Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Song Of The Vipers

In Chapter 2 (“The Rise of Individualism and the Jazz Solo”) of James Lincoln Collier’s book, Jazz: The American Theme Song (1993), Collier discusses how the forces of modernism enabled the transformation of jazz bands from ensembles to vehicles for soloists. Modernism privileged the individual, championing the virtues of “individualism.” It valued “freedom of the spirit, the virtues of primitivism, belief in living spontaneously . . . and . . . individual expression” (44). Adherence to these values led some to refuse to read, study, or rehearse music, “for fear that a conscious knowing of what they were doing will inhibit spontaneity and the free flow of feeling” (45). However, if modernism privileged freedom of the spirit, primitivism, and spontaneity (the latter expressed in the form of the improvised jazz solo), modernism also was a consequence of the so-called “machine age,” which valued predictability rather than spontaneity, the planned rather than the improvised, and interchangeability (replaceability) rather than individuality.

It’s possible — to theorize a little — that drug use became a fixture of early jazz (sub)culture as a reaction against modernism, that is, the machine age that was dominated by spirit-crushing, that is, mindless and unfulfilling, labor. I’m aware that what was called Romanticism in the nineteenth century was called “Modernism” in the twentieth; drug addiction (such as Charlie Parker’s), as a form of self-destruction, conforms to the Romantic myth of early death as a sign of heightened sensitivity and consciousness. Yet it is also true that the early “drug subcultures” arose in Paris in the early modernist period, the city to which the mercurial Sidney Bechet was drawn in the early 1920s, to the detriment of his recording career in the United States. Among the first of the Parisian drug subcultures (or at least one of the most famous) was the Club des Haschischins, which flourished in Paris in the 1840s and ‘50s. Its members included Charles Baudelaire, Alexander Dumas, Gerald de Nerval, and Théophile Gautier. In the mid-twentieth century, writers such as William Burroughs and Bryon Gysin revived the myth of the “Hashishin” or “Assassins” — a secret group of drug users at odds with the material culture in which they lived — as a way of conceptualizing the modern “drug subculture” or so-called “drug underground.” The important point is to notice the link between esotericism and the individual’s need for a quasi-religious transcendence that can occur only with the secrecy of ritual. “The structure of modern life tends to eliminate possibilities of radical change,” Luigi Zola astutely notes, which is why secret or esoteric societies hold such imaginative power for individuals in modern desacralized urban society (see Mike Jay, Ed., Artificial Paradises 367). Mike Jay has observed that drug subcultures “share many of the underlying dynamics with initiatory secret societies” (Artificial Paradises 366). Such occult or secret societies are premised on initiation ceremonies  (employing drugs) allowing individuals access to a higher state of being — what is meant by “high” in the first place. The French expression for being high — “il plane” — expresses the meaning of being high as being metaphorically elevated to a different plane, or level of conscious awareness. The urban jazz subculture, in turn, shared many of the features of a secret society (exclusive membership). “Speaking of 1931,” Louis Armstrong wrote in “Tight Like That Gage,” “we did call ourselves Vipers, which could have been anybody from all walks of life that smoked and respected gage. That was our cute little name for marijuana, and it was a misdemeanor in those days.”

Coupled with what Ted Gioia has called “the primitivist myth” (The Imperfect Art, 1988) that has informed much of the early critical writing about jazz, drug use (or perhaps excessive drug use, addiction) became the imprimatur of authenticity—the positive indication of tortured artistic genius.

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