Come on boys,
I know a whoopie spot
Where the gin is cold
And the piano is hot.
It’s just a noisy hall
Where there’s a nightly brawl.
And all that jazz.
— Kander & Ebb, Chicago
The music called jazz means many things to many people, but the one constant, no matter the style, is that it has always been music to drink by.
You can almost trace the shifts in America’s drinking habits by the changes that occurred in jazz. For example, in the 1920s hot jazz was accompanied by straight gin. In the 1940s, the era of swing and WWII—of the common man, in fact—jazz was taken in equal measure with good old-fashioned beer. And can it be at all surprising that the 1950s-60s, the time of bop and cool jazz, gave birth to the cocktail craze? Jazz and alcohol make excellent bedfellows.
Over the course of its history, Jazz has produced many fine artists and a like number of serious drinkers.
Consider the great piano player Art Tatum. Other pianists wished they could play like Tatum’s left hand, knowing they could never take him on if he used both at the same time. Tatum was famous for lightning-fast harmonic shifts, and his style, though it would never be imitated, was a seminal bridge between the Harlem Stride style of guys like Fats Waller, and the intricate rhythms of be-bop luminaries like Bud Powell. Whenever he played, Tatum drank beer; quart after quart of Pabst Blue Ribbon. He might drink 15 during one set, but he never faltered. And did I mention that he was blind?
Then there’s Charlie Parker. Much has been written about his dissipating addiction to heroin, but little has been said about his drinking habits, which were epic. Parker was a whiskey drinker, preferring sour mash to scotch, and preferred the quart to the shot. He earned his nickname Yardbird (later shortened to just Bird) while living in Kansas City. In the middle of a bout of heavy boozing on a farm outside the city, Parker realized he was going to be late for a gig. He and his fellow musicians piled into a car and raced for town. As they careened along a backroad, the driver ran down a chicken. Parker, who was very poor, said, “Hey, you just ran over that yardbird,” and demanded that they stop so he could retrieve it. He carried the dead chicken in the same paper sack with his sax, and when they got to the club asked one of the cooks to fry it up. He ate fried chicken, drank whiskey, and played a beautiful set of music.
The ladies, too, have stories, and none funnier than Billie Holiday’s. She was performing in a Manhattan club in 1943, and between sets she took a seat at a table and ordered her usual Top and Bottom (a mixture of gin and port wine.) Two white sailors from the South, on leave in the Big Apple, approached her, wanting to know where a “darkie” got off wearing a mink coat. When Lady told them to get lost they snuffed out their cigarettes in her mink. Without pause, Holiday told them to meet her outside, if they had any balls. At which point Holiday proceeded to beat them both unconscious with her fists. It was a bad idea to mess with Lady Day.
For all the jazz greats discussed so far, it must be said that any discussion of jazz begins and ends with Louis Armstrong. Satchmo straddles the jazz world like a colossus. His bright, sparkling trumpet and the joyful growl of his voice are familiar to people the world over. For many, Satchmo’s is the only jazz they have ever heard and the only player they could identify if asked. His recording of “What a Wonderful World” might be the most famous jazz recording ever made. Armstrong’s fifty-year career began, as it must have, with the most humble upbringing imaginable, a rags to riches tale that is purely American. Satchmo was a certifiable genius.
Louis Armstrong was born in the Storyville section of New Orleans, a neighborhood so ridiculously awful it was known as The Battlefield. He was the son of a part-time prostitute and lived part of his younger days in a spare room on the top floor of a Bourbon Street whorehouse, where hooch became an integral part of his life. As a child he sometimes fetched drinks for hookers and their Johns. The hookers would tip him for his efforts and Louis used that money, when he was eight years old, to buy his first horn, a dented, almost used-up, cornet. But even a second-hand instrument can work magic, especially in the hands of Louis Armstrong. In no time Louis ceased needing to rely only on the largesse of the hookers to keep him in coin. His horn took care of all that.
He started playing on street corners, forming his first ensemble at the age of twelve, then lied about his age and invaded every local beer-hole and gin-mill that would take him and his band. When bar owners went cheap on him, as they often did, Louis would play for drinks and muggles. Muggles, in the jazz ergot, had nothing to do with Harry Potter, and everything to do with ganja. Satch liked to combine grass and gin before rehearsals and gigs.
Despite his affable exterior and energetic stage personae (some later jazz snots would refer to Louis, quite erroneously, as an “Uncle Tom”), Louis never took any shit off anybody and was, in his own words, “always ready for a fight.” Brawling was an every night occurrence in the early jazz clubs—hot music and cold booze can be a volatile combo. Jazz clubs today may seem tame and snooty, but back in the day . . . man. They were where you wanted to be if fun was on your mind, but keep your weather eye open for trouble on the horizon.
