A comprehensive and compassionate account of the intersections of jazz, race, and drugs in mid-20th-century America.
Journalist Torgoff (Can't Find My Way Home: America in the Great Stoned Age, 1945-2000, 2004, etc.), who has also worked in film production, focuses on a number of iconic characters, including Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, John Coltrane, William Burroughs, Miles Davis, and numerous others, exploring not only their artistry, but also their histories—and difficulties—with addictive drugs. Their stories are more or less familiar to fans of jazz and the Beats, but the author also tells us about Henry J. Anslinger, fierce head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Herbert Huncke (a lesser-known Beat writer and notorious junkie), Ruby Rosano (a heavy drug user who hung with Holiday), and others. Torgoff is a patent admirer of most of these artists, but sometimes his admiration soars a little too high: in one place, he notes (sans contradiction) that some compared Kerouac’s work to “Proust’s and Melville’s and Shakespeare’s.” The author is interested not just in explication of these often tormented yet astonishing lives, but in highlighting the cultural clashes that accompanied them. The early public disdain for jazz, the fierce and pervasive racism of the era, the demonization of drug users (he mentions some severe penalties for possession), the reluctance of traditional music and literary critics to recognize the value of what was slapping them in the face—these issues lie at the heart of the text, from first page to last. Torgoff’s descriptions of the music are excellent, yet many readers will probably wish for an accompanying CD. Listen and read and weep.
A textured story of human hope and hopelessness, of artistry that blossomed in the most daunting and, in some cases, demeaning circumstances.