Marijuana and Music by Peter Webster
The author, who has reviewed for the International Journal of Drug Policy, is also the host of the Psychedelic Library web site(www.psychedelic-library.org). Noting the merits of practice with both music and the use of cannabis, he examines the cognitive mechanisms underlying the origins of jazz, while introducing us to the past times of Louis Armstrong and Mezz Mezzrow. We learn of the marihuana-using jazz musician round up of 1947 by the Bureau of Narcotics, both humorous and disturbing. In this cogent discourse on the origins of improvisation in jazz, he proposes that practiced, purposeful use of cannabis may provide a form of training in creative thinking that can be applied across many artistic and scientific fields.
One of the more remarkable effects noticed in the state of consciousness brought on by marijuana use is a greatly enhanced appreciation of music. The effect seems to be almost universal, and does not seem to fade with experience in the use of marijuana, as do certain other effects typically noticed by novice users. Curiously, such perception of enhancement does not seem to make excessive demands that the music to be appreciated be good, bad, or indifferent, although many persons originally interested only in pop music, for example, have suddenly found during a marijuana session that more “serious” music has quite unexpectedly become interesting in a way both surprising and profound. Conversely, a few who had previously rejected pop music as crude and trivial have come to appreciate it more through marijuana consciousness.
The resulting musical empathy is also quite durable, not requiring further marijuana sessions for its (at least partial) preservation, and so the net effect seems to be one of “opening up” a person to something he had merely ignored or overlooked. The enhanced appreciation is thus legitimized as something essential and “real” and not merely a “drug effect,” something “artificial” that wears off with the waning of the changed conscious state. Marijuana consciousness thus seems to be a state in which at least a few of one’s prejudices and predispositions may be temporarily suspended so that something long-ignored for whatever reason can be seen afresh, as if for the first time. And so it would seem that the marijuana experience can provide a kind of training that may subsequently help enlarge and enrich one’s outlook in desirable and entirely voluntary ways.
Musicians (as well as other artists) have also testified not only to enhanced appreciation of music and art in general through the use of marijuana, but in addition some have insisted that these altered states of consciousness are useful and valuable to augment their creativity, although research verifying such claims is hard to accomplish in any meaningful or decisive way. Although it may also be somewhat speculative to say, it would seem that creativity would surely be boosted by an enhanced appreciation and a partial suspension of preconceptions, no matter what the stimulus.
Of course, as with so many things in life, practice makes perfect, or if not perfect, more nearly so. Thus it is with listening to music, and certainly with the making of music – a life-long process of practice – but more than a few puritanical minds will be bent out of shape by my suggestion, nay, my insistence, that the principle applies to the use of marijuana as well! It has long been obvious to me that many of the best minds of our time suffer from a ridiculous and self-imposed handicap by ignoring or even actively rejecting a great aid to thinking and creativity: the altered states of consciousness provided by marijuana and other age-old plant substances so revered by our forbears. They are tools both powerful and benign, both fickle and of great utility, and above all they require some considerable practice in order to use them in a way commensurate with their potential. Thus much of the research (on creativity, for example) which has used the substances on subjects who have not had long opportunity to practice with the resulting states of consciousness is rendered of limited value, and it won’t be until these age-old aids to thinking and perception become once again widely used that we will begin to know their true usefulness. If they were universally revered by our tribal ancestors, and played an important role in the social and psychological evolution of our species as some researchers suspect, we may find them of even more value in a time when our technological powers have advanced maximally, but our moral sense of how to control great power for the common good has advanced little, if at all, since the bronze age.
