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Jazz and Death

Jazz and Death: Medical Profiles of Jazz Greats

Frederick J. Spencer
Copyright Date: 2002
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    Jazz and Death
    Book Description:

    When a jazz hero dies, rumors, speculation, gossip, and legend can muddle the real cause of death.

    In this book, Frederick J. Spencer conducts an inquest on how jazz greats lived and died pursuing their art. Forensics, medical histories, death certificates, and biographies divulge the way many musical virtuosos really died.

    An essential reference source,Jazz and Deathstrives to correct misinformation and set the story straight. Reviewing the medical records of such jazz icons as Scott Joplin, James Reese Europe, Bennie Moten, Tommy Dorsey, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Wardell Gray, and Ronnie Scott, the book spans decades, styles, and causes of death.

    Divided into disease categories, it covers such illnesses as ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease), which killed Charlie Mingus, and tuberculosis, which caused the deaths of Chick Webb, Charlie Christian, Bubber Miley, Jimmy Blanton, and Fats Navarro. It notes the significance of dental disease in affecting a musician's embouchure and livelihood, as happened with Joe "King" Oliver. A discussion of Art Tatum's visual impairment leads to discoveries in the pathology of what blinded Lennie Tristano.

    Heavy drinking, even during Prohibition, was the norm in the clubs of New Orleans and Kansas City and in the ballrooms of Chicago and New York. Too often, the musical scene demanded that those who play jazz be "jazzed."

    After World War II, as heroin addiction became the hallmark of revolution, talented bebop artists suffered long absences from the bandstand. Many did jail time, and others succumbed to the ravages of "horse."

    WithJazz and Death, the causes behind the great jazz funerals may no longer be misconstrued. Its clinical and morbidly entertaining approach creates an invaluable compendium for jazz fans and scholars alike.

    Frederick J. Spencer is a professor and associate dean emeritus of the School of Medicine (Medical College of Virginia) at Virginia Commonwealth University. He has been published in theNew England Journal of Medicine,Journal of the American Medical Association,American Journal of Public Health, andModern Medicine, among other publications.

    eISBN: 978-1-60473-633-5
    Subjects: Music

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xiv)
    (pp. xv-xvi)
  5. INTRODUCTION: Jazz and Medicine
    (pp. xvii-2)

    There is a similarity between the paths that jazz and medicine trod during the twentieth century. Both disciplines progressed after 1900, jazz as a new art form and medicine as a reborn science based on the germ theory of Louis Pasteur. In the 1920s and ʹ30s the horizons of jazz were expanding in New Yorkʹs and other citiesʹ clubs and studios, and new medical therapies were being exploited in the control of infectious disease. Changes were relatively few until 1945, when a revolution took place in both jazz and medicine. Jazz experimented with bebop, to be followed by other styles,...

    (pp. 3-4)

    Bass player Charles Mingus Jr. was born in Nogales, Arizona, on April 22, 1922. He joined in the bop revolution with Bud Powell, Dizzy Gillespie, and Charlie Parker but, in the 1960s, began to concentrate more on composition. His eccentricity was marked, as noted in the opening and closing pages of a review of his career: ʺA highly complex man, he is an astonishing mixture of directness, outrageous exaggeration, self-contradiction, hostility, and rare affection…. He is a fascinating, complex, even tortured human being, and if his personality sometimes is more noticed than the music which results from it, one can...

    (pp. 4-16)

    The origin of cancer (carcinoma) lies in the cell, the basic component of all biological matter. The normal cell that escapes its controls—the ʺsavage cellʺ of cancer—grows into a localized mass. It may spread in the bloodstream or lymphatic system from its primary site to a secondary deposit (metastasis) anywhere in the body. Lymph is a body fluid, constantly moving between cells, that drains into local nodes (glands). The function of the lymph node is to stop disease from spreading further. This is usually effective in infections, less often in cancer.

    The liver is located below the diaphragm,...

    (pp. 16-26)

    The heart and brain contain end arteries that have practically no connection with any other arteries. This means that if they are blocked, no collateral circulation around the affected bloodless area can be established. A heart attack is caused by an interruption in the blood flowing through the coronary arteries that supply the heart muscle; a stroke results from a similar process in one of several arteries in the brain. In most cases the underlying disease is hardening of the arteries (arteriosclerosis). Damage to the heart is proportional to the amount of blockage caused by a clot in its arterial...

