May 01, 2013

Reefer Madness Jazz: A candid look at Political Dissent and Propaganda

Poster from Reefer Madness

Reefer Madness was a propaganda campaign executed by Harry Anslinger, newly appointed head of the US Narcotics Bureau who targeted marijuana as a way to oppress what he considered inferior races, mainly Latinos and African Americans. Their efforts included a movie showing young men and women smoking marijuana just before engaging in lewd and vicious acts including rape, manslaughter, suicide and decent into madness. The mayhem was blamed on Marijuana and the movie shown in local theater houses nationwide. Production of the movie was paid for by a church group with the intent of teaching parents the dangers of cannabis use. The results of the efforts manifested in the form of The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 marking the beginning of Marijuana prohibition, still in effect today. 

Jazz Music, along with Marijuana was popular with young Americans in the years leading up to prohibition.  For this reason, Jazz plays an intricate part in the history of Marijuana Prohibition in America and Jazz Musicians have long been targets for Federal Enforcement Agents looking to set examples of Cannabis users for the sake of justifying their unsubstantiated claims regarding the safety of its use. The relationship, however, between Marijuana and Jazz music goes far beyond the justification of a newly formed Federal agency or that of a single man’s political career. Marijuana Smoke and Jazz beats have done more than just intermingled above the heads of students in the tea houses of Harlem or followed a slowly moving horn section through the night air down a New Orleans side street. The relationship between Marijuana and Jazz music represents the discontent of citizens beginning to feel the oppression of a Government overstepping its bounds by working to create laws prohibiting the use of a plant meant to serve the people as a source of medicine, food, fuel and fiber. 

Most cultures use music as a way to express political dissent or record history from the People’s perspective, not just that of those enjoying the most power over the recording of historical facts at the time. One song mentioning Marijuana, or ‘Marihuana’ is the Jazz Score La Cucaracha, whose lyrics originate from the Mexican Revolution of 1910. Mexican war refugees migrated North crossing the border into United States Territories singing La Cucaracha which roughly translates as follows: 

La cucaracha, la cucaracha,
The cockroach, the cockroach,
ya no puede caminar
can't walk anymore
porque le falta, porque no tiene
because it's lacking, because it doesn't have
marihuana pa' fumar.
marijuana to smoke.

Ya murió la cucaracha
The cockroach just died
ya la llevan a enterrar
now they take her to be buried
entre cuatro zopilotes
among four buzzards
y un ratón de sacristán.
and a mouse as the sexton.

The refugees were called ‘Villists’ following Pancho Villa, a commander of the North Division. He was considered the Robin Hood of the Mexican Revolution leading his people to commandeer trains and steal from the rich. Whatever was confiscated was distributed to the poorest peasants and villagers. The cockroach was President Victoriano Huerta, notorious for his heavy consumption of alcohol. He had established a harsh and military dictatorship in Mexico. Pancho, executing military campaigns until his death, was assassinated on May 21, 1920. Huerta resigned the Presidency on July 15, 1914 and went into exile. He traveled to the United States by way of Jamaica arriving in 1915 where he was convicted on conspiracy charges for violating US Neutrality Laws and imprisoned. He died in prison of sclerosis of the liver in 1916. 

President Victoriano Huerta
Pancho Villa, Wanted Poster

It is unclear whether the lyrics are insinuating that had Huerta had marihuana he wouldn’t have chosen alcohol or the addiction was his eventual downfall, but considering the refugees who had the song on their tongues crossing the border did so with large suitcases full of the plant, it may be safe to assume the former. This exodus represents Anslinger’s reason for including Mexicans in his Reefer Madness campaign in the first place. Reefer Madness Jazz Musician Louis Armstrong remade the song in 1935, two years before The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937.  

 Harlem, New York 

Mezz Mezzrow
Reefer Madness Jazz Musician Mezz Mezzrow moved to Harlem in 1929. He began selling marijuana enjoying instant success is both the white and black Jazz communities. Back then, folks came together in "Tea Houses" to obtain and smoke marijuana. Located in apartments all over Harlem, Tea Houses served as the backdrop for many moments in Reefer Madness History. At one point, historians note more than 500 of these speakeasy establishments in operation.  Mezz was so popular, he had a marijuana cigarette rolling style named after him called the "Mezz-Role". These Marijuana cigarettes were packed heavy and rolled tight. 