As one who might have become a musician (had I practiced more!), and for whom music remains an irreplaceable source of inspiration, pleasure, consolation and communication, and also as one who has over the years had considerable practice in the use of the altered states of consciousness provided by marijuana and other such substances, I offer the following speculation about the nature of marijuana consciousness, its possible cognitive mechanisms, and music. The entire theory, if I may be allowed to call it that, has resulted from personal introspection about music and altered states and a selective use of technical knowledge gleaned from several sources. Study of relevant scientific material, due to its complex nature, has of course been done from the perspective of normal consciousness, but my evaluation of learned material has always involved considerable cross-examination from normal to altered states and back again. The speculative nature of what follows will certainly be seized upon by the puritanical as evidence that altered states of consciousness quite obviously lead to complete nonsense, but even altered states are no sure-fire remedy for narrow-mindedness.
Thanks to Prohibition, there has been insufficient serious research concerning the cognitive mechanisms and brain structures involved in the altered states of consciousness produced by marijuana and other such substances, and even research on the neurocognitive and psychological foundations of music, art and creativity has been frequently considered a study of the superfluous. Music and art for us moderns, unlike for our aboriginal ancestors, is seen as mere decoration, “entertainment,” an activity of leisure and play (indeed, music is played), and our scientific institutions thus seem to believe that the study of such phenomena are of less importance than more “serious” studies. But from what limited scientific investigation as has been accomplished, it seems that both the making and perception of music involves the use of areas in the right hemisphere of the brain analogous to the speech and language comprehension areas of the left hemisphere – notably the famous Broca and Wernicke brain areas – and that these analogous right-brain areas might function similarly to the language centers of the left in the production, reading, and perception if not appreciation of music. Indeed, music seen as a linear symbolization comprised of sequential interrelated unitary elements describing a durational and holonomic conception seems an analogous phenomenon to language in many important ways. One may even surmise that music-making was very much a “language” for our earliest ancestors at a time when spoken descriptive language was merely in its most rudimentary and primitive state.
Now another of the most noticed effects of marijuana consciousness, and this effect is pronounced and very typical, is some change in the way we use short-term memory. Prohibitionists and others who mistrust not only marijuana consciousness but apparently even the idea that changed consciousness is something worthy of scientific study have seized on the short-term memory effect in their attempts to discredit marijuana use and strike terror into the hearts of marijuana users by implying that some kind of “permanent damage” must surely be happening when, in the middle of a sentence for instance, one forgets entirely what one was saying! But as all marijuana users know, if at this point one simply relaxes a bit, sure enough, the memory soon is re-established, indicating that what has happened is not a loss of short-term memory or a damaging of the brain structures mediating it, but a different manner of using it: perhaps we merely lose track of trains of ideas that are quite normally being recorded in short-term memory because our perceptions require far more attention than normally, i.e., our consciousness is heavily involved with other matters than mere utilitarian attention to continuity of logical or linguistic thought processes, our experience is so interesting and attention-consuming that we ignore, not lose, short-term memories. Indeed, the kind of short-term memory which scientists now study may be essentially a linguistic one, and other types of short-term memory, as yet unrecognized, may exist: they may be concerned with a more holonomic, rather than serially organized, linguistic way of contacting recent experience.
If this ignoring, or losing track of the mostly linguistic aspect of short-term memory is so universal, and the theory of music making and recognition being mediated by right-hemisphere areas analogous to those language-mediating areas of the left is valid, what happens to a musician when he plays music while under the influence of marijuana? Does he likewise forget what tune he is playing? Presumably if marijuana affects the language centers of the left hemisphere, even indirectly, it must similarly affect morphologically analogous structures of the right hemisphere. If marijuana consciousness does indeed affect a musician’s perceptions and performance in some such way, how might that affect his music? And if a group or class of musicians who made a practice of using marijuana were so affected, how might that affect their collective concept of music and the way their music form developed? These might seem questions for research that in such a utilitarian age as our own will never be addressed. Yet perhaps the history of music already provides some hints.