    (pp. 26-27)

    Cholera is an infectious, waterborne disease that causes violent diarrhea, dehydration, and death. It first appeared in Europe and America in 1831, when it spread from India. A few cases, mostly imported from abroad, have been diagnosed in the United States in past years. Hygienic sewage disposal, water treatment, and food protection limit choleraʹs spread in the Western world.

    Teddy Weatherford was born in Bluefield, West Virginia, on October 11, 1903. In 1926 he sailed for the Orient as the pianist in Jack Carterʹs Orchestra. Eight years later he returned to the United States and hired Buck Claytonʹs band to...

    (pp. 27-34)

    Crude forms of dental treatment were practiced in ancient Egypt and India. (Why do we still only ʺpracticeʺ the healing arts?) Medical specialism became established in the nineteenth century, but surgery lagged behind, as it was originally the trade of a barber-surgeon. The ancient rift between the profession of medicine and the craft of surgery is still observed in Britain, while nursing honors its religious origins—a doctor with a higher qualification in surgery is ʺmister,ʺ and a chief nurse is ʺsister.ʺ Hence this apocryphal dialogue in an English operating ʺtheatreʺ: ʺScalpel, nurse!ʺ ʺHere, doctor.ʺ ʺMister, nurse.ʺ ʺSister, misterʺ! Yesterdayʹs...

    (pp. 34-37)

    Eric Allan Dolphy was born on June 20, 1928, in Los Angeles. He played alto saxophone in Roy Porterʹs band from 1948 to 1950, when he was inducted into the United States Army. Later, he performed in many freelance sessions in New York City and made his first trip to Europe in 1961. During a second visit three years later, he died in Berlin on June 29, 1964, reportedly a result of diabetes.

    Diabetes reduces the ability of the pancreas to produce insulin, a substance vital to sugar metabolism. Before 1921 it was untreatable. In that year Dr. Frederick Banting,...

    (pp. 37-42)

    Edwin Albert Condon was born in Goodland, Indiana, on November 16, 1905. After moving to Chicago, he played guitar with the founders of the white Chicago school of jazz. In New York, he produced jazz concerts and record sessions and ran a series of cognominal night clubs where he sold, and consumed, a lot of liquor. He ʺwas an unspectacular guitarist, club owner, author, band leader, irresistable [sic] raconteur and enthusiastic drinker.ʺ¹ Eddie Condon died in New York City on August 4, 1973.

    Condon has been described as a ʺone-eared banjo player and promoter.ʺ² His account of a World War...

    (pp. 42-60)

    ʺThe craft of writing symbols to represent soundsʺ is the essence of musical notation.¹ In its infancy jazz was mostly improvised. Players who could read music were few. An attempt by one band to learn notation is said to have produced jeers of ʺYeah, but what happens when the lights go out?ʺ As jazz evolved, reading became essential. To read requires sight. Without vision it is possible to become an accomplished musician but mainly as a solo artist. Apart from singing or whistling, the piano is the instrument most suited to repeated solo presentation.²

    For most of his life, Art...

    (pp. 60-62)

    Tommy Dorsey was a superb trombonist and the leader of what some say was the best all-round swing band. It was a late night, or early morning, meal that contributed to his death during the night of November 26, 1956. Dorsey choked on some partially digested food: ʺAfter finishing the nightʹs performance at the Statler, Tommy picked up some Italian food … and brought it home to Flagler Drive in Greenwich, Connecticut, where he, his estranged third wife Jane and his mother-in-law shared a late meal. Then Tommy went to his room alone. The next afternoon he was found dead....

    (pp. 63-78)

    Jazz flourished in the gang-war days of Prohibition, so it may seem surprising that more musicians did not perish from gunfire—but sometimes they were unwitting accomplices before the fact: ʺIn those days a hood would come into a joint with a few well-armed friends, slip the bandleader a C-note, and tell him to play very loud. That way nobody knew anything happened till some guy would fall out of his chair not dead drunk, just dead.ʺ¹ Playing in a mob-controlled club was not hazardous to band members unless they ignored the advice of one gangster-owner, who told them to...