Photo from the Making Friends Jazz Tribute
When Mezz moved to Harlem, he began performing with another popular Jazz Musician, Eddie Condon.  Condon had only just arrived in New York himself the previous year from Chicago where he spent most of his 20's playing banjo, guitar and served as band leader on multiple occasions. The two made a good team, Mezzrow having denounced white society during a period of history where segregation was a large part of every day life and Condon was known for forming racially integrated musical groups. Although white, they managed to become the largest marijuana dealers in Harlem at the time.
Mezzrow married a black woman and declared himself a voluntary negro. In 1940, when he was sent to prison for possession with intent to distribute 40 marijuana cigarettes, he demanded to be sent to the segregated negro prison. In his biography Really the Blues, he writes: "Just as we were having our pictures taken for the rogues' gallery, along came Mr. Slattery the deputy and I nailed him and began to talk fast. 'Mr. Slattery,' I said, 'I'm colored, even if I don't look it, and I don't think I'd get along in the white blocks, and besides, there might be some friends of mine in Block Six and they'd keep me out of trouble'. Mr. Slattery jumped back, astounded, and studied my features real hard. He seemed a little relieved when he saw my nappy head. 'I guess we can arrange that,' he said. 'Well, well, so you're Mezzrow. I read about you in the papers long ago and I've been wondering when you'd get here. We need a good leader for our band and I think you're just the man for the job'. He slipped me a card with 'Block Six' written on it. I felt like I'd got a reprieve."

Stuff Smith's song "You's a Viper" referenced Mezz Mezzrow directly, "Dreamed about a reefer five foot long, The mighty Mezz, but not too strong, You'll be high, but not for long, If you're a Viper." Vipers even had a slogan. "Light up and be Somebody." in spite of general public consensus being in favor of prohibitionists. Jazz music was rebelling the propaganda by showing social acceptance in closed 'members only' clubs where those who weren't cool were not allowed.

Ella Fitzgerald being booked in Houston
Jazz artists paid a hefty price for their pro marijuana lyrics and culture. For the next several decades, Jazz musicians would be the target of law enforcement as they sought to validate the need for a Federal Narcotics Unit and the tax payer dollars being allocated to the Department through congress. Raids were not always about Marijuana. Law Enforcement officers looked for anything and everything they could use to vilify Jazz Musicians.

Singer Ellie Fitzgerald who often toured and played with Reefer Madness Jazz Musicians like Dizzy Gillespie, Houstonian Illinois Jacquet, jazz impresario Norman Granz and Georgiana Henry. Ellie was arrested for throwing dice in her dressing room with these musicians in 1955 just before a performance at the Houston Music Hall. Fitzgerald dabbed tears from her eyes as she was being booked.
“I have nothing to say,” she told reporters. “What is there to say? I was only having a piece of pie and a cup of coffee.” Ella wrote and sang the popular Reefer Madness Tune "When I get Low, I get High".

San Francisco

Gene Krupa being arrested.

Reefer Madness Jazz Musician Gene Kruba was arrested in San Francisco on January 21, 1943 for contributing to the delinquency of a minor when Law Enforcement Agents intercepted the 17 year old sent back to Gene's hotel to retrieve his marijuana cigarettes as he was returning to the theater.

Gene Kruba's account of his arrest: "By then I was the glamour boy-15 camel hair coats, three trunks around me all the time-and he couldn't think what to get me. Finally he thought, 'Gee I'll get Gene some grass.' At that time California was hot as a pistol, you could park your car for a bottle of beer and get arrested. So he had a rough time getting the stuff. He probably shot his mouth off a little-'I'm getting this for the greatest guy in the world, Gene Krupa.' Gene decided to leave the marijuana at his hotel. The police, being tipped off, began searching the theater where Gene's band was currently playing. "I suddenly remembered the stuff's at the hotel where they're going next. So I call up my new valet and say, 'Send my laundry out. In one of my coats you'll find some cigarettes. Throw them down the toilet.' But the kid puts them in his pocket and the police nail him on the way out, so I get arrested." "The ridiculous thing was that I was such a boozer I never thought about grass. I'd take grass, and it would put me to sleep. I was an out-and-out lush. Oh, sure, I was mad. But how long can you stay mad? So long you break out in rashes? Besides, the shock of the whole thing probably helped me. I might have gone to much worse things. It brought me back to religion."

During this time, Jazz was all the rage in San Francisco's Fillmore District where clubs lined the streets jazz beats lingering in the foggy night air. During the 40's and 50's Fillmore became known as the "Harlem of the West" attracting the same musicians who frequented the clubs of New York.

Some of the early clubs include The New Orleans Swing Club, Club Alabama, Jackson's Nook and The California Theater Club. Bop City, the most popular of the neighborhood venues, opens in 1950. The area has since been revitalized, museums holding remnants of the area's deep African American Jazz Culture. Clubs remain open to this day and the area serves as a tourist spot for San Francisco attracting millions of visitors annually. 

Jazz music from the 20's through the 60's was about more than social acceptance with regards to Marijuana use, but also contained deep emotional tones as African Americans dealt with segregation and blatant racism on a daily basis. Jazz music served as an avenue for expressing dissent with the oppressive laws forcing African Americans to see themselves as an inferior race. Reefer Madness songs consistently displayed characteristics of a counter propaganda campaign meant to repair the collective self esteem of a race of people being crippled in its attempts to feel validated and equal in the Civil Rights Movement. Just as the Mexican refugees crossing the border with suitcases of marijuana singing songs of their dissent record their history with music, the Jazz movement would forever crystallize the emotions of those oppressed, so future generations are able to consider when creating higher reality for themselves.