"When I came to New York in 1937,' Dizzy Gillespie recalled in his autobiography, '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.'
References to marijuana, under various aliases, abound on early recordings: Here Comes the Man with the Jive; good news If You're a Viper, Viper Mad for Sweet Marijuana Brown; Light Up and Jack,I'm Mellow. Too bad, however, if The G-Man Got the T-Man and All the Jive is Gone, in which case, Save the Roach for Me. These titles (and numberous others) have been collected, remastered and reissued on compilation albums, such as Reefer Songs and Viper Mad Blues. Let's take a moment to conjure the image of the hissing viper taking a swift, sly suck on a skinny little joint. A 'viper' is a toker, which practically all jazz musicians were and the viper songs celebrated a new social hero: the dude who supplied the inspirational herb that made the rent parties go with a swing.
Harry Shapiro quotes extensively from Really the Blues, the autobiography of Milton 'Mezz' Mezzrow, a Jewish kid from Chicago who started hanging out with black musicians he met at the reformatory and resolved to 'become' a Negro. First he learned to play the horn and pretty soon he was getting high with the boys in the band. During the Roaring Twenties, Mezzrow played in the speakeasies that proliferated in Capone-era Chicago. As Prohibition ended and the Depression set in, Mezz achieved his goal by moving to Harlem, the capital city of black America. On arrival, he found the local reefer to be decidedly ropey and, if he couldn't compete with the talented local musicians, he certainly knew where to score superior weed.
Mezz used his powerful Mexican loco-weed as an entree into a community where he was desperate to be accepted and the community embraced him so warmly that, before long, his name had become a byword for good quality marijuana. Mezz became the toast of tout Harlem! That cats of the stature of the legendary swing violinist, Hezekiah Leroy Gordon "Stuff" Smith, were mighty good friends of Mr Mezz. cannot be doubted, for so Stuff Smith and his Onyx Club Boys testified in 1936 on If You're A Viper (a song later be covered, in 1943, by Fats Waller as The Reefer Song.
After National marijuana prohibition became law in America, Commissioner Anslinger found out that a certain group of people - all of whom were identifiable by their shared occupation - were flagrantly violating the law by continuing to smoke pot. What the transgressors had in common was that they had rhythm. In fact, they included all the key geniuses of Jazz: Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonius Monk, Count Basie, Jimmy Dorsey, Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton and Cab Calloway, to name a choice selection.
From the early 1930s, the Commissioner compiled a dossier that would later be known as the 'Marijuana and Musicians' file, noting each and every marijuana case involving a member of the musical fraternity. Documents from the Anslinger papers and the DEA Library in Washington DC reveal that, from 1943 to 1948, Anslinger plotted a pogrom of jazz and swing musicians, ordering all his agents throughout the USA to watch and keep criminal files on all the musicians in their areas so that they could all be rounded-up in one fell swoop.