    (pp. 78-80)

    Influenza is a viral disease of the lungs, spread mostly by inhaling droplets coughed or sneezed by an infected person. It is characterized by sudden onset, moderate fever, runny nose, sore throat, persistent cough, loss of appetite, prostration, and generalized aching. Recovery usually occurs within a few days, but a cough and residual weakness may last for a week or more. What most people call ʺfluʺ is not influenza. It is a milder, self-limiting illness caused by a variety of viruses that lack the severe general symptoms of true influenza. Occasionally, influenza will progress to pneumonia from a superimposed bacterial...

    (pp. 81-93)

    A retrospective diagnosis of physical disease is fraught with danger. In mental illness this is magnified a thousandfold. Florid insanity is recognizable, but to correlate minor aberrations with past events in a personʹs lifetime amounts to informed, and often misinformed, guesswork. The truth of this tenet is evident in the divergent testimony given by forensic psychiatrists briefed by prosecution and defense counsel. If this difference of opinion occurs after a direct interview, it must be more common when derived from the printed word.

    The main deficiency in psychiatry is that there are no diagnostic tests like analyses of blood or...

  18. MUMPS
    (pp. 93-94)

    Mumps is a viral disease of the parotid salivary glands that are located behind the angle of the jaw. In about 35 percent of cases there are no symptoms, but subclinical viral infections often confer immunity. As with most childhood infections, it is a more disabling disease in adults. I have diagnosed only one case of adult mumps, and he was a very sick patient. My mother caught mumps from me when I was ten years old and suffered a lot more than I did.

    Clarence Brereton, a trumpet player, was born in Baltimore in 1909 and died in New...

    (pp. 94-96)

    These jazz musicians continued to perform despite their limitation by physical handicaps.

    Sweet Emma Barrett (1897–1983) played with many of the early New Orleans jazzmen and, in later years, was the pianist, singer, and leader of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. She became known as ʺthe Bell Galʺ from a habit she adopted of wearing garters to which jingling bells were attached. When on stage she wore a red dress and red beanie. She was very secretive about her age, replying, ʺNone of your damn businessʺ to any queries. In 1967 Barrett suffered a stroke that left her virtually...

    (pp. 96-97)

    Among the jazz musicians who became known more for their arrangements than their technique was Ian Ernest Gilmore Green ʺGilʺ Evans. A self-taught pianist, he was born in Toronto, Canada, on May 13, 1912, and joined Claude Thornhill as an arranger in 1941. Evans also wrote for the Miles Davis nonet when it pioneered ʺcoolʺ jazz in 1948. He drifted into comparative obscurity but in the late 1950s led a series of experimental big bands. Later he turned more and more to composition. On March 20, 1988, Gil Evans died in Cuernavaca, Mexico.

    ʺMr. Evans died Sunday of peritonitis while...

    (pp. 97-122)

    The use and abuse of alcohol and drugs were part of the jazz scene from the beginning. Nicotine came later but, in the view of many, was equally harmful. The making of alcohol is as old as history. An early association with religion assured it an accepted place in society, and alcohol is still used in church ritual. Later it became a part of social intercourse as we now know it. Alcoholʹs beneficial effects that have recently become evident are offset by its abuse in excess. Alcohol is unique, as is tobacco, in being an addictive drug condoned by government...

    (pp. 122-157)

    One of todayʹs paradoxes is the revenue made by government from two addictive drugs, alcohol and tobacco, while financing attempts to control others. The experiment of Prohibition showed the futility of imposing a ban on an enjoyable chemical substance. Unlike alcohol, marijuana has no anesthetic properties, no hangover, and does not affect the liver. Unfortunately, a logical debate on legalizing marijuana involves the irrational, combined opposition of politicians and Puritans. To allow people to drink themselves silly with alcohol and deny them the right to smoke pot is the height of hypocrisy. Innocent or guilty, people associated with drugs may...

    (pp. 158-165)

    The uproar caused by Dr. Jack Kevorkianʹs creed of ʺassisted suicideʺ harks back to the Christian ethic of ʺfelo de seʺ—a ʺcrime against self.ʺ Suicide later became a secular crime as it deprived the king of an able body he could use to defend his realm. Obviously, prosecution can only be sought if an attempt at self-destruction is unsuccessful. Legal proceedings do not follow attempted suicide today unless the survivor is part of a suicide pact. The assisted suicide of Dr. Kevorkian is really euthanasia. Within the medical profession, this practice has been recognized for many years as an...