Today, decades after his death, Louis Armstrong is still synonymous with jazz. He was a once-in-a-century phenomenon. If you find yourself suffering from Office Drudgery, or Politics Malaise, or He/She Relationship Gloom, fret not, there is a cure. Take equal parts Satchmo and whiskey. Mix well. Feel the swing. It’ll cure what ails ya.
While we’re on the subject of jazz royalty, consider the great saxman, Coleman Hawkins. Hawk blew sweeter than anyone; mellow tones, gliding notes, soulful blues. His drink of choice was whiskey, especially bourbon, which he drank neat and by the pint. Booze energized his playing and recording, and he never lost a cutting contest. Hawk cut all comers. Not with a knife. With his horn.
A cutting contest is one of the greatest inventions ever to spring from the collective musical mind. It establishes who’s who, what’s what, and why’s why. A cut runs something like this:
It’s after hours, usually in a city that understands how open tavern doors lead to bigger tavern tabs. On stage are the remnants of a rhythm section—drums, bass, etc. One by one, players, usually trumpeters or saxmen but sometimes piano players, guitarists, and others who think they have the Right Stuff, take the stage. The rhythm guys lay down a simple groove. And the player plays. It’s all about the solo, all about the guy’s chops. He wants to lay down some notes, a musical monologue, so righteous, so divine, so utterly masterful, that no one can best him. He plays fast and hard, inventing on the fly. When he’s through he takes a polite bow and departs, leaving the spotlight for whoever thinks he can do better. The Cut is now on. The first player and his challenger trade licks, one after the other, round after round. The crowd judges each turn, their reaction telling the players whether they should go on for another round or hang it up. It continues until the crowd declares a winner. A cut could last hours.
Some of the finest jazz solos ever constructed are lost to us today because they were played live, in the moment, and not a recording device in the house.
So, back to Coleman Hawkins, who, it is said, never lost a cut.
One night in 1939, Hawk was hanging out at Knightsy Johnson’s club in New York, watching another sax legend, Lester Young, play behind the one and only Billie Holiday. As mentioned, Hawk was a bourbon man and he’d had his share that night. As Lady Day’s set reached it’s conclusion, Hawk slid off his stool, retrieved his horn from its case at his feet, fitted it with a new reed, and waited quietly. It’s unknown whether he was expecting Lady to invite him up for an encore, but the point was ultimately made moot when she finished her final number, looked out at the crowd, and said how honored she was to have the world’s best saxophone player in the house—Lester Young.
The crowd knew as well as Lady did that Hawk was there, and the room grew hushed. People glanced nervously at Hawkins, trying to gauge his reaction to Lady’s catty swipe. Witnesses later said that you could smell the tension in the room.
Hawkins reached calmly for his glass, drained off a half-pint of whiskey and sauntered, horn in hand, to the now empty stage. With the crowd holding its breath, Hawk launched into a solo at a tempo so fast it seemed to suck the air from the room, ripping off five or six minutes of sax notes, and stopping on a dime. The room went ballistic. Amid the applause and cheering, Hawk gestured at Lester Young, then at the stage, inviting (or demanding) that Young come up for a cut, then strolled back to his stool for another glass of whiskey.
Lester, known as Prez, refused to be goaded into a cut, and the crowd began to hoot. It was late, they were drunk, and each easily understood that history was unfolding before their eyes. Hawkins knocked off another half-pint of whiskey and made his way back to the tiny stage. He took up where he left off—on the exact note—and blew forth another solo. This time, it was a ballad, and Hawk played it with such artistry that audience members actually cried. Once again, he stopped on one clean note, offered Lester space to come up and get to cuttin,’ then adjourned to his stool for more whiskey.
By this time, the crowd was in an uproar, with some threatening to carry Lester Young bodily to the stage. Young, for his part, refused to be persuaded by anyone, and continued sipping his cocktail next to Lady Day and glowering at the catcalls coming his way.
Hawk had himself some more whiskey—I’m estimating that he was four pints of straight bourbon upstream at this point—and went back to the stage. This time he played a whole song, “Honeysuckle Rose,” but at a blistering tempo. He knocked the crowd right on its collective ass, so much so that when Hawkins finally gave up contesting Young, the audience similarly stopped giving Young any grief for his refusal to cut. They knew who the greatest sax player in the world was, and his name was Coleman Hawkins.
In their travels, jazz musicians have tended to meet up with some unusual individuals. Case in point: Fats Waller. Fats invented the boogie-woogie piano style later used ubiquitously by early rock-n-rollers like Jerry Lee Lewis. Fats loved to eat, hence his nickname, and he loved gin. Eating and drinking formed the very core of his rotund being.
One night in 1925, Fats was playing a solo gig in the lounge of the Hotel Sherman in Chicago. He took a break between sets to have some cocktails at the bar. While doing so he noticed a group of men sporting stylish evening clothes and chic overcoats staring at him from a corner table. Fats’ concern worsened when one of the gents strolled over and stuck the barrel of a revolver in his ribs. The men demanded that Fats leave the hotel and come with them for “a surprise.” The men shoved Fats into the back of a black sedan and drove him out of Chicago to the suburb of Cicero, where they pulled up alongside a narrow saloon. The interior of the building was gloomy, save for a thinly-illuminated piano parked on a small stage. Fats had no idea what was going on, but when a voice from the darkness said “Play,” he did.
