By February 25, 2013 0 Comments Read More →

What’s in a name?


As anyone with even a cursory knowledge of jazz is aware, many of its most famous exponents, particularly those working in the years 1940 through 1960, were users of pharmaceuticals, both legal and otherwise. The most dangerous drug typically abused in that era was heroin. While musicians had been smokers of marijuana from jazz’s earliest days, stronger drugs took longer to enter the jazz culture. The worst substance abusers from the music’s early days were alcoholics, like Bix Biederbecke, and any tales of early death or self-destructive behavior centered around speakeasy booze, not drugs. Marijuana, which was legal until 1937, was so ubiquitous among musicians that it was celebrated in many jazz songs, both as thinly-veiled entendres and explicit references. Songs like “Reefer Man”, “Muggles” and “Texas Tea Party” were hardly indictments of any evils of smoking cannabis, and warned mostly of humorous side effects and merriment.

Louis Armstrong was a lifelong, daily user of marijuana, but became such a beloved figure worldwide that customs agents and police tended to look the other way when he was found to be carrying the drug at airports, border crossings and other opportunities for interaction with authorities. This apparently continued until his death in 1971, but a sympathetic press never used him as either an indictment against, or as a poster child for, the new drug culture of the late ’60’s. It was just sort of “understood” that Satch smoked weed, and that was that. That he used no other drugs and never abused alcohol may well have worked in his favor in keeping his heavy marijuana use generally unknown to the public.

In his own way, Armstrong provided a link to the earliest days of not only jazz music, but to jazz culture as well. Just as his music eventually fell out of favor as an influence for younger musicians, so did his choice of recreational drugs. Dexter Gordon, 25 years younger, and two full musical generations past Armstrong, recalled playing in Louis’ big band when Gordon was just getting started in the business. This would have been about 1942, and Gordon remembered how excited Armstrong was to turn the young Gordon on to his “special” stash of weed when Dexter inquired as to where he could get high after a gig. Hilariously, Gordon swore it was the absolute worst garbage he’d ever smoked, and doubted that Armstrong—or anyone else—could have gotten high off of it, but he kept quiet about it so as not to break his boss’ heart.

These happier days of mind alteration among jazz players were soon, sadly, over as Gordon—and hundreds of other twenty-something jazz neophytes—began using heroin in the waning days of World War II. It had always been part of the urban scene, but it suddenly became widely used among this new generation of musicians. Like marijuana, heroin knew no racial boundaries among musicians, and white players were as susceptible to its charms as were black players. After the war, it was almost assumed that every jazz musician was a a junkie, and this assumption wasn’t all that far from the reality. Charlie Parker was only the most talented of literally hundreds of heroin addicts working in jazz in the late 40’s and into the 1950’s. Much like LSD a generation later, heroin was directly linked to the music in many ways, but unlike the ambiguity of LSD, heroin’s influence on jazz was uniformly negative.

The worst abusers, like Parker, used heroin in concert with all manner of other pharmaceuticals and alcohol, either to dull the pain of days without opiates, or to alternately mask and enhance its effects. Amphetamines were particularly popular since musicians tended to work all three shifts: recording during the day, playing gigs in the evening, and jamming all night. It wasn’t until the late 1960’s that a newer, wiser jazz generation began to take over the music and heroin fell out of favor. The link between jazz and drugs, however, remains strong in the minds of both those who lived through it, and the press and public who became aware of it.

It was with some surprise then, that we discovered the following company, whose web banner appears above. The stock market took a nosedive today, and wiseguys that we are, we busied ourselves briefly on a really bad day for our portfolio by looking up random ticker symbols. All for laughs, mostly. Try it sometime. Enter various three and four-letter profanities, and let the search results determine where to invest your hard earned dollars. It’s at least as good a method as dollar-cost averaging and index funds, in our experience. Unexpectedly, when we punched in “J-A-Z-Z”, it actually came back with a real business entity, and a publicly-traded one at that.

It’s the symbol for Jazz Pharmaceuticals. No, we’re not making this up. Given what we discussed above, it seemed like the worst kind of bad joke, but apparently, it’s quite real. Jazz is an Irish firm, but has offices in Britain and the U.S., so one supposes that there’s no language barrier. In other words, it’s not quite the same as a Bangladeshi company calling themselves “Fucking Wonderful Toys”, or something.

Perusing their website, they have a tab titled “What’s in a Name?”, which takes visitors to an explanation of why apparently sane people chose this corporate identity. They explain that they were “inspired by the talented jazz musicians who come together—each a musical specialist with an individual style—to make music in concert that is greater than the sum of its parts. Jazz musicians are known for working together to create new and exciting riffs or new variations on familiar themes. Jazz music showcases the coexistence of improvisation and structure. At Jazz Pharmaceuticals, we believe that each member of our team makes integral contributions working toward a common goal to improve patients’ lives.” Hmmm. They really are that clueless, as it turns out. The worst thing about their choice of name is that in addition to making oncology medicines, they do indeed make psychoactive drugs and pain killers. Perfect for today’s working jazz musician, we guess. Or, using their metaphor, taking one for the team.

Posted in: Jazz, Odds & Ends

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