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In the comments to Kate’s heroin post below, Peter says that heroin was a drug of productivity for Charlie Parker.

Well, to rule that out, or, to say it is the truth, would require one to be able to look pretty far into Parker’s soul, and most particularly, into his musical genius. One would have understand what he did musically, from what sources and elements he did it, and what conditions, inspirations, limits, pathologies, and connections allowed him to make the breakthroughs.

So I can’t rule out the possibility that his heroin (and other drug) use was a necessary ingredient of all that. And even if not necessary, I do suspect that the music would have been somewhat different had he never touched the stuff.

I think the safer estimation of Parker’s artistry is to regard his heroin use as more incidental to it than integral. Again I do not know, but I do know the latter idea was proposed, used, and caught up in a certain mythology that developed around Parker that is really quite vile.

Martha Bayles, in Hole in Our Soul , describes this mythology thusly:

Not all the beats embraced bebop, but to an ardent coterie in Greenwich Village, it was the holy grail. And more than any other bebop musician, Parker . . . became this coterie’s hero. As jazz impresario Robert Reisner wrote . . . “To the hipster, Bird was a living justification of their philosophy . . . He is amoral, anarchistic, gentle, and overcivilized to the point of decadence.” To the beat poet Ted Joans, Parker was a fantasy figure: “Bird is not with us tonight but he is a drawing room at the bottom of the ocean where hipsters like Rimbaud, Appolinaire, Whitman, Eluard, and Desnos read poetry and perform erotic oral sex acts with all the dead European whores of the classic era.”

The reader will note that Joans did not invite Picasso and Braque to his lower-depths house party. That is because the cubists did not submerge themselves in irrational chaos. Rather they sought an emotionally powerful but rationally-ordered exploration of form—which is exactly what Parker sought, although you would never know it from the tributes of the beats. In recent years the world has been treated to the sordid details of Picasso’s personal life . . . If these details had been available in the 1950s, Joans would no doubt have admitted Picasso to the beat pantheon, too . . .

. . . All observers agree that Parker was a freeloader, a philanderer, a glutton, a liar, an alcoholic, and drug addict. They also agree he was generous, chivalrous, candid, and self-denying to a fault. In sum, he was a deeply troubled soul whose creativity was constantly at war with his self-destructiveness. If his mental and psychological powers had been any less prodigious, his creativity would never have won any victories at all, and the beats would have taken no more notice of him than of any other human wreckage staggering past on the sidewalk . . .

[Parker] craved a greater knowledge of European modernism, from Stravinsky to Edgard Varèse, whom he once asked to teach him composition . . . But unfortunately Parker’s strength was not up to the task of denying the only acclaim he ever received from the literary artistic world outside jazz.

Thus, as Ralph Ellison put it:

The pathos of his life lies in the ironic reversal through which his struggles to escape what in Armstrong is basically a make-believe role of clown—which the irreverent poetry and triumphant sound of his trumpet makes even the squares aware of—resulted in Parker’s becoming something far more “primitive”: a sacrificial figure whose struggles against personal chaos, on stage and off, served as entertainment for a ravenous, sensation-starved, culturally disoriented public which had but the slightest notion of its real significance.

The truth is, had someone been able in the late 40s to get Parker to kick heroin, we would have to regard them as some kind of American cultural hero. That is, one thing we can know is that heroin robbed us of many more years of Parker-productivity. The man had plenty more music, and musical development, in him, to say nothing of a life to live out also.

I’ll leave you with his “Just Friends,” from the “with strings” album that confounds the beatnik image of his music.

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