An invigorating look at heroin and jazz

Niall James Holohan reviews a BBC Radio 3 documentary featuring Dr Sally Marlow.

The relationship between musicians and substance abuse is not a shocking revelation. From Berlioz, through Beethoven to The Beatles, Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse, there is a long and tragic lineage of artists falling foul of stimulant abuse. It’s often attributed to the collision of youthful abandon, wealth and the stresses of new-found fame; yet bebop era jazz musicians like Charlie Parker and Chet Baker often lived gig to gig yet were still infamous for their heroin use.

This is the genesis of a brand new BBC Radio 3 documentary feature by Dr Sally Marlow, an addiction researcher at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience at King’s College London [and one of the Associate Editors for these pages]. ‘Hitting The High Notes’ travels to Lexington in Kentucky to talk to musicians from the bebop period and medical researchers from the present day, who elaborate on the prodigious heroin epidemic prevalent in the 40s and 50s jazz music scene in the USA. 

Prudent music choices from the period place the listener at the heart of Harlem in the 1940s. Invigorating, imaginative narrative storytelling synthesise the political, racial and artistic factors that frame this poignant story. We hear the history of a ground-breaking institute for drug addiction, the ‘Narcotic Farm’, where music played a huge part. The researchers of the day were charged with understanding whether jazz itself was a contagious disease, part of a number of elements that predisposed people towards addiction; or whether the heroin epidemic simply reflected a lifestyle choice for an oppressed minority, spoiling for a much-needed revolution through the only outlet available to them in the underground arts world. 

It is a vivid and thought-provoking look at the musicians who made near miraculous new waves in music during this period, but also at the duplicitous nature of similar innovations being made by researchers in the burgeoning field of psychotherapy for stimulant abuse. The work done at the Lexington Institute in Kentucky ‘Narco Farm’ broke significant ground in the humanitarian treatment of those dealing with opiate addiction and the fields of occupational, recreational and music therapy… but there were also some highly unethical methods and procedures with the patients too.

The history of our relationship with stimulants can be traced back to the Stone Ages, but Dr Marlow’s documentary provides a fascinating look at the foundations of present-day treatment for substance abuse, via an animated snapshot of the past. 

Hitting the High Notes aired on BBC Radio 3. Listen again.

- Reviewed by Niall James Holohan, musician and BSc in psychology undergraduate at Birkbeck, University of London 

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