A Myth About Alcohol, Drugs, and Creativity

A Myth About Alcohol, Drugs, and Creativity

Creativity Can Thrive Without Alcohol & Drugs

My entire life I grew up around creative people. Indeed, my godfather was John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie and my godmother was the wife of legendary saxophone player Stan Getz. I was so close to both of these men since I was practically born and when they died I wept almost as strongly as I did for my own father who was their Certified Public Accountant throughout their careers.

Harris Stratyner, Ph.D., CASAC, is a Clinical Associate Professor at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine; he is also with Caron Treatment Centers.

Editor: Sehrish Sarfraz

Dizzy had the reputation of being “very straight” (relatively speaking) for a jazz musician juxtaposed against his musical collaborator, Charlie Parker, who died in his mid 30’s from heroin and alcohol. Stan was a documented heroin addict who “kicked” it in the 1950s but spent most of the rest of his life dealing with alcoholism and a serious addiction to cigarettes, as well as dabbling with cocaine.

I can remember traveling with both men to various gigs and it always struck me how serious a man nicknamed “Dizzy” was when it came to being sober and on the other hand how often Stan would play fueled by alcohol.

Dizzy used to lecture me (as a young budding jazz musician myself), that what you owed the audience was the best performance you could give. Stan ironically used to give me the same lecture and would always follow it with “do as I say…”

I remember one day in the late 60’s sitting with Stan, my father, and my dear friend Steve (Stan’s oldest son) in his Irvington, New York estate listening to a reel-to-reel tape of a recording session that Stan had just completed. He was angry and he felt that he had “fallen short” on the recording and was going to redo it. Session time was always an expensive endeavor and this was a serious matter. He never said why he believed he could have played superior, but I silently thought if Uncle Stan was not drinking so much perhaps his recording session would have gone better.

I also remember thinking that in my opinion and many others, Stan Getz was the greatest tenor man that ever lived (even John Coltrane once said “…let’s be honest we would all like to play like him…”). I know that Stan would have been even greater if his alcoholism and tobacco addiction were not active (if that were even possible).

In truth, I do remember one time I went with Dizzy to a gig where he did not hit all the high notes and let James Moody, his alto player, take a few more solos than usual and I quietly thought perhaps it had something to do with the joint he smoked before the gig. In truth, I asked Diz if I could try some and he said if you ever do something so stupid I will tell your dad.

When I was older he did indeed let me try it and I got so paranoid he had to tell my dad who was very irritated, to say the least (but not half as irritated as my Aunt Lorraine – Dizzy’s wife). This will sound ironic but back in “those days” marijuana was considered a mild diversion that most jazz musicians smoked – even Louis Armstrong. And yes this might sound hypocritical but the level of THC is so much higher today that marijuana is a wholly different drug. Yet even back then, as my only experience proved, it probably was even more dangerous than any of us would admit.

Stan died at 64 and Dizzy at 75. Both men were superstars in a very difficult profession. I silently thought that Stan went much sooner because of his addictions and Dizzy, a man who certainly was not an addict by any stroke of the imagination, lived a much longer, healthier life and had none of the chaos that goes hand and glove with addiction.

I spoke to Stan many times about addiction and if he thought it harmed his career. He never believed it made him a better player and always said that if he had to do it over again he would have never picked up “junk”. He pointed to Chet Baker, who towards the end of his career was hardly able to play or sing (it was all I could do to say something positive about Chet’s performance on a CD I penned the notes for that he recorded with Stan, who was sober on the session). On Stan’s last recording, “People Time” he was also sober and it was probably his finest work according to many critics.

So why do so many young artists think that alcohol and drugs enhance their creativity? Poets, writers, composers, painters, musicians, etc. get caught up in this self-defeating misconception. Part of it has to do with the pleasure center of the brain and the impact of the chemical – perhaps making one falsely believe they are more creative. Also, there is a great deal of research looking at the impact of alcohol and drugs on the neurotransmitter dopamine, and its relationship to making us pay attention to increase our interest.

Yet, nobody has ever wanted to be an addict. Forget creativity for a moment, if you have trouble driving a car on alcohol or other drugs, wouldn’t it stand to reason it might be harder to play an instrument, coordinate a paintbrush, mold a lump of clay?

Look, the reality is that the mind is so fascinating and controls the whole body that one must be declared brain dead if they are to be truly considered dead – why muck around with such a powerful organ? Do you really think all of the great inventions, writing, compositions, paintings, sculptures, etc. would have been created only by individuals who were stoned?

In this writer’s opinion, it is an insult to creative people everywhere to think that those who had the disease of addiction were that much more creative because of it. Also, ponder if you will how many artists may have died from their addiction – Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Billie Holiday, Michael Jackson, Kurt Cobain, Elvis Presley, Keith Moon, Dylan Thomas, Ike Turner, Chris Farley, Jerry Garcia, Andy Gibb, Degas, Hemmingway – and that’s just from my memory!

Don’t credit a genetically predisposed disease for the wonderful music, art, and writing that these individuals created. If you look at their respective biographies and autobiographies you will discover they were at their best when they were sober. Their addictions were fuelled by pressure and anxiety that they searched to self-medicate. However, do indeed give the drugs and alcohol credit for one thing in their lives – their contribution to the untimely deaths of many otherwise gifted individuals.

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