dim, he loses the sense of time and seconds seem like minutes and hours like days. This enables him to lose himself completely in his music.
But more than that, the hearing and musical sense is sharpened. The swingster discovers that he can now hear deep tones and rich harmonies that he never dreamed of before. And the execution of his weird idea thus became easier for the swing soloist.
The craze for “reefers” soon spread East among the swing musicians. A widely known white band brought it to New York, but it never got much of a foothold until an internationally famous swing musician introduced it in Harlem and began to manufacture it on a large scale.
Go to some of our famous swing ballrooms and smell the air carefully. You will detect a sickening, sweetish odor. That indicates that plenty of “tea” is being drunk. Otherwise you won’t know, because marihuana, unlike whiskey, leaves no perceptible traces of its effect on its addicts. In the extreme stage of marihuana smoking, however, a mad feeling of jumping pervades the smoker. He wants to jump off high places. This has given to swing the famous phrase, “The joint is jumpin.”
Marihuana has made its influence felt in many of the popular swing songs. Cab Calloway’s famous “That Funny Reefer Man” refers to a marihuana salesman, and Don Redman’s theme song is “Chant of the Weed.” Wingy Mannone features “I’m Goin Down to the Lighthouse and Light Up.” Reginald Foresythe (who wrote “Serenade to a Wealthy Window”) is responsible for “Garden of the Weed,” and Red Norvo now has a song called “Tea Time.”
Does marihuana hurt musicians? This is a question that is argued pr and con in all the Harlem creep and pad joints (the secret hideaways where the swing musicians congregate to have their private jam sessions and to which the public is never (invited). Although admitting that it is a sex stimulant, most of them maintain that “muggles” are harmless. Marihuana is not habit-forming, they claim.
But medical authorities say other-wise. In addition to the profound moral degeneration that occurs when marihuana is regularly smoked, they also note a mental deterioration.
But don’t think that every swing band you hear is made up of marihuana addicts. The practice is confined to the smaller “jam” bands and to the surreptitious hideaways where musicians congregate after working hours.
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