    (pp. 165-185)

    Although the figures should be viewed with caution, one general survey published in a 1933 book showed that ʺAmong prostitutes the prevalence [of syphilis] ranges from 38 percent to almost universal existence among old prostitutes.ʺ¹ The infections in ʺold prostitutesʺ were presumably either late or latent and therefore not transmissible. Despite the infection to which they may have been exposed in Storyville and elsewhere, few jazzmen seem to have died from venereal disease. Gonorrheal infections probably exceeded those of syphilis. In the male, gonorrhea is usually confined to the lower genital tract with few systemic effects; and syphilis is unlikely...

    (pp. 185-198)

    Two prominent jazz musicians, pianist-leader Bennie Moten and guitarist Eddie Lang, died during or after an operation to remove their tonsils. Bennie Moten, born on November 13, 1894, became an outstanding figure in his hometown of Kansas City, Missouri. Starting with a five-piece combo, he built a big band that outdistanced its Mid-west territory, reaching New York within a few years. An unusual instrument in this band, more often linked with the bubbly, corn-fed music of Lawrence Welk, was the accordion, played by one of Motenʹs relatives, Ira (ʺBusterʺ or ʺBusʺ) Moten. Bus Moten was probably Bennie Motenʹs brother, although...

  26. TRAUMA
    (pp. 198-226)

    Fifteen jazzmen listed in ChiltonʹsWhoʹs Who of Jazzdied accidental deaths. Eleven perished in cars, including the famous, Chu Berry, Meade Lux Lewis, Bessie Smith, Frank Teschemacher, and the not so famous, Bus Etri, Al Gandee, Joe Harris, Herbie Haymer. But Rod Cless and Dave Tough died after falls in the comparative calm of an urban setting.

    George Roderick ʺRodʺ Cless was born in Lennox, Iowa, on May 20, 1907. He gigged on clarinet with various groups until joining Muggsy Spanierʹs Ragtimers, leaving them in 1939. In the next five years he played in New York with Art Hodes...

    (pp. 226-242)

    Tuberculosis was the scourge of society in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Pulmonary tuberculosis—ʺconsumptionʺ—devoured the lungs of the pallid ladies of fiction, a reality well known to authors and readers. As jazz spread throughout America, the ʺwhite plagueʺ tagged along, thriving in poorly ventilated, late-night venues, with drink and drugs to hand. Sown in early poverty and malnutrition, tuberculosis germs lurked in the bodies of many jazz musicians.

    Signs of tuberculosis have been found in bones from prehistoric times. From 1700 on, the lungs have been the main site of infection. Tuberculosis went through five generations of...

    (pp. 242-246)

    Oscar Pettiford was born on an Indian reservation in Okmulgee, Oklahoma, on September 30, 1922. His father, Harry ʺDocʺ Pettiford, directed a family touring band made up of his wife and their eleven children. Oscar Pettiford became one of several black players in Charlie Barnetʹs orchestra in 1943. In 1945, Duke Ellington hired him, and later Pettiford joined Woody Herman. He is said to have been the first jazzman to play a cello like a string bass. This occurred while he was recovering from a broken arm sustained in a baseball game. Pettiford emigrated to Europe in 1958 and died...

    (pp. 247-256)

    The thread of substance abuse is inextricably woven into the fabric of jazz. Some of the earliest jazz slang, such as ʺbarrelhouseʺ and ʺhonky tonk,ʺ is derived from the saloons in which the embryonic music was played. Pee Wee Erwinʹs story is typical of the jazzmen of the 1920s to 1940s, many of whom drank until illness or the love of a ʺdryʺ woman stopped them—but not all wives were teetotalers. Erwin was born in 1913. In 1939, he said, ʺ[I got] buck fever—stage fright—and began shaking so badly that I couldnʹt blow a note…. [M]aybe if...

  30. Notes
    (pp. 257-288)
  31. Bibliography
    (pp. 289-302)
  32. Index
    (pp. 303-311)