Da Capo Press
393 Pages; Print, $26.00
Bop Apocalypse is a highly coherent, comprehensive and quite compelling account of the fusion of jazz history, the combustible and sometimes compromising influence of drugs, and the emergence of the Beat writers.
Even if some of Torgoff’s ground has been previously covered, he weaves his narrative more fluently than some of his predecessors and with more pickle and punch. His book is not a blow-by-blow job, not a numbing parade of fact as much as a gestalt history using a synthesizing lens focusing on a conjunction of revealing events like the detail of a young Jack Kerouac sharing a table at Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem with his first wife and Billie Holiday, or the bop musician Charlie Parker downing eight doubles on a dare (what downed Dylan Thomas) before performing at the Hi De Ho Club in Los Angeles in 1946.
The scope of the book is large: the beginning of jazz in New Orleans after World War One; its development in Chicago in the 1920’s and Harlem in the 1930’s; the immediate repression by Harry Anslinger and the Federal Bureau of Narcotics; the impact of jazz and drugs on the Beats at the end of World War Two and their ability to artistically disseminate the news of that impact.
Torgoff is a gifted storyteller and he begins with a striking anecdote told to him by the writer Terry Southern. Picking cotton in Texas in 1936, on the way to fishing for bullheads in a pond surrounded by weeping willows and cottonwoods, he saw a cow sprawled on the ground in what seemed contented bliss. The field hand accompanying him noticed an uprooted green plant and explained that the cow had eaten “red dirt,” or loco-weed: i.e. Marijuana. In a time when a national paranoia about this weed had been cultivated by federal agents, Southern began searching for more. By the time he wrote the celebrated campfire scene for Jack Nicholson in Easy Rider, Southern had “smoked thousands of joints, sharing them with some of the most interesting cultural figures of his age….”
Bop Apocalypse is organized with a series of sharply drawn vignettes: Anslinger, the country’s first drug czar, an inveterate liar and xenophobic racist who declared the drug war; the musician Muzz Mezzrow, the “White Mayor of Harlem,” who began dealing weed and whose 1946 autobiography Really the Blues was read by a student at Columbia University, Allen Ginsberg, “as if it were the Rosetta Stone”; the genial and generous Louis Armstrong who played music that could make people stand on their chairs and shout,” and who understood that the musicians in his band could function on marijuana without suffering the after effects of alcohol.
Another key connection was Jack Kerouac who as a student at Columbia frequented a club in Harlem where a new evolution in jazz was created. The edgy, dissonance of Bop was formed in Minton’s cellar by musicians like Lester Young and Charlie Parker. Torgoff offers elegant accounts of Young, known as the Epitome of Cool, and Parker, the Icarus of that cellar.
The use of heroin, Torgoff maintains, “spread in direct proportion to the cult of Parker’s admirers and Anslinger soon created a special file on musicians.” It is estimated that 75% of jazz musicians became addicted to heroin in the 1940s and 1950s, and Torgoff compassionately explores the dynamics of this phenomenon. For Jackie McLean, one of the musicians Torgoff interviewed, it was the best way to overcome a perplexing stage fright; for others like Holiday it was compensation for a terrible despair. Paradoxically, for the authorities, it became the most convenient excuse for repression.
Part of the richness of Torgoff’s tapestry is his reliance on interviews he conducted over the past quarter century like the one he did with Herbert Huncke in 1992. A catalyst underground figure whose term “beat” became the signifier for a generation, Huncke was living in a basement on...