Leon Bismarck ‘Bix’ Beiderbecke grew up in early twentieth-century Iowa, listening to music floating ashore from the riverboats. He put a lot of energy into learning cornet and piano than he did in Shakespeare, to the chagrin of his father. An attempt to straighten him out by sending him to Chicago’s boarding school culminated in yet more access to ragtime and other desultory delights in the speakeasies of the area, and hence the birth of a legendary jazz musician. At its peak, Beiderbecke was known on the cornet for his sensitive phrasing and smart improvisation.
He influenced generations of musicians alongside his contemporaries, Louis Armstrong, including Jimmy McPartland, Bobby Hackett, Tommy Dorsey, and Miles Davis. Unfortunately, for potential jazz disciples, he set another less favorable template: an inclination towards excessive alcohol intake. He played little during his last years of life and went through bouts of binging followed by depression and delirium tremens, subsequently succumbing to lobar pneumonia at the age of 28 in 1931.
Stride pianist Fats Waller (1904-1933) and trombonist Jack Teagarden (1905-1964) were pioneering Beiderbecke contemporaries whose bacchanalian impulses resulted both in pneumonia and premature death. Although tuberculosis has declined among the general public in the U.S., cornet player Freddie Keppard, bass player Jimmy Blanton, trumpeter Fats Navarro, bebop keyboard virtuoso Bud Powell, and bass player Paul Chambers have all succumbed to it after a lifetime of alcohol abuse. Influential singer Charlie Christian and drummer Chick Webb were both felled by tuberculosis, none of whom were identified as abusers or heavy drinkers.
Webb endured a pronounced gibbous deformity of the spine due to childhood tuberculosis, which thankfully did not interfere with his personal and professional accomplishments (including welcoming a very young Ella Fitzgerald to the world of music).
Syphilis had affected many well-known jazz musicians but was not the cause of injury or death, with few exceptions. Scott Joplin (1867-1917), the King of Ragtime, bridged the realms of classical and popular music and died following a protracted illness from the neurosyphilis effects. Saxophonists Lester Young (1909-1959) and Charlie Parker (1920-1955) were diagnosed and treated like young men with syphilis, both later suffering from the debilitating effects of substance addiction and alcohol dependence. A syphilis epidemic was reported during Young’s tenure with Count Basie’s band in 1937 affecting four musicians, one of them probably Young.
Another note-worthy illness due to dissolute behavior afflicted jazz musicians, but it deferred its symptoms over several years. Chronic viral hepatitis was implicated in the illnesses and deaths of several pioneering jazz musicians, including saxophonists John Coltrane (1926-1967), Stan Getz (1927-1991) and Gerry Mulligan (1927-1996), pianist Bill Evans (1929-1980), soul singer Ray Charles (1930-2004) and trumpeter Don Cherry (1936-1995), all of whom died from complications of hepatitis due to intravenous drug use early in life. It should be remembered, however, that available medical records are inadequate in all such cases, and the symptoms of chronic drug consumption cannot be readily disentangled from those of chronic viral hepatitis.
Many jazz musicians lived and died from Charlie Parker’s dictum that ‘If you don’t live it won’t come out of your horn.’ Alcohol and marijuana were freely imbibed by early jazz musicians, but the introduction of heroin into the music scene in the 1940s was devastating and the major factor in spreading viral hepatitis. A survey conducted in 1957 found that 53 percent of jazz musicians used heroin at least once, 24 percent used it occasionally and 16 percent used it regularly. In 1955, at the age of 35, Parker himself died of pneumonia while ‘drying out’ at the jazz patroness Baroness ‘Nica’ de Koenigswarter’s flat, after years of alcohol and drug abuse.
While it is difficult to distinguish the influence of lifestyle from the social effects of poverty and nomadic existence (among other factors), the ever-prevalent nature of drug and alcohol abuse among bebop musicians is undeniable, and these agents’ casualty rate has been truly stunning. Just a fortunate handful, including Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Roy Haynes, and Max Roach, survived the bebop era’s depredations in the later years of the century to entertain crowds.