Midway through his first selection the lights in the saloon came on and Fats saw that the joint was packed with what could only be gangsters. Turns out they were in that Cicero saloon to celebrate the birthday of their boss—Al Capone. And there was Capone himself, the original Scarface, seated grandly in the middle of the room with a drink in his hand and a smile on his face. Fats later said he was afraid for his life, but he needn’t have worried. Capone was a fan. It took Fats a tune or two to get over his initial discomfort, but soon he was swinging like only Fats Waller could swing.
In the end, Capone kept Fats in that Cicero saloon for three full days of drinking and jazz. Each time Fats finished a tune, Capone would bring him a glass of cold gin and tuck a $100 bill in his pocket. Fats returned to Chicago drunk off his ass and with almost $8,000 stuffed in his dinner jacket. In true Fats fashion, he used the money to take his band out on the town for a week-long bender that turned Chicago on its ear.
Of all the great jazz drunkards, one stands out above all the rest. His name was Bix Beiderbecke. After Louis Armstrong, Bix was easily the best trumpet player of the 1920s. He lived for two things—jazz and liquor. The two combined in Bix to create some of the snappiest trumpet work you’ll ever hear. Even so, Bix’s lust for liquor and his lust for jazz sometimes got in each other’s way.
One night in the early 1920s, Bix was hurrying off a bandstand on his way from one gig to another. He was drunker than a boiled owl, and this caused him to fall down the stairs and knock out one of his front teeth. If there’s one thing you need to play the trumpet, it’s intact dentition. No front teeth—no music. Bix had a new tooth made by a renowned New York dentist. It was slotted on each side so it would snug up against his real teeth. It enabled Bix to resume playing his horn, but it also gave his tongue something to fiddle with when he got bored. Bix lost track of his tooth all the time, especially after he’d tucked into some grain alcohol. He’d start fiddling with it during slow moments on the bandstand and—ping!—out it would fly. Many were the times that Bix would suddenly hurl himself drunkenly from his chair and begin crawling up and down the bandstand in search of his lost tooth. On one memorable occasion he was joined in the hunt by no less that half the orchestra; ten guys in evening clothes crawling around their chairs, in full view of the audience, while the set was in full swing. This must’ve been top-notch entertainment.
Then, as now, jazz players were expected to attend their gigs dressed with a certain amount of elegance and style. But Bix Beiderbecke usually looked like a wino fully on the skids, and bandleaders were constantly threatening to sack his gin-soaked butt for showing up looking like he’d just lost a fight with a pillow case full of shit.
There came an opportunity for Bix to play an audition for Hoagy Carmichael, and landing that gig meant huge money for Bix. Unfortunately he had no idea where his tuxedo had gone. Two of his friends, Bill and Jim Condon, came to his rescue and fitted Bix with an ensemble comprised of pieces of their own wardrobes, including tails and a topcoat, and packed him off in a taxi bound for the gig.
No one saw Bix for three days.
He finally wandered up to the Condon brothers in a hotel lounge, looking sheepish and hungover, and bearing a bag stuffed with a dirty set of evening clothes. Bill Condon described it best:
“There was a tuxedo, complete with studs, tie, and shirt. But the tuxedo was not Jim’s, the shirt was not his, and the studs and tie were not mine. The topcoat and hat were also different from those we had given him.”
It was an entirely different set of clothes.
The brothers asked Bix if he’d had a good time.
“I don’t know,” Bix said.
Bix frequently drank so much he had trouble staying awake during shows, a problem exacerbated by the bottle of gin he kept in a bucket of ice under his chair. Bandleaders were forced to invent novel ways of getting Bix ready to play when his solos came around. Paul Whiteman, a famous bandleader of the 1920s, solved the problem by notating his scores with a special direction for the Second Trumpet a few measures before one of Beiderbecke’s solos: “Wake Up Bix.”
Yes, Bix Beiderbecke was a drunkard. One of the best in our lineage. His intoxicated exploits caused innumerable hassles for bosses and fellow musicians, but his music more than compensated. One critic of the time said that Bix played so beautifully it “was like a girl saying yes.”
Let that be a lesson for us all. In our endeavors, whatever we choose them to be, let hooch lift us to greater and greater heights of art and beauty. Just make sure someone wakes you up when it’s your time to shine.
And speaking of Art and Beauty, you are cordially invited to join the lovely ladies of Ooh La La when they present Jazz: The Story of America’s Music as Performed by Hot Mostly-Naked Girls. Come on down to the Cherry Pit on February 24th and 25th and enjoy cold cocktails, hot burlesque, and cool Jazz.