I have been listening to the music of the jazz pianist Bill Evans. He was white, and brought a lyrical, almost Western classical influence to the music. He also had an awful life, dogged by repeated battles with addiction, mainly heroin.
It seems bizarre that some of the most sublime music of the 20th century should have been created under the influence of the worst narcotic known. Heroin, though, was almost as prevalent as alcohol in mid-century jazz circles.
You will almost certain have heard Evans, even if you did not realise. He plays on Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, the biggest selling jazz album ever, if you ignore crossover hits like Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters.
He was best known for his work with just bass and drums – Evans pretty well invented the piano trio that has become the staple of the genre, through artists such as Keith Jarrett or Brad Mehldau. Go onto Spotify or YouTube and listen to Re: Person I Knew, probably one of the most tuneful compositions in modern jazz. Or Waltz For Debby.
Heroin was so prevalent that it would be easier to list the musicians who weren’t users. A number, including Evans, died of hepatitis, one of the complications of their addiction, especially when mixed with alcohol.
Charlie Parker, Chet Baker – who lost his front teeth and, temporarily, his ability to perform after a drug deal that went wrong. More modern musicians such as Don Cherry and Charlie Haden, who once ascribed his fitness to having to walk up flights of stairs in apartment blocks to reach the dealers who often lived at the top.
It is worth asking why heroin had such a hold. Some have said jazz was a black man’s music, and that as the underdog black musicians were more likely to turn to drugs for comfort – except that Evans was white, and suffered a degree of rejection when he replaced Red Garland, who was black, in the Davis band.
Some have blamed the influence of Charlie Parker, who was a demigod among musicians of his generation and seemed able to function without any hindrance from his addiction.
Some have talked about alcohol suppressing the left hand of the brain and allowing the more creative right to emerge. A good excuse, that. Some have blamed the Mafia, who after the War were able to import quantities of heroin.
Jazz musicians were on the outside of society, and were more likely to be in places where drugs were available, like the clubs where they performed. Their lifestyles were understandably different from the mainstream population. The final factor, I suspect, was that the dangers of heroin were as yet improperly understood.
A study by the British Journal of Psychiatry looked at 40 of the greatest performers from 1945 to 1960. It found that a disproportionate number had a family history of psychiatric problems, while more than a quarter were alcoholics. It is tempting, though I suspect wrong, to see some link between mental illness and creativity.
Go and listen to Re: Person I Knew, though, and wonder how something so beautiful can be the creation of such a disordered mind.