2005-2015: Ten years Radio Free Amsterdam!
Founded January 1, 2005 and operated as a project of the John Sinclair Foundation, Radio Free Amsterdam is a grassroots experiment internet radio with unique music & arts programming contributed by independent broadcast producers from around the world and beamed out from our underground headquarters in Amsterdam over our 24-hour live broadcast stream and posted as daily broadcast episodes that remain archived on the Radio Free Amsterdam website.
Blues, Jazz & Reefer | Radio Free Amsterdam | Keeping The Music Alive!
Jazz and Grass
The relation between Jazz and one of Amsterdam’s other prides, marijuana, is far more prominent than one might expect. In fact, weed is a big part of Jazz history.
Jazz travelled to Europe from New Orleans, where, around the turn of the 20th century, ‘Storyville’, the city’s red light district, was infamous for its bawdy houses. Here customers were not only entertained by exotic ladies of the night, they were also treated to the strains of a new kind of music called Jazz played exclusively in these brothels by black musicians.
It was here that marijuana became an integral part of Jazz. Unlike alcohol, which dulled and incapacitated, marijuana enabled the musicians, whose job required them to play long into the night, to forget their exhaustion. Moreover, the drug seemed to make their music sound more imaginative and unique, at least to those who played and listened to it while under its sensorial influence.
In the 1930s, ‘reefer’ songs were the rage of the Jazz world. Distinctive and characteristic, it was music then written and played by and for black people. The music had a special feeling and it gave musicians and their audiences a sense of solidarity.
Among the tunes that topped the hit list of the era were Louis Armstrong’s ”Muggles”, Cab Calloway’s ”That Funny Reefer Man”, Fats Waller’s ”Viper’s Drag”, and many more by less famous artists, like ”Viper’s Moan”, ”Texas Tea Party”, ”Smokin’ Reefers”, ”Mary Jane”, and the ”Mary Jane Polka”, recorded by studios like Columbia, Victor and Brunswick. Even Benny Goodman got into the act with ”Sweet Marihuana Brown”.
References to marijuana, under the various aliases, were abound on early recordings: “Here Comes the Man with the Jive”, “If You’re a Viper; Light Up” and “Jack, I’m Mellow.”
Many, if not all famous musicians of the glory days of classic modern Jazz smoked pot, or ‘reefer’ as they called it. Gene Krupa amoung other celebrities of the time such were all arrested at one point or another for possession of marijuana.
Jazz legend and pot smoker Louis Armstrong was caught with some stuff and sentenced in March 1931. He never recounted the story of this affair until shortly before his death in 1971, when he agreed to “tell it like it wuz”.
In his biography by Max Jones Louis Armstrong says: We did call ourselves Vipers, which could have been anybody from all walks of life that smoked and respected ‘gage’. We always looked at pot as a sort of medicine, a cheap drunk and with much better thoughts than one that’s full of liquor. But with the penalties that came, I for one had to put it down though the respect for it (gage) will stay with me forever. I have every reason to say these words and am proud to say them. From experience.”
Dizzy Gillespie was no stranger to pot either. He recalled in his autobiography, “When I came to New York in 1937, I didn’t drink nor smoke marijuana.” “You gotta be a square muthafucka!” Charlie Shavers said and turned me on to smoking pot. “Now, certainly, we were not the only ones. Some of the older musicians had been smoking reefers for 40 and 50 years. Jazz musicians, the old ones and the young ones, almost all of them that I knew smoked pot, but I wouldn’t call that drug abuse.”
(This Free Amsterdam article was originally published on freeamsterdam.nl in 2009.)