The History of the Jazz Cigarette: Weed and Racism

The history of the term "jazz cigarette" provides some insight into the current state of weed and race relations in America.

jaz cigarette iStock / ysbrandcosijn

It doesn’t take a deep historical analysis to figure out that a jazz cigarette is another name for a joint. During the 20th century, musicians in New Orleans got their hands on weed and made jazz happen. People who frequented jazz clubs started calling the cannabis-filled rolls these musicians and their fans smoked jazz cigarettes, and the name has stuck all this time. That’s the short of it.

However, understanding the socio-political history of jazz and cannabis provides some context for the hullabaloo surrounding cannabis prohibition today.

So let’s go on a little journey.

How Weed Got to the United States

According to a 2018 Congressional Research Service report, the industrial variation of Cannabis sativa, hemp, was cultivated during the colonial period to the mid-1800’s for its utility in coarse fabrics, twine, and paper. In fact, 17th century colonists were required by the Crown to farm hemp or face hefty fines. Imagine that.

This 1843 Western Journal of Medicine and Surgery publication documents the awareness that that the recreational use of cannabis was happening and harmless.

However, cannabis was primarily cultivated for its industrial and medicinal use in the United States, and discussion of its recreational effects were not particularly interesting. It wasn’t until Mexican immigrants introduced recreational cannabis use to the Americas in the early 20th century that cannabis intoxication became a public concern in the US and, later, internationally.

In a 2014 Geographical Review report by University of Kansas professor Barney Warf, 16th century European colonization is responsible for the introduction of psychoactive cannabis to Latin America. Exposure from Portuguese and Spanish colonists led to the assimilation of medicinal and recreational cannabis use in South and Central American countries and up to the southern tip of North America, Mexico.

Marijuana Meets Jazz

jazz musician smoke

iStock / GeoffGoldswain

Warf writes that marijuana made its way to coastal cities through sailors and Caribbean immigrants. It became particularly prevalent in Storyville, New Orleans: the birthplace of jazz. In its beginnings, jazz musicians almost exclusively played this new genre of music in brothels. It was in these shrouded establishments that cannabis became an especially important part of jazz culture.

In a 1980 Marihuana publication, Ernest L. Abel writes that Jazz musicians, who at the time were primarily Black, gravitated toward cannabis over alcohol because of its effect on their creativity and energy:

“Unlike booze, which dulled and incapacitated, marihuana enabled musicians whose job required them to play long into the night to forget their exhaustion. Moreover, the drug seemed to make their music sound more imaginative and unique, at least to those who played and listened while under its sensorial influence.”

In Laurence Bergreen’s biography of jazz founding father Louis Armstrong, Armstrong characterizes benefits of cannabis that extended beyond the job and into the spirit:

“It makes you feel good, man. It relaxes you, makes you forget all the bad things that happen to a Negro. It makes you feel wanted, and when you are with another tea smoker it makes you feel a special sense of kinship.”

Of course, the relationship between cannabis, jazz, and xenophobic prohibitionist sentiment which magnified in response to the growing popularity of jazz music, and along with it, cannabis culture. Consequently, the enforcement of cannabis prohibition has disproportionately targeted Black and Hispanic people. This was true in the 1930s and it continues to be true today.

At this point in our journey, it should be clear that this is no coincidence. And despite the many years that have transpired, we continue to see that, as jazz music did in the 20th century, the popularity of cannabis is exploding regardless of oppositional propaganda and political campaigns against it.

During the jazz era, cannabis accumulated an array of slang names including tea, blue sage, moocah, muggles, reefers, giggle smokers, grass, locoweed, love weed, bambalacha, mooter, and goof butts. No matter what name it goes by today or will go by in the next hundred years, one thing is clear: the jazz cigarette is here to stay.

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