The history of 20th Century music is a history, in one sense, of a bifurcation of music into two distinct ways of music-making. The long tradition of Western music has emphasized the importance of music composition and the notation of such compositions as opposed to the subsequent performance of these written compositions. The role of the composer and the performer are distinctly separate, and it is the composer, especially for orchestral works, who is considered to have done the lion’s share of creating. The performer may “interpret” a written work of music with changes to tempo, dynamics, and general feeling, but any excess is considered bad form. All this of course has its parallel in language in the writing and reading of books. In our collective modern view, the greatest things that have been said are those written in stone, or at least in great books, and extemporaneous speech, as moving as it may be, is again, more often like entertainment than philosophy. When a piece of music has been composed, and when a linguistic expression has been written down, we seem automatically to attach more importance to it.
In the early decades of the 20th century however, the diverse influences in America, particularly of African origin, led to a form of music in which the performer himself took over the role of the composer to a significant extent, and jazz music became a form in which improvisation became the central aspect of the music, the performer himself spontaneously composing much of the ongoing structure of a piece being performed, guided by various conventions such as the repetition of a chord sequence, or the structuring of a solo line within a modal form, or other experimental structure. But in each case, it was the solo that became the central aspect of a piece, and the improvisation of a solo was (and is) expected to be unique, different in at least some ways than the performer’s previous solos on the same tune or theme. The jazz solo expresses something new every time, something relevant to the current emotional and intellectual state of the musician-as-composer, and his interaction with his audience. The jazz solo became not only the central aspect of this music form, but came to resemble more and more the musical equivalent of an ancient linguistic form, story-telling, in which a performer takes an eternal theme and embellishes it for the present moment, for the benefit of his listeners, to make the universal history and mythology of the tribe manifest in the present and informative of current interests and concerns.
Was this 20th Century musical development merely a throwback to primitive forms by uneducated and underprivileged musicians who rejected Western traditions in music? Hardly. The great jazz musicians routinely know much about the traditions and technical structure of composed music to an extent that classical musicians envy. And the technical virtuosity of many jazz musicians often surpasses all normal requirements of the Western tradition:
“There are many other instruments besides the trumpet which jazz musicians have made do the impossible. And they can play, for hours on end, technical, involved, difficult, educated lines that have melodic sense. They are all virtuosi. The same goes for string bass. The same goes for saxophone, although it is not used much in symphony. But anything Milhaud has done in classical music, McPherson and Bird, alone, do with ease as well as human warmth and beauty. Tommy Dorsey, for example, raised the range of the trombone two octaves. Britt Woodman raised it three. And take Jimmy Knepper. One of his solos was taken off a record of mine and written out for classical trombone in my ballet. The trombone player could barely play it. He said it was one of the most technical exercises he had ever attempted to play! And he was just playing the notes – not the embellishments or the sound that Jimmy was getting.” (Charles Mingus, from the liner notes to his jazz album Let My Children Hear Music, Columbia KC 31039.)
In the 1930s and 1940s, the very period in which improvisation in jazz was becoming the central creative aspect of the music, jazz musicians almost universally enjoyed marijuana, and we have many personal attestations and historical documents to prove the case. One particularly rollicking book about the epoch, and the wild times and great music that resulted, is Mezz Mezzrow’s Really the Blues, and Mezz was himself not only a great jazzman, but famous for the excellent quality marijuana he seemed always to have a large supply of! A reading of personal reflections about the use of marijuana by jazzmen of the time indicates that the herb was often used as a stimulus to creativity, at least for practice sessions, many such as Louis Armstrong praising its effects highly. The widespread use of marijuana by jazz musicians of the time is even revealed by the campaign of Harry Anslinger and his Bureau of Narcotics to demonize marijuana, and one of the reasons ol’ Harry thought important was that the “evil weed” was being used by jazz musicians. At one point he issued a directive to all his field agents, as related in the following story from a speech by Charles Whitebread, Professor of Law, USC Law School:
After national marijuana prohibition was passed, Commissioner Anslinger found out, or got reports, that certain people were violating the national marijuana prohibition and using marijuana and, unfortunately for them, they fell into an identifiable occupational group. Who were flouting the marijuana prohibition? Jazz musicians. And so, in 1947, Commissioner Anslinger sent out a letter, I quote it verbatim, “Dear Agent So-and-so, Please prepare all cases in your jurisdiction involving musicians in violation of the marijuana laws. We will have a great national round-up arrest of all such persons on a single day. I will let you know what day.” [From The History of the Non-Medical Use of Drugs in the United States by Charles Whitebread. A Speech to the California Judges Association 1995 annual conference].
