From Jazz Cabbage to Jam Sessions
Cannabis came to the Caribbean via European colonists, who themselves plucked it from its native origins. The plant quickly took root in Jamaica, where it would be adopted locally and recreationally, becoming a cultural and religious staple. As Haitian and Jamaican migrants arrived in the Southern U.S. at the turn of the 20th Century, up cropped distinct cultural districts where cannabis flourished. One such community was Storyville in New Orleans, Louisiana. The plant helped usher in a distinctly American and definitively mind-altering mode of music ... jazz.
At the dawn of the 1900s, in the brothels and speakeasies of Storyville, New Orleans, this marijuana matrimony was sparked ablaze. When they docked in New Orleans, sailors brought weed to the United States from Brazil and the Caribbean, and it was there where Black jazz musicians first adopted and embraced it.
Cannabis helped the Jazz Age flourish, serving as a conduit for creativity, music production and performance. During the Roaring 20s and subsequent Great Depression (and the contemporaneous Prohibition Era), predominantly Black communities developed a cannabis slang and culture.
Joints were sold outside tea pads or cannabis bars. Musicians would light up on tea, reefer, grass — codes for cannabis, since the drug was vilified nationally and on the cusp of its 1937 criminalization — singing tributes to the substance. The plant aided not just in the creation of new sounds, but in the perception and enjoyment of them.
Aided by reefer, pioneers like Louis Armstrong and later Dizzy Gillespie experimented with time, rhythms, and improvisation- the earliest sounds of what would become known as jazz, even though it was heavily stigmatized by the culture at the time, especially in the segregated American south.
As legend tells it, Armstrong was accustomed to getting the jitters before his performances, until someone offered him “some gage," a popular reference for marijuana even back then, owing its debt to the influence of Caribbean and Creole immigrants.
“That was our cute little nickname for marijuana," recalled Louis Armstrong. "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. I can gladly vouch for a nice fat stick of gage, it relaxes my nerves if I have any.”
Not only did cannabis help musicians get rid of the pre-show jitters, it also was seen as a way to change a person’s perception of time. There are biochemical reasons for this, and the result when filtered through the lens of a musical instrument or voice, became something of a revelation.
From one source at the time:
“Because the chief effect [of cannabis] as far as [jazz musicians] were concerned was that it lengthens the sense of time, and therefore they could get more grace beats into their music than they could if they simply followed the written copy… In other words, if you’re a musician, you’re going to play the thing the way it’s printed on a sheet. But if you’re using cannabis, you’re going to work in about twice as much music between the first note and the second note. That’s what made jazz musicians. The idea that they could jazz things up, liven them up, you see.”
Instead of playing the notes on the page, early jazz pioneers could now fit many notes in the space where there would have only been one. Before we had such things as "jazz standards," the early engineers of this sound and rhythm set those standards. Improvisational music, while not expressly a cannabis-related invention, certainly wove it into the fabric of America ... long before it even entered the mainstream.