Is it possible to attach some correlation between the cognitive effects of marijuana we are now becoming scientifically aware of and the development of creative jazz forms of the 1930s and 1940s? To return to my previous question, if high on marijuana does a performing musician “lose track” of the composition he is playing much as one might lose track of the thread of a conversation under marijuana influence?
In fact, experienced marijuana users who are well aware of the “short-term memory effect” become quite adept at counteracting it; in all probability extensive practice with marijuana consciousness allows the user to not only counteract such effects but use them in positive ways. A temporary and momentary “forgetting” of the limiting structures of either an ongoing conversation, or of a musical piece, when such an effect has been practiced with, might well be just the right influence to bring improvisation to the fore, both in music and conversation or writing. It is my view, therefore, that the cumulative and long term practiced use of marijuana by virtuosi jazz musicians was a certain and positive factor in the evolution of the music towards improvisation as its central and most creative aspect.
Now my experience with music indicates that it would of course be silly to say that jazz musicians of the 1930s were literally forgetting what tune they were playing, and through such constant forgetfulness arose a great musical innovation! But as with the practiced user of marijuana who learns to counteract the short-term memory effect and use it to advantage, I would more realistically propose that a similar thing was happening collectively and incrementally within the fairly small community of jazz musicians of the time, a community more like a family than a world-wide diversity of people and schools as it has become today. The jazz community of the time constantly practiced together, brainstormed together, performed together, and smoked marijuana together. As a cumulative effect, it is my contention that the practiced use of marijuana provides a training that assists the improvisational, creative frame of mind much as other kinds of study or training shape abilities and perfect talents. It is not that marijuana consciousness itself “produces” ideas that are creative, or that valuable ideas come from the experience or during it, but that cumulatively, over time, the kind of perception and thinking initiated by marijuana leads one to be generally more open to alternative and perhaps adventurous ways of seeing things which enrich normal consciousness. Normal consciousness, as we all admit, is limited in often involuntary, invisible ways by our times, customs, prejudices, by the necessary ignorances we must cultivate to cope with modern life. Marijuana very probably contributed to, or was used as a tool to facilitate the jazz revolution in music, and might be similarly used to facilitate important advances in any other area of human interest where creativity and adventurous thinking is important. The understanding of human consciousness and the nature of altered states of consciousness comes immediately to mind!
And as for literally forgetting what piece one is playing, biographies of great musicians often tell of experiences when they were required to bluff it through with some extemporaneous inventions. The great French jazz pianist Martial Solal tells of such a concert he gave in his youth. It was to qualify for a prize and at the climax of the classical piece he was playing his mind went blank, but his forced improvisation was so good that the judges didn’t even detect his bluff! It was at that point, he says, that he decided that jazz rather than classical music was to be his future.
So perhaps jazz musicians literally did often encounter some short-term memory effects, and had often to “bluff” it. With virtuoso musicians, such bluffing is unlikely to fall into something less than proficiency, and from what experienced users of marijuana all say, the “bluffing” seems to result in an unprecedented creativity: in a sort of Zen way, what comes out of the virtuoso when he abandons his calculated intentions is not nonsense but often his finest creation! If a mere plant can assist the forgetfulness which is the germ of spontaneous creativity, the greatest minds of our time surely ARE missing the boat by rejecting not only its use but by assisting to prevent others from doing so. They thus prove once again that even genius is capable of the narrowness thought characteristic of the